the last of us – a feminist perspective

The Last of Us– a highly anticipated and positively reviewed (unanimous 10s?) game– came out on Tuesday and has been in the PS3 since then. Some of you out there have probably already beaten the game or at least progressed way beyond where full time job and two kids allows you to progress to but that’s okay– not gonna stop me from passing judgment on the stuff that I’ve seen just yet.

Now just in case you haven’t heard about The Last of Us because you don’t typically care about these things or you’re out of the loop somehow, it’s about the post cordyceps-cum-human-fungi-strain apocalypse (zombies, basically) that runs over the earth and makes everything complicated, sad, and stressful. Not to mention, of course, zombie apocalyptic.

So about that game…

SPOILERS ALWAYS.

It’s interesting the game chooses a single father relationship to demonstrate the pain of becoming a survivor. The daughter is such a small part of the game play (though big part of the story) that including a wife would have been an irrelevant freebie for the ladies that really makes no long-term difference to the storyline. Especially since the game writers did include an uncle (though he does return later in the game).  But the game could have included a wife or that uncle could have just as easily been an aunt (Lara Croft anyone?) or even a best friend (boy or girl) who is a person of color (if the interracial family doesn’t fly with your writers). The daughter could have been half white, half something else or adopted PoC.  I would say the lead could be a PoC or even a woman but I think that’s rather ambitious of me (as if everything previous to this statement wasn’t).

(My ambitious wink.)

Regardless, there is a single father relationship and of course the absolute worst thing you can imagine– okay, second to worst thing you can imagine– happens to this little girl (who possibly inconsequentially looks boyish). So back to the practical aspects of the game without going into all the speculations on what could have been, the first female character to appear in the game is freezer-boxed within like 10 minutes of gameplay. But at least there was a feminine-esque character included at all despite the fact they were a tom-boyish little girl.

SarahBut here’s the funny thing about a daughter, why is a daughter considered frail? Why is it that in all the games whether the girl is a tomboy or a girly girl (whatever those terms mean anyway) women and daughters are always portrayed as frail?  Obviously she’s a “tough” little girl and as if to demonstrate the horrors, she’s killed off.  Sons just aren’t afforded this same weak status though they’re arguably just as vulnerable– it just never comes up.  But killing off your daughter is definitely a quick and effective way to rope you deep into the story almost immediately in the most brutal way imaginable (as a parent writing this). Even so, the idea that the girl is supposed to be more progressively strong and “masculine” (for lack of a more appropriate term coming to mind) yet still manages to get hurt in some way or relies on the male lead for protection is unsurprising.  It smacks of sexism– men are stronger than women– and ageism– the young are weak and vulnerable and the same old stereotypes recycled as compelling story a million times.

Even deeper than the frailty of a child, we have a pasty blonde girl as the daughter.  The father has dark hair so the daughter having light hair is, for all intents and purposes, not biologically likely (though still probable). The reason why it matters is because white is often held as a symbol of purity so what’s weird is the fact that she is killed when things go bad like a great symbolic death of purity on the macro and micro levels.  It’s not surprising to imagine that an otherwise capable little girl wouldn’t make it through the beginning stages of the apocalypse (parents try not to think too hard about why) but it does smack of cheap parlor tricks story-wise.

So the call to adventure is loud and clear– kill or be fungied– and 20 years in the future the father has gotten himself into some sort of illicit trading scheme to make questionable living circumstances marginally better with a woman who turns out to be a love interest of sorts. Like a sort of fallen hero, he has no children (can you really blame a person?) and so we’re kind of watching this game unfold like “where is this going”? Where is Joel (the main character) going after 20 years in this zombie hell?  And if it’s 20 years in the future how come there are still “infected” roaming about?

Anyway, when you watch the trailers, there is a little girl and the man and it seems like he’s her father and she’s his daughter. However, you know that the daughter of the man you see from the trailers (Joel, the lead) has already died. So at this point I was wondering where the little girl was going to come into play.  Also, I was hoping the little girl was going to come into play because the “strong male lead with a witty and driven female accomplice” game is so played out in my opinion. Looking at the gaming company, Naughty Dog, it doesn’t seem that out of sorts (x) but still.

