Warner Bros. Pictures
I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to find well rounded, female characters who do more than the heavy lifting for their male counterparts. Female characters who grow and change and become more of themselves rather than whatever the male characters need. These are the female characters I want because I can relate to them, as can most women, but oftentimes, they’re unicorns. Which is why I was so excited about the release of Ready Player One, a film directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the bestselling book by Ernest Cline. After reading the book, my hope was that the integrity of the central love story and the portrayal of the dynamic, female character Art3mis would be respected. Unfortunately, it was not.
The story of Ready Player One centers on a ragtag group of underprivileged teens on a Willy Wonka-like adventure to find three keys within an all-encompassing video game platform known as OASIS. The winner of all three keys becomes the sole proprietor of OASIS, which was conceived of by video game programmer James Halliday. In the book and film, the main character is Wade Watts aka Parzival (played by Tye Sheridan) growing up in Spielberg’s home state of Ohio. His counterpart/love interest is Samantha Evelyn Cook aka Art3mis (played by Olivia Cooke). She is a badass gamer who wants to help society at large. In both versions, Art3mis is a female blogger and Gunter, but that is pretty much where her personal storyline dies.
In the novel, Cline spends a lot of time building the expectation of how spectacular Atr3mis is at her craft. Wade idolizes her because she is seriously amazing and not because she looks a certain way. Most of this backstory is stripped away in the film. This is obviously done so that the film can occur in a two-hour block of time, but it sacrifices the storyline of one of the book’s pivotal characters. Without the extensive buildup of backstory, Art3mis essentially loses her own storyline and purpose and, in doing this, Artemis’ sole purpose becomes a visual totem used as fodder for the obsessive male gaze.
There are also some serious liberties taken with the way Art3mis’ avatar is explained in the book and how Spielberg chooses to depict her avatar on the big screen. In the book, Art3mis is one of the few characters whose avatar resembles 95% of what she looks like in real life with Wade even commenting that her body type is unusual because of how realistic it is. When Wade finds her file IOI, it tells him that she is 5’7″ and 168 lbs and looks exactly like her avatar with the exception of a port colored birthmark on the left side of her face. In the film, Art3mis’ avatar is lithe and sexy and designed as a tool of seduction. The outfits they put her in are almost always skimpy and sultry, as she’s mainly used in the film as an object of Wade’s affection.
Warner Bros. Pictures
This is something that was executed better in the Jumanji reboot, which takes four teenagers and sucks them into the Jumanji video game. Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) is your typical female avatar to come out in 90’s games. She’s overtly sexual looking, her signature move is a sexy dance that ends with some killer roundhouse kicks, but she’s controlled by a nerdy teen girl who scoffs at the notion that being sexy can benefit anyone. Ruby Roundhouse’s overall character is more endearing than Art3mis because the scenarios her character goes through are right for not only the story, but the character itself. The character felt more fleshed out because it was obviously being controlled by someone who wasn’t used to looking like a sexpot. In doing this, we’re allowed to enjoy the character instead of picking it apart for pushing the male storyline forward. Jumanji allows the character to make the case that “sexy” isn’t for everyone but that it’s okay to feel sexy.
Unfortunately, Atr3mis becomes a character used not only to push Wade’s story forward, but simply to become another version of a prize to be won in OASIS. In the book, there’s a lot of buildup to Wade and Samantha meeting in real life. In the book, their dalliances in the OASIS lead to the complicated relationship that pivots between friendship, rivalry, and romance. The romance part is pushed for excessively by Wade, who admits straight away that he has feelings for Art3mis. Art3mis doesn’t trust anyone and very skeptical about Parzival’s motives. All of the cuts used to make the movie to time sacrifice the richness of her character thanks to conventional male storytelling, something Steven Spielberg knows a lot about.
Actress Elizabeth Banks (inaccurately) brought up Spielberg’s track record while on stage at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards last year saying, “And by the way, he’s never made a movie with a female lead. Sorry, Steven. I don’t mean to call your ass out, but it’s true.” Spielberg has actually made three films starring women out of the 30 he’s directed. The three include Sugarland Express, The Color Purple, and The BFG. Three out of thirty. Yikes. Even when one of them is the seminal film The Color Purple it almost seems like the decision to make it was the intersection of a story about a woman and person of color, so in making it Spielberg just scratched them both off his list so he could get back to making movies about men.
However, they say that people make movies about what they know, and it’s likely true that Steven Spielberg probably understands what it’s like to be a man. Which makes sense as a majority of his films have male leads. It’s another reason that there needs to be a more diverse pool of directors and storytellers in Hollywood. Spielberg likely identifies with a young man, growing up in Ohio, dreaming he could live in a word of storytelling bigger than himself. He is less likely to identify with Art3mis’ perspective though and there was clearly no one around to point out that cutting Art3mis’ storyline and changing her avatar’s looks not only cheapens her character, but it directly points out one of the greatest flaws that Hollywood is currently struggling with. It’s not that a cis, white male cannot understand how to tell the story of a character who’s disabled, queer, female or person of color, but they just aren’t as interested because it’s not who they are or what they relate to.
Maybe if the screenwriter had been a woman, there wouldn’t be this giant gaping void where one of the most interesting characters in the film had been. Either way, Ready Player One is now just another film made by a man where a strong female lead is reduced to a sex symbol used to push a male storyline forward and this choice leaves the movie highlighting the disappointment women have experienced for years when it comes to female’s onscreen. Something fittingly nostalgic for women everywhere.
Sabrina Cognata is an award-winning writer, producer, and storyteller. During a decade-long meltdown, she burned her life to the ground and revamped it as often as Madonna. Sabrina has written or produced for HuffPost Live, CBS Radio, TMZ and XO Jane, and she’s currently producing a syndicated news show for FOX television while tirelessly fighting the patriarchy Every. Damn. Day.
Sabrina Cognata | Contributor