The Last of Us, Feminism, and Misogyny

Just finished The Last of Us, the most character-driven video game I’ve ever played. Both the main game and, even more so, the DLC left me feeling not only emotionally involved but also shattered. It’s not just a game, it’s an interactive story.

The Last of Us is also one of the most feminist and LGBTQ-friendly games out there (at least according to reports — what do I know, since I play so few of these things?).

Warning: Spoilers below. Also, a little update at the end.

Promo poster for The Last of Us

The game follows two characters, Joel and Ellie, as they navigate a post-apocalyptic world in which a fungal disease (drawn from a real-life fungus that attacks ants and tarantulas!) has turned a large portion of humanity into zombies. Joel is the typical macho, close-mouthed, great white hero of major video game platforms. In the initial moments of the game we learn that his teenage daughter died in his arms in the initial zombie outbreak.

Twenty years later he crosses paths with Ellie, a fourteen-year-old girl who has survived a bite from one of the infected, and therefore holds the key to a cure for the zombie epidemic. Joel’s challenge is to get her across the country to a medical facility that is working on the cure, keeping her safe from the zombies and the many groups of bandits that have run rampant after the breakdown of social order. And all of this while dealing — or not dealing — with his buried feelings about his dead daughter.

Given that much knowledge about the game, it would seem to be the typical male power fantasy in which women serve as fuel for the hero’s rage when they are murdered or raped (and Ellie very nearly is raped), or else as helpless objects to be saved by the great white hero. And this is exactly how the game was treated in two particularly dunderheaded feminist reviews in the New York Times and on Gamespot.

Fortunately there are smarter feminists out there. This review on Jezebel captured my feelings about the game exactly:

Still, feminist narratives should not merely be about presenting an alternative view of the narratives that we swallow up again and again, but also about wiggling around to show how problematic the narratives we accept wholesale are. Even though Ellie is relegated to a secondary character in Joel’s story, we see the cracks in the savior’s armor through her eyes. …

The emperor is naked before us, and he is selfish and weak.

As Ellie’s character grows and changes, and as we have opportunities to follow the story through her eyes, the game subverts that male power fantasy beautifully. Both Joel and the player learn that Ellie is a capable, competent (and foul-mouthed) young woman. She is not just a side-kick. The two literally would not have made it across the country without her. At one point Ellie saves Joel’s life after he falls and is impaled on a metal stake. (We see some of the solitary heroics she goes through to save him in the main game and even more in the game’s DLC.)* At another, she saves her own life and prevents her own rape by successfully defending herself against a cannibalistic child molester. How much more “pro” do you need in protagonist?

Ellie attacking David

Ellie attacks David, the cannibalistic, child-molesting abductor.

By the last half of the game, I was seeing the story as much through Ellie’s eyes as through Joel’s, even when playing as Joel. I kept wishing Joel would stop being such a buttoned-up asshole, even as he learned to break through his own emotional scars to let himself care for Ellie. I was convinced it was as much Ellie’s story as Joel’s even as the game forced me back into Joel’s sole perspective.**

In the end, the game forces you to watch as Joel makes an incredibly selfish, yet understandable decision, one that you realize Ellie would never support. The alternative would have been equally heart-breaking, as it would involve Ellie sacrificing herself to save humanity. Yet she makes it clear that this is the choice she would have made, given everything she has gone through, including losing her best friend on the day she was infected.

By showing the awful consequences of Joel treating Ellie as an object who must be saved to assuage his own feelings, the game brilliantly deconstructs the male savior fantasy. At this moment, I both hated and understood Joel, but wished Ellie had been able to make her own choice. I don’t see how it’s possible to get to this point and say, “Yay, Joel won, he saved the damsel in distress!” The story effectively takes that self-aggrandizing option off the table.***

Granted, my viewpoint is not one of a “gamer.” Though I began with Pong and Asteroids and Pac-Man, I haven’t played obsessively enough, or considered myself enough a part of the subculture, to consider myself a gamer. I’m always more interested in the story, and increasingly the video game industry is giving us great stories. Toward the end of The Last of Us, I even set the game on Easy so I could concentrate on the story (and because killing zombies and thugs was getting boring).

So no, I’m not a true gamer. And if the misogynists who recently drove Feminist Frequency vlogger Anita Sarkeesian from her home with disgustingly vile death threats are any indication of the gamer subculture, I’m glad not to be one of them. As Dan Golding points out, with the prevalence of video games in our culture, the term “gamer” has become meaningless and these may just be the death throes of the beast. One can only hope.

*~*~*

*Granted, neither the Gamespot nor The New York Times reviewer had the advantage of playing the DLC, in which you play only as Ellie, switching between a flashback to her efforts to save Joel and a flash farther back to her last day with her best friend, Riley. You also learn that Ellie and Riley were more than best friends, adding weight to her statement at the end of the main game that she didn’t want everything she had gone through and done to have been for nothing. If the anti-feminists were outraged by the main game (She’s unrealistically strong for a fourteen-year-old girl! Ach, feminism!), the homophobes were either disgusted or in denial about Ellie’s sexuality in the DLC. If you’re pissing off the MRAs and the homophobes, you must be doing something right.

**I can almost never identify with your standard male hero in a story, so I’m used to shifting my allegiances around in this way. I can actually relate to Joel more easily than most heroes because I am, after all, an old guy and can relate my feelings for my children to his feelings for his daughter. But I at least have the option of sliding between the two. I can see how it would be frustrating for a woman or a person of color who never or only rarely sees someone like themselves portrayed as the hero, or even as anything more than a plot device. So it’s understandable that they would demand more from The Last of Us.

***I risk making it sound as if the game developers were actively trying to wedge as much feminism into the game as possible (an accusation many MRAs made against the game). But it’s just good writing to have well-rounded, complex characters rather than characters who are props and plot devices, just as it’s good writing to end with a twist on a familiar trope, and an open-ended twist at that.

Update 9/10/14: The feminist gaming blog Go Make Me a Sandwich has a different take on Joel and Ellie’s relationship, which makes me think I was a little hard on Joel. It’s true that she’s only 14, and therefore it makes sense that an adult would make decisions for her. Her own parents would certainly (likely?) make the decision he did at the end.

But I still can’t help thinking about the incredible sense of agency Ellie showed throughout the story, and then the way Joel robbed her of that agency at the end. Heroic characters make heroic sacrifices. (I just – finally – finished the fourth book in Manda Scott’s Boudica series, and the way Breaca sacrificed herself at the end for her daughter was one of the more moving things I’ve read of late.) But Ellie never gets to consider that heroic option. If there’s a sequel, I hope it involves Ellie learning the truth, defying Joel, and setting out for the Firefly lab. Maybe by then they will have figured out a way to harvest the antibody material without killing her, and it can have a nice, happy ending.

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