On the way to reconciling the daughter-figure question, you wind up crossing paths with the first POC that isn’t inconsequential (more or less) and she’s wounded and only serves to propel story forward (but she’s a woman and she’s black). Seriously though, I know in a zombie apocalypse everyone is dying and it’s crazy, but what’s up with the females being shot, weak, and irrelevant? And has there ever been a PoC character that’s made it to the end of the movie or show without being killed off (though they stress multiple times that she will be fine, she’s essentially dead to the storyline so…)?

So it is through the wounded POC, Marlene*, that you meet the little girl you’re supposed to deal with.  This girl is a quick-wit, strong willed and tough little warrior.  She is also the same age as the lead’s daughter when she died– and she has dark hair. While this girl is still innocent and of course lighter skinned (pure), her hair is not blonde (still soiled by hell) and there are not even any blonde characters on screen (’cause no one can be pure in hell) as though even the innocent can’t be completely innocent in an apocalyptic world like theirs (no matter how true that is). She also happens to be filling a bit of a savior role as they think she can be useful in contributing to great immunization work.

So the plot– kind of– thickens. The female partner of Joel is bitten and succumbs to the fungus (another fridge, eh?). Joel, of course, has a difficult time dealing with her death and institutes a ban on discussing her (the stern but caring man trying to fulfill the dying wishes of his lover-friend– humble, aloof, loyal…) and they continue on their tortured way.

A few times the girl insists that she is capable of defending herself and Joel insists she quiet herself and let him take care of everything. While it makes sense from the perspective of a parent-child relationship (stereotyped relationship, anyway) but it’s disappointing. Why not be a bigger dad type and let her try? Why not break the boring cliche parent trope that says adults must always take care of children because children aren’t capable of responding and behaving properly? That could have been an incredible moment where parents go, “YEAH! THIS IS HOW I WOULD FIGHT WITH MY KID IN THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE!” but no. Instead these moments are filled with awkward projection and overbearing stereotypical parental crap that should have stayed in the 50’s when they didn’t understand much about life.

Which is all to say, this could have definitely been interesting to break through boundaries on many levels. There’s still, of course, plenty of game to get through, but that doesn’t mean that if and when the girl is allowed to fight (after inevitably proving herself capable somehow) that it’s empowering. Instead, females proving their worth to battle is always the way females are allowed to fight. That’s asinine and at some point (thought maybe when the world as we knew it ended) you have to say to yourself– gender norms are a thing of the past, grab that bow and shoot the heads off some infected, girl.

On a side note, I’m not sure what’s going to happen to the girl, but I do find it interesting that she’s essentially going to die so from the perspective of positive female representation, does she count? If we’re able to relate to a character that from the start is going to die, then how positive is her inclusion in the game?  Even if she lives, does that make a difference in the way that they were able to integrate her into the game? I know it’s all part of relevant story and the story line, while problematic for the aforementioned reasons, is great. The question is just why must it be part of such a rigid gender based paradigm that is completely played out?

So the now-duo’s ultimate goal is to get the girl to the anti-government group, The Fireflies, but first they must bring her to Joel’s brother* (the uncle from before) who can be reached via a car. Getting a car means they have to talk to some other guy who is strange and reclusive– and totally could have been a woman (talk about breaking gender barriers with a woman living on her own in the midst of a zombie apocalypse!) or a PoC. This guy is neither and while the mentally unstable white guy is a more believable representation of a… well… mentally unstable loner, variation and twists on the status quo are always welcomed. Twists, of which, there are none so far.

As far as game play and visuals go, this game is amazing. The detail is absurd! It blows my mind that video games can be what they are today and I am blown away by this game. Naughty Dog is top notch gaming and I would still recommend The Last of Us for many other reasons outside of the problematic story elements.Gaming is always going to be fun and rewarding, it’s just that sometimes it would be nice to have gaming culture or games reflect important social movements in relevant ways.

Gamer culture is so overtly hostile toward women. While there are women in games, the representation of them has almost always been in some way sexist or misogynistic. Even The Last of Us has elements of that misogyny (think loner white dude) in its game. But instead of catering to the same old tropes and easy stories, make something that blows the tropes out of the water by challenging gender stereotypes, norms, and oppressive perspectives. Make a game that, like The Last of Us, wows people so much with its attention to detail and gameplay (amongst other things), that it’s groundbreaking socially as much as any other category by which we judge an amazing game.

 

*Has been edited to reflect oversights in the original post.

Comments

  1. admin says:

    Just saw your comment. At the time I had posted this, I hadn’t found out that Bill was gay or at least greatly implied that he had a relationship with his “partner” Frank (I think we can safely assume that is the lover-partnership and not just an all business partnership). That is where I was when I wrote this piece. I can greatly appreciate that detail and I welcome it!

