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Aech’s Identity – Gender, Race, and Sexual Orientation

Throughout the novel it seems pretty clear cut that Aech is a white male.

Then, we discover he’s an African-American young women, traveling in an old RV after being kicked out of her mother’s house for being a lesbian.  Huge surprise, of course.  Aech and Wade had bonded so well and to me, the language Aech used as rather ‘masculine’.  Now Wade had a triple-shock: his best friend was not only a woman, but an African-American woman, and a lesbian.   

However, here is a quick excerpt from the novel (I’ve picked out the most intriguing parts of it) as Wade finally meets Aech:

“A heavyset African American girl sat in the RV’s driver seat, clutching the wheel tightly and staring ahead.  She was about my age, with short, kinky hair and chocolate-colored skin that appeared iridescent in the soft glow of the dashboard indicators […] the numbers [of her Rush 2112 shirt] were warped around her large bosom.” (Cline 318)

 

“A wave of emotion washed over me.  Shock gave way to a sense of betrayal.  How could he – she – deceive me all these years?” (Cline 318)

 

“I let go of her and stepped back.  ‘Christ, Aech,’ I said smiling, ‘I knew you were hiding something.  But I never imagined…”

‘What?’ she said, a bit defensively.  ‘You never imagined what?’

‘That the famous Aech, renowned gunter and the most feared and ruthless arena combatant in the entire OASIS, was, in reality, a….’

‘A fat black chick?’

[…] ‘There’s a reason I never told you, you know.’

‘And I’m sure it’s a good one […] But it really doesn’t matter.'” (Cline 319)

I found this dialogue and Wade’s reaction to be very unsettling.  His description of her sounds like a rather ignorant description that would come out of the mouth of a poetic ethnocentric child.  He then goes on to tell her that “it really doesn’t matter”, but what is he referring to?  Her reason doesn’t matter or that her concealing her identity doesn’t matter?  Either way, both are problematic. 

Wade recounts Aech’s story saying “In Marie’s [Aech’s mom] opinion, the OASIS was the best thing that ever happened to both women and people of color.  From the very start, Marie had used a white male avatar to conduct all of her online business, because of the marked difference it made in how she was treated and the opportunities she was given” (Cline 320).  Wade then goes on to say that “We’d connected on a purely mental level.  I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend.  None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation” (Cline 321).

It was certainly very noble of Wade to decide to not be affected by Aech’s identity but that does not excuse the problems of these passages.  Marie suggests that OASIS helps women and people of color but it helps by allowing them to assume the identity of a more socially acceptable identity.  OASIS does nothing to help further the causes of social minorities; it only masks the problem. 

Then in a very pointedly noble move, Cline refers to aspects of one’s social identity to be ‘inconsequential’.  It would certainly be nice if they were!  However it is clear that for Wade and for the OASIS society, identity was highly important – despite the fact that nobody’s identity on OASIS could be pure.  People created their avatars and even in attempting to make them look like themselves, they are all only representations.  There are varying degrees of identity change in the virtual world, but Wade felt especially betrayed by Aech upon first meeting her because of how drastic her identity change was.  There was no hint of him feeling betrayed by Art3mis upon finding out she had a large birthmark on her face that she did not put on her avatar.  Cline and Wade make it perfectly clear that gender, race, and sexual orientation are not as inconsequential as an absent birthmark. 

It seems that Cline sought to make a positive comment on race, gender, and sexual orientation but the language of the above passages subvert all of his attempts.  I found this entire section to be disturbing and to be rather thoughtless in its message.  I am not suggesting Wade should not have been surprised to find out Aech’s identity, but he did not have nearly the same reaction to Art3mis’ birthmark or Daisho not being brothers.  None of this would be as problematic if Cline had not attempted to dissuade the problems by recounting Marie’s story about OASIS as savior of minorities or Wade’s sudden notion of the inconsequence of identity.  

