So much internet ink has been spilled over Ready Player One since it premiered at SXSW on March 11 that I straight-up forgot it’s not in wide release until March 29. As people may have cunningly spotted, there’s just something about it that raises hackles to a noticeable degree — even in the era of polarized hot takes soon washed away by the aggressive tides of turnover in 2018.
I have not seen the movie yet. In fact, in the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t even read the book. It was on my to-read list 8 million years ago, when I was a book blogger, but it did not survive a ruthless culling of that most ancient spreadsheet. And I likely won’t be reading the book anytime soon. I was raised by wolves (French wolves), so I have a lot of peculiar pop culture blind spots that I exploit in order to have really peculiar media experiences — like seeing Prometheus without having ever seen Alien to see if it works as a standalone. (Spoiler alert: It does not. Alien, however, is pants-wettingly great.) I’m actually curious to see how Ready Player One will read for someone who hasn’t read its source material.
So I can’t and won’t speak to the quality or social commentary of the book and film. What I can speak to is the conflict directly at the center of this hot take tornado: curative fandom versus transformative fandom.
First, let’s define our terms so we’re all on the same page. Nine times out of 10, when I say fandom, I’m referring to transformative fandom—the fandom of fanzines, fanart, fanfiction, tumblr dot com (or LiveJournal for yours truly, before it fell to the Russians), a mode of fan engagement largely codified by the Star Trek fandom in the 1960s but seen elsewhere before that. Curative fandom is the fandom of, as the adjective suggests, curation; curative fans tend to express love for their fandom by curating information, knowledge, or collectibles. It’s a fairly new term, having been coined by Reddit user LordByronic in 2015, and the discussion surrounding Ready Player One is the first time I’ve seen it used widely. (Nils points for pointing out that it should be curatorial fandom and not curative, which LordByronic is already aware of, thank you; fandom’s been canonizing mondegreens since filk.)
Neither mode of fandom is superior to the other, obviously, nor are they exclusive of one another. As a queer millennial woman, I am very nearly a parody of a transformative fan, but I also enjoy curative fandom to a degree. I often unwind by bingeing on retro video gaming YouTube videos, watching channels like 8-Bit Music Theory (which applies music theory to video game scores), or NintendoCollecting, where a very nice and enthusiastic Canadian man shares his extensive collection of Nintendo memorabilia that he shares with his wife. In my experience, while most fans definitely fall in one camp or the other, they end up doing a lot from Column A and a little from Column B.
In terms of understanding the conflict between the two, you also need to understand that transformative fandom is overwhelmingly queer, diverse, and female, while curative fandom is overwhelmingly straight, white, and male. For decades, most genre media—and, let’s be real, most media—was aimed at straight, white men, so fans who fell into that demographic or otherwise felt catered to by media had no reason to want to interrogate, transform, or otherwise criticize the text—and some have reacted poorly when other fans pointed out problematic elements in their favorite texts.
A lot of the conflict and tension between transformative fandom and curative fandom can be boiled down to a loud subsection of curative fandom refusing to do the allies’ work of “Let me unpack why I’m having that reaction, do some self-reflection, and not ask for a cookie” and instead doubling down on an unexamined knee-jerk reaction against the new—against, largely, the female and non-white. It seems so petty and ridiculous broken down like that, but that’s literally what it is. It’s responding to Ghostbusters: Answer the Call as if the existence of a female-led reboot somehow negates the original, despite being a better movie. (Did Ghostbusters feature Kate McKinnon licking a science gun, sealing its fate as a cultural touchstone for young queer women in about, oh, 15 years? I didn’t think so.) It’s criticizing Tomb Raider because Alicia Vikander’s breasts are “too small.” It’s GamerGate. It’s the Sad Puppies. It’s ComicsGate.
It’s an onslaught.