    With that said, IRL just because two men are gay (especially gay white men) does not mean that they aren’t misogynistic or racist. For the sake of the game, it doesn’t matter. I did see that while Bill was reluctant to help I think it was coming more from a place of survival than total assholery and he did wind up giving kudos to Ellie when she handled herself well. And I agree with his inclusion being awesome. :) Thanks for your comment!

  2. admin says:

    What is wrong with you aside from a complete lack of reading comprehension skills and hatred of women? I was going to go through and point out all the things wrong with your comment but frankly, I’ve already addressed them and if you had half a mind to actually learn something, my response would be unnecessary. I stand by my words and choice of words. when I finish the game I will write a part 2 of my thoughts and feel free to keep trolling my blog until then or forever. I don’t care.

  3. Ogre says:

    Sigh.

    I try to be civil, I really do. You push the boundaries of civility, and for the life of me, I can’t understand why. I will attempt, however, to give you measured, even-tempered responses.

    If you know the names of the female characters, why did you not mention them? You obviously know Joel’s name, but that seemed to be about it. You didn’t even mention Bill or Tommy’s name you just gave one a very prejudiced description. The one character aside from the main character that you did name you got incorrect. That doesn’t make your brain a “scumbag racist” (which, by the way, is a weird thing to say, because you wouldn’t say your mouth is a scumbag racist if you called someone a nigger, would you?) what it does, however, is indicate you that you could not be bothered to look it up, which makes you a lazy writer. If you are going to talk about a subject and you aren’t familiar enough with it to remember information to look informed, it usually doesn’t take long to find references. That’s middle school essay writing level stuff, and considering you are one Google search away from the info, there’s no excuse for that except either laziness or the writer, you, simply not caring.

    Maybe this says something about the way you and I view things; I never considered Sarah’s death “irrelevant.” It was emotional to me. It could be that, as a father, I can empathize with that situation. It would be horrific for me to lose one of my girls.

    Point of fact, you did contradict yourself. Allow me, if you would: You talked about how Joel has dark hair and his daughter is blonde, and you even provided a link about things that genes influence, including hair color, which agreed with your statement that it is biologically unlikely for that to happen, and then in parentheses you said that it was “still probable” which means that it is likely to occur. So, in six words you say something isn’t likely to happen followed immediately by a statement that says that it is. That is, in a nutshell, a contradiction.

    Calling you illogical is not gendered, as it simply means you are not following logic. As the above paragraph pointed out, that is a factual statement based on words you wrote. If you are taking a gendered connotation from it, I can’t help that. You are projecting that. I call you illogical because you repeatedly say people are using gendered slurs against you, and they are not.

    Also, at no point did I tell you that you are ignorant. Go back and read my comments. Alt + F on this page with a search for ignorant will show that you are the only one to use that word. I also did not “mansplain” your movement to you. At no point did I ever even imply that. I did make comments how I find that there is a strong correlation between a woman dying and it being automatically classed as “friding” even when that term doesn’t really apply. I also thought it odd that, as a feminist, you didn’t seem to name any of the female characters, but we discussed that above as not necessarily you being a poor feminist, but instead just being lazy in your writing. The reason it seemed so me is that the female characters are very important to the story, more so really, than Joel at this point.

    Anyway, if there are any facts I got incorrect as you said, please point them out to me, as I like to be as factually accurate as possible. Now, if it is an opinion I am wrong about, that is something else entirely, but perhaps we can actually discuss that.

    Last thing: You are the one who is rude. You are the one who has been directing profanity and calling me and the rest of the commentors names. That certainly isn’t polite.

    This reply has been unfailingly polite. I’ve not called you any names, I’ve not directed any profanity at you. Instead, I’ve asked questions and clarified things I would like to know.

  4. Andre says:

    “especially gay white men”
    What about gay white men makes them “especially” likely to be misogynistic or racist?

  5. Andre says:

    I do very much understand the tropes and I still have to disagree with your take on the game. As a feminist I love this game AS a feminist game.

    The interesting take on the power dynamics of men and women in this game is thought provoking and powerful.

    Just one line at the end of the game made me rethink the whole game and it’s power dynamic.

    I find your take on it kinda shallow when there is so much to enjoy and think about this game as a feminist.

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