I’d hazard a guess that every woman who identifies as a geek, nerd or various iteration of that concept has encountered The Confrontation. Perhaps you were in the comic book shop or browsing the PS4 titles selection in Game, or waiting in the cue for a screening of the latest Marvel movie. Maybe, like me, you were just having a conversation on Twitter about superheroes and suddenly a new voice, uninvited, entered the conversation. A man - because it almost always is - will begin the interrogation, and demand that you provide evidence of your true love of said book, comic, movie or whatever. It’s not enough for you to own a Batman t-shirt: You now have to name every villain in Arkham Asylum and every writer of the comics before you can convince this gatekeeper that you’re worthy of the clothes on your back. Oh, you have opinions on Crash Bandicoot, eh? Then prove it, let’s play the game now and if you die at any point during the run, you’re not a real fan. How dare you consider yourself qualified to talk about Marvel movies on social media when some random account with an anime avatar doesn’t believe you’ve seen every movie or read every issue of Thor or memorised every line of dialogue. The gatekeepers are everywhere in pop culture, unfortunately, and it is this desperate attempt to elevate elitism to moral superiority that has poisoned the well of the geek community, however that liminal space is arbitrarily defined. It’s bad enough that hordes of faceless fans do this to us every day on social media, but now the media and the all-consuming corporate entities behind them actively encourage it. Now, it’s the ultimate badge of honour to own things and know lots about them.
I hate Ready Player One, the inexplicably popular and critically acclaimed sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline. Every page of the book was a torturous combination of ineptitude and smarm that made what should have been a breezy read an agonising experience. I get why so many people like it, and I’m not here to judge anyone’s literary tastes (I own way too many vampire romances to get into that kind of pot-meets-kettle territory), but as the trailers have rolled out for the film adaptation, directed by none other than Steven Spielberg, I’ve been overwhelmed with exhaustion and infuriation by the endless spectacle of references and self-congratulatory back-slapping. It’s the literary version of that guy in Forbidden Planet who thinks he’s better than you because he has a Han Solo tattoo and spends more money there than you do. In many ways, the trailer is a spot-on representation of the book: Sound and fury representing nothing but an assembly line of geeky Easter eggs and moments that encourage you to feel proud when you understand them. There’s Gandalf; there’s the motorbike from Akira, there’s some character from Overwatch, isn’t that musical cue so familiar, and so on. There is no quicker route to alcohol poisoning than to take a sip every time a piece of pop culture is referenced. This is the Family Guy of books, only with a way higher degree of smugness at the heart of it.
I’m not above pandering to your audience, but what Ready Player One does is create a ring of prestige and exclusivity around the biggest demographic in pop culture: 40 something white dudes. Every reference, high-five moment and twist of the chosen one narrative is created to appeal to men who look, act and buy things like Ernest Cline. Cline’s work does not just offer the world to people who recognise an obvious Ghostbusters reference, it deifies them as gods among men, the heroes of our time whose only merits are those defined by stuff they own and things they watch.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new in geek culture, and indeed it’s been cultivated for many decades. The ‘true fans’ will always find a way to demand loyalty and cult-like devotion from those who just want to enjoy a movie or find a few hours of solace in a good book. Multi-billion dollar companies and studios understand this mentality all too well and encourage it through pre-sales, early bookings, loot boxes, convention attendances, hashtag campaigns and the never-ending reassurance that you too can be special if you just spend enough money on it. This film has bad reviews, yes, but we made it for the fans and only they’ll truly understand the bilge we’re forcing onto them because we’ve spent years ensuring that they define themselves exclusively by their devotion to our brand. As long as we ignore the violent and hateful rhetoric that can encourage - harassing of retail staff, threatening critics, doxxing women and people of colour - then it’s all good. After an alt-right campaign helped to bolster one of the most dangerous men in politics to a position in the White House following its roots in harassing one woman under the guise of ‘ethics in games journalism’, how can one not be unnerved by a story that turns that mentality into the marker of kings?
Ready Player One is a story that’s steeped in some horrific political implications - corporate monopoly, rampant poverty, the near universal brainwashing of the masses through colourful pop culture iconography - but it’s too busy drooling over DeLoreans and Monty Python one-liners to truly interrogate it. Why bother with such seediness, something that has become an impossible to ignore problem in our culture (especially not given the Disney-Fox news) when we can stick screens over our eyes and enjoy the pretty shapes?
I’m not against finding joy or solace in pop culture. Believe me, I’ve turned to books and movies and TV during dark times and found the comfort and conversations I needed when it often felt like I had nobody else to turn to. At its best, pop culture is the window to our world that gives us the tools to deal with reality and to ensure we never stop asking questions. Ready Player One isn’t interested in that because it’s more concerned with blindly turning knowing stuff about sci-fi movies from the 80s into a heroic attribute. In her review of Cline’s follow-up novel Armada, Laura Hudson posed the question that geek culture and its followers need to ask about themselves and the community they have created:
‘Do we want to tell stories that make sense of the things we used to love, that help us remember the reasons we were so drawn to them, and create new works that inspire that level of devotion? Or do we simply want to hear the litany of our childhood repeated back to us like an endless lullaby for the rest of our lives?’
Spielberg may be able to turn this fetish into a viable film with the satirical eye it desperately needs, but with Cline being credited in the trailer as the ‘holy grail of pop culture’, it’s hard to not feel desperately cynical about it all. If I could show Ernest Cline any piece of pop culture - since it seems to be his sole means of communication - I would put on Labyrinth, and wait for the scene where Sarah finds herself in the junk yard. There, she sits in a false echo of her own bedroom, packed full of toys and cuddly animals and fairy-tale things that she has invested so much in over the years. As she sits by her vanity mirror and tries to remember why she’s there in the first place, a goblin woman starts to pile up those things onto her back, weighing her down with the objects she’s defined herself by. Eventually, Sarah realises what is happening, and she says, with fire in her voice:
‘It’s all junk.’