From the moment Tye Sheridan’s Wade Watts tells the audience via voiceover that people can be whatever gender they want inside the OASIS, it becomes obvious that there will be some sort of gender-swap. For fans of the much beloved book, Ready Player One, it was no secret that this hinted at Aech’s real-life identity, which, if you missed some of the telltale marketing, is revealed to be Lena Waithe’s Helen. Waithe did an excellent job of embodying a woman who lives a fantasy as a man, but the script was light on the details: who exactly is Helen, and why has she chosen a male avatar to represent her?
To some, the question seems ridiculous in a movie where a person can choose to be seen as Marvin the Martian. But the fact is how we represent ourselves matters, and the other avatars reveal more about their characters. Arty (Olivia Cooke) makes herself into what she sees as beauty, and does everything she can to hide her facial birthmark in the real world. Corporate schemer Nolan Sorrento is an enormous blowhard in the OASIS, owing to his simultaneous inflated ego and sense of inadequacy. The Wade Watts of the book was no teen heartthrob, making his Parzival an act of wish fulfillment as well. So what is Helen telling us with how she embodies Aech?
The most obvious reason to swap genders in a virtual reality game is the same one familiar to so very many women gamers: to cut down on harassment. You don’t need to read an oral history on Gamergate to understand that women have it tough in online spaces and might understandably choose to obscure their gender in exchange for safety and peace of mind. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for Aech—or at least dhe never says so, and neither does anyone else.
The OASIS is, after all, meant to be a welcome escape. But portraying that without capturing the daily reality of marginalized people in VR, gaming, and online spaces in general, is an enormous oversight. Rape and sexual harassment exist in virtual reality and online gaming, so there’s no reason to believe the OASIS would be any different. Life there is pretty good for Wade, even without the resources of the Sixers, although Ready Player One makes a good faith effort to show class disparity, both in the OASIS and in reality, and how it affects a person’s experience. There are several times in the movie when Wade succeeds purely due to something he purchased thanks to winning the first key, but even then it’s clear that he is still at a significant disadvantage.
Ready Player One would have been more believable as a work of speculative fiction, and more interesting, if it acknowledged that there are other disparities at play too, however. The movie made a point of at least calling out how age could be an issue, but didn’t bother to do the same for race, gender, or orientation. Even if this isn’t Aech’s story, it’s impossible to imagine a place like the OASIS existing without the kind of discrimination, harassment, and abuse that takes place in virtual and digital spaces going back about as long as we’ve had them.
Aech’s story could have easily included either a clarification of their gender identity or a note of gender exploration. The movie doesn’t make any attempts to suggest whether Helen, Aech’s identity in the real world, might be trans, agender, non-binary, or otherwise gender nonconforming. For many LGBTQ folks, online spaces can be life-saving. They can be a place to ask questions, meet with others who identify similarly, present themselves in their true gender rather than the one they were assigned at birth, or even to explore an aspect of themselves that’s uncertain. It isn’t hard to imagine parts of the OASIS that are like tumblr, livejournal, AfterEllen, Autostraddle, or grindr come to life—or perhaps all of the above.
A more realistic vision of the future might include a market for mods and equipment to help facilitate making one’s digital outside match their inside, like voice modulation software, haptic suits that simulate the appropriate anatomy, or androgynous fashion for one’s avatar.
It’s worth noting that Aech doesn’t clarify their pronouns either. Reviewers and critics have had to suss this out for themselves, with our own writers opting to follow the character’s lead and use he/him pronounces inside the OASIS, and she/her pronouns outside of it. In the book, Helen is a large, Black, lesbian woman. That Lena Waithe was cast for the part certainly suggests that Helen probably isn’t straight. Having a masculine-leaning, androgynous, queer woman of color playing that role is a great and thought-provoking choice, though like many movies, it falls short of actually labelling Helen as LGBTQ. I’m happy to see Lena Waithe in a blockbuster and hope it leads to more for her skyrocketing career, but this presentation of Helen/Aech reads as queer-baiting.
For context, queer-baiting is essentially when LGBTQ characters are implied to maybe exist within the text of a piece, but it is an entirely optional interpretation that can be ignored or dismissed from the heteronormative perspective. This is more troubling in the case of RPO, because the character is a lesbian in the book, and yet the film chooses to excise that detail. It is still implied in the film, as seen when Aech almost locks lips with the female phantom bather inside The Shining’s Room 237, which is certainly more explicit than most blockbusters released in a global market in fear of Chinese censors (see: deleted scenes of Thor: Ragnarok for more). And yet, it is still taking explicit text and making it an implicit subtext, which robs Helen of one of the most important parts of her identity: her sexuality.
Additionally, Aech only becomes more complicated when this detail is pointed out: The character was partially inspired by film blogger Harry Knowles, who was accused of sexual assault by multiple women the summer before the Harvey Weinstein news broke. For those outside the bubble of Film Twitter, Knowles founded Ain’t it Cool News, a movie blog that helped popularize Cline’s writing, including his script for his first movie, Fanboys. Both men have ties to Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, which was also part of 2017’s reckoning on sexual violence. Cline recently said that he’s ashamed to have made a character for Knowles in Fanboys, but has not addressed the connection to RPO. For some people, the tie to Knowles simply cannot be extricated from the character of Aech.
Some have expressed how disturbing it is for a character that should be seen as positive and interesting representation in the otherwise-homogenous world of nerd-dom and Ready Player One itself. That’s completely understandable, and it certainly gives one pause, and shows the far-reaching effects of even someone who’s considered a relatively small player in the industry, a person who is essentially unknown outside of the Austin film scene and film twitter. On the other hand, if someone were attempting to reclaim the character of Aech from Knowles’s influence, casting Lena Waithe seems like just about the strongest way to do so. It’s worth noting that the book originated the idea of the gender-swap, but had a race-swap that would have been troubling on screen.
Aech remains one of the most intriguing characters in the world of Ready Player One, though sadly an under-explored one. Whatever her real backstory may be, Lena Waithe brought her to life in a way that leaves the audience wishing we could know more about her, and what she says about the world of Ready Player One’s 2045.