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Discussion

4 thoughts on “Aech’s Identity – Gender, Race, and Sexual Orientation

  1. I really liked this post! I hadn’t really looked at it as disturbing but I did think Wade is a really ignorant character. When reading this passage I had thought that Wade had no right to be ‘betrayed’ since his avatar does not look like him. I also think that this reaction is a reflection of what goes on in virtual gaming. In a games research post I had posted a video which stated that most women hide their identity as a male in order to fit in and not be bullied. I think this is a huge problem as in reality we are trying to bring in gender, racial and sexual equality but in virtual gaming all of this disappears and we are back to stereotyping and bulling people because of gender and race, while making sexually offensive comments.

    Posted by aditipre | June 24, 2013, 10:46 am
  2. This is an old trope in media: the capacity to mask one’s identity. We are quite familiar with women writers who obscure their gender with a pseudonym, for example. Aech’s gender-switching is fairly common online and her mother’s view does extend a fairly common belief. Still I’m not entirely sure what the issue is here. Is it that underlying theory of identity that drives the characters in the novel is problematic in some way? Is it that Cline does not employ the opportunity of the novel to make a particular argument regarding gender, race, and identity?

    For me the question begins with what we understand gender to be. It is easy enough to say that gender is a cultural-ideological concept, a representation, that is largely given to us by the society in which we live. It is equally easy to say that gender has some connection to biology/nature, that at the very least it is an effort to understand humans and the differences among them. It is less easy to determine what gender “should” mean or even harder, I think, to shift those identities on a cultural scale. That said, changes in gender identity and value do happen. We begin by saying men and women should be equal, but we also say they should be different. But then what does it mean to be a man or woman or transgender or something else? “A thousand tiny sexes” as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari write. To say two things or groups are equal is to measure them, but in measuring we do another kind of violence. So we can say it is wrong for Wade and Aech to act as they do, to feel the way they do about how identity functions in real life and online. Or we can say that it is wrong for Cline to represent them in this way; that he should tell a different story about what gender means.

    I don’t think it’s that simple. In the same vein, as you point out, it would be naive to imagine that the Internet frees us from history, that suddenly what we were before no longer matters, that we will not carry our identities and values forward with us.

    Posted by Alex Reid | June 24, 2013, 11:47 am
  3. I think my main issue with this is that Cline came close to commenting on gender, race, and sexual orientation (or the performance and ‘masking’ of them) but then subverts it through the language – particularly Marie’s story and Wade’s response. It really could have been a moment to say – wait, hold on a second, why am I feeling so betrayed by Aech’s identity change when people all around me are changing their identity? Wade fails to realize that not a single person in OASIS is true to their real life self and that is what is troubling: he only feels betrayed by the changes Aech makes, not the changes everyone, including himself, makes. Of course it is sad that Aech felt the need to change her identity so drastically, but Wade and Cline’s reactions/presentations are what bother me.

    Posted by emmajani | June 24, 2013, 5:52 pm
  4. I think we have to keep in mind that this is a dystopian future we are discussing here, so a lot of things are going to be wrong. In that context these interactions make a lot of sense. If we take Wade’s reaction as a metaphor for the rest of the book, its that things are looking up. Halliday had all this money, but he was recluse and wasn’t involved enough in society to acknowledge or even try to fix these issues. Anorak’s warning to Wade when he hands over the OASIS stands as a “use your powers for good” message, akin to spiderman. Sure Wade’s initial reaction is troublesome, but it isn’t surprising, what is encouraging is his realization that Aech’s race doesn’t matter. In fact he’s happy Aech is a lesbian because it means there was less lying.

    His feeling betrayed is a natural human instinct to learning that someone you are close to is hiding things from you. It wasn’t that he was surprised that Aech changed her identity, it was that Aech was hiding these things from him, his closest friend. Looking forward from the end of the book, I think its fairly safe to say that Wade’s new found fortune will allow him to do things that Halliday couldn’t even imagine doing because he had no idea where to start. The way the book ends, with Wade not wanting to go back to the OASIS, comes in three parts from my interpretation. One he achieved an incredibly satisfying goal in completing his quest for the egg that lasted half a decade, his relationship with Art3mis beginning in the real world and also his sudden realization that he can use his fame, and his fortune to help others and change these things about the world.

    The end of the book is more or less the beginning of the building of a utopia, where Wade who spent so long wrapped up in the OASIS, can start to bring the things that make the OASIS so successful to the real world.

    Posted by Ben Tarhan | June 28, 2013, 2:00 pm

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