Back in 2011, when Ready Player One was published, none of this had happened yet. (Or, to be more specific, none of this had happened on that scale; it was definitely happening.) Geek culture was ascending, but not yet ascendent. Game of Thrones had just debuted on HBO, Doctor Who was aggressively advertising in America, and the three top-grossing films of 2011 were all genre adaptations—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The Marvel Studios machine was just firing up, with Thor and Captain America proving the promise made at the end of Iron Man. I think it’s a stretch to say that 2011 was an era when ~all fans were united~, but it was definitely an era in fan life when a lot of stuff felt possible—like being able to leap headfirst into comics fandom.
In that context, Ready Player One felt like a fun Easter egg hunt to many contemporary critics—a book that, in and of itself, was the pinnacle of curative fandom. Cline himself said that the book was “basically me geeking out for about 400 pages” in a 2011 interview with Wired. Its focus on all things ‘80s sci-fi/fantasy was nostalgically appealing—I mean, I added it to my reading list for a reason! (I was also bitten by a radioactive I Love the '80s as a child, so I might be a demographic outlier.) And, importantly, it was also a book. An award-winning book, mind you, but few books manage to achieve the kind of cultural saturation that, say, a film might.
Fast-forward the seven years Ready Player One is in development to 2018, and both the world and the state of geek affairs are very different. A fun romp that obsessively glorifies ‘80s sci-fi/fantasy—a time when most mainstream SFF was overwhelming white, straight, and male—no longer feels like a fun gift to get an older sibling for the holidays, but reactionary. The last seven years have brought us a lot of turmoil (see above), but they've also brought us a lot of progress when it comes to diversifying geek media and highlighting the voices of women, POC, and LGBTQ folks both past and present. Reading the infamous passage where Wade lists off every media property he’s had to essentially memorize doesn’t feel like a fun “I get that reference!” moment, but rather like a wall, keeping out people whose fannish tastes run differently.
It can feel like a shock to the system to see that validated on such a stunning scale. I mean, curative fandom gets a film directed by Stephen kriffing Spielberg, essentially earning a thumbs up from one of its greatest influences, while transformative fandom gets blamed for ruining Sherlock by Martin Freeman. (I would argue a significant drop in quality and logic precipitated its fall from grace, but, you know, I’m probably wrong and it was actually the super-invested fanbase that loved and supported it that ruined it.)
But here’s the thing: I don’t think Ready Player One did anything wrong. I just think that the figure it cut across the pop cultural landscape in 2011 has aged phenomenally poorly. Which begs the question: what does modern curative fandom look like? Is there a way to perform modern curative fandom that appeals to fans across all modes of fandom without alienating people (or, at least, without alienating people who are capable of identifying with characters even slightly unlike themselves)?
Marvel Studios has the answer.
There was a time when I was absolutely sure that the wheels were coming off the Marvel Studios wagon. Specifically, it was that time I walked directly out of my screening of Guardians of the Galaxy, got in my car, and drove until I hit another state. (I was moving cross-country at the time.) Despite the amazing soundtrack aimed directly at my musical sensibilities, watching the film made me feel the same way that reading that infamous passage in Ready Player One makes a lot of people feel—that, despite having been in fandom the whole time, I was being locked out of a treehouse for failing to be a straight man.
Marvel Studios, after some years and some misfires (I’m never letting Doctor Strange go, y’all), adapted. Thor: Ragnarok set up the tee by being wildly funny and inclusive, both a love letter to Jack Kirby (how curative can you get?) and an indictment of colonization (how transformative can you get?). But it’s Black Panther that hit the home run, combining the traditional beats of a superhero origin story with a complex story about both family and the African diaspora that foregrounded both women and nontoxic masculinity. (I have a LOT OF FEELINGS about how the film makes sure to portray T’Challa carefully listening to all sides of a situation before respectfully making his decisions, OKAY?)
All we have to do to open up curative fandom is incorporate a little more of Column B, shifting the curative focus from “catalog everything in the collection” to “what’s the most interesting thing in here?” By leaning harder into the curatorial roots of curative fandom, Marvel’s hit upon the solution to it.
Or, to put it another way—Ready Player One feels like the past. Black Panther feels like the future.