Lindsey is a PhD student at University of Texas at Dallas where she is studying agency in digital interactive narrative games and teaching New Media. She is also a contributor at Critical-Distance and spends too much time on twitter.
It’s no secret that digital games have a problem with gender representations. Research shows that women are vastly underrepresented in the medium and not simply as playable characters (Miller and Summers 735). Research also shows that when women do exist in games they are resigned to specific tropes and stereotypes that limit character development and which “[underscore] their secondary and exiguous status” (Behm-Morawitz and Mastro 809). While there is ample evidence of both the underrepresentation of and stereotyping of females, there has been less success explaining why such representative practices are damaging or why the game industry should address these problems.
Despite the fact that research suggests women and girls who play video games have less self-esteem than those who do not, and despite the fact that females represent 45% of the consumer market in games, the industry continues to produce games that perpetuate female stereotypes (Behm-Morawitz and Mastro 811; Entertainment Software Association). As a result, a debate rages on: some demand increased gender representation and fewer stereotypes while others argue that the inclusion of more women simply for inclusion’s sake would be disingenuous to “the stories of discrete individuals…with particular circumstances and backstories” that game developers, arguably, craft into their narratives (Campbell). Between these two arguments exists an even more pragmatic one in which few believable stories can be told without the inclusion of diverse character representations, and that such stories become even less believable when hinged on stereotypes of any kind.
Amidst this discussion of gender in games, Naughty Dog released The Last of Us. The game primarily takes place 20 years after a spore-based infection that turns victims into mindless cannibalistic predators spreads across the US. The infection wipes out most of humanity, leaving only small and widely dispersed pockets of non-infected living in quarantine areas. The game has two main narrative protagonists, Joel and Ellie, who must make a dangerous trek across the country. Given the presence of several female characters in the game, and that Ellie’s character has a primary role in the narrative, The Last Of Us received a significant amount of attention for its representations of gender.
The game has simultaneously received both major accolades for its honest portrayal of female characters and severe criticism for its use of female characters as props who serve only to propel the male story forward. In the article, “Gender and Savagery in The Last of Us,” Jorge Albor claims that, “All the female leads are, for the most part, complex characters with agency of their own.” Conversely, in “The Last of Us and Grading on the Gender Curve,” Carolyn Petit argues that the game “tells its story well, but that story is yet another take on the all-too-common tale of a violent, brooding male hero whose character development is fueled by the violent deaths of women.”
Whether the attention The Last of Us has received for its gender portrayals is fair or not, the game has become an important lens through which to analyze the current modes of gender representation in games. The high-quality and intricately constructed narrative provides an important look into the progress games have made in gender representation and allows for gender analyses that have perhaps been harder to make before now.
My analysis will focus on popular narrative gender representations and tropes and how the game employs them. This analysis reveals that despite some positive steps forward, both common masculine and feminine tropes are perpetuated in the game. Joel is the typical male character: a strong white man who speaks little and has a tragic past. Ellie is the typical female character: a small and innocent woman with a loud mouth who frequently needs protecting or saving. Here I argue that The Last of Us offers a poignant critique of gender in games precisely by employing gender tropes that limit character development and narrative cohesion. Despite narrative occurrences that should enable character growth, the game continues to perpetuate gender stereotypes in such a way that the ending of the game a tragic betrayal not only in the narrative itself, but also in the player’s expectations of gender roles in games. In this way The Last of Us unintentionally becomes an argument for why stronger female characters—that possess their own narrative agency and are not sidelined by a male character—are needed.
Since Joel is the player character for the bulk of the game, the player first encounters Ellie from Joel’s perspective. It is clear that Joel reads Ellie through the lenses of stereotypical female qualities and gender tropes. Ellie is less a person to him and more of a prize, or at least a means of securing a prize shipment of guns from the Fireflies. She is unintelligent and incapable of thinking for herself. Joel immediately begins to tell her what to do and when to do it, thereby establishing himself as the man in charge. She is also more emotional than Joel as she reacts to situations vocally while Joel remains stoic. Because Ellie so closely fits common female tropes, when the player meets Ellie in the game they assume she will be the helpless tagalong that Joel must protect, and the narrative initially supports this assumption. To compound the issue, Joel’s assumptions about Ellie, and thus the assumptions the player initially makes about Ellie, parallel the assumptions games make about female characters in general. From the very onset of the game, Ellie is confined in several ways to a series of anticipated tropes despite the fact that her actual character does not fit them.
In order to perpetuate these stereotypes, Ellie is relegated to a submissive role whereby her narrative place in the game is diminished in three important ways: Ellie’s character is denied a strong voice, denied opportunities to control her own safety and to protect herself from harm, and denied the ability to both develop emotionally and to convey a backstory that links the player as deeply to her as to Joel. In other words, Ellie is denied the opportunity, via the presence of an oppressive male character, to exhibit the characteristics of a fully developed game protagonist.
The most obvious way the game suppresses Ellie’s character and story is by denying Ellie opportunities to verbally express her thoughts and motivations. Joel dominates the relationship with Ellie by stating that their histories are not to be discussed. The player, of course, already knows much of Joel’s history and continues to learn about it as the narrative progresses. Thus Joel’s experience is privileged over Ellie’s in the game as a means of perpetuating the dominant male trope.
In addition to forbidding discussion of their pasts, Joel also dominates their interactions and discussions about current events. When Ellie attempts to discuss the death of Tess with Joel and to empathize with his feelings, Joel refuses to let her speak. He angrily cuts her off saying, “Here’s how this thing’s gonna play out. You don’t bring up Tess. Ever. Matter of fact, let’s just keep our histories to ourselves…and lastly, you do what I say when I say it. We clear?” When Ellie doesn’t respond, Joel presses her and demeans her authority more by making her repeat him. He says “Repeat it” and Ellie is forced to say “what you say goes” in response. In this moment, Joel’s character is presented as the authority, while Ellie’s character is reduced to a submissive role. The game actively denies Ellie opportunities to develop and to express feelings that may create a stronger link between her and the player. This denial actively privileges the stereotypical male-driven narrative and provides the player with familiar and comfortable narrative conventions, even where they don’t belong.
Such conversations as these are plentiful throughout the game and indicate an overarching theme of paternalism. In a key narrative moment when Ellie tries to run away from Joel, Joel dominates the ensuing conversation and subverts her attempts to justify her own actions and emotions. As Ellie tries to express her fear of abandonment, Joel tells her she’s being “goddamn stupid” and that they are going to go their separate ways. Joel ends their conversation and simultaneously negates Ellie’s agency and feelings. Although this is a crucial moment in the development of Ellie’s character, and although this is a rare moment when she challenges Joel and expresses her opinion in spite of him, Joel still dismisses Ellie and controls the conversation. Joel gets the final say, and in this conversation his final word is a total dismissal of Ellie’s voice. Once again, Ellie’s attempts to assert herself as a confident and self-reliant individual are restricted and relegated to the conventional submissive female trope that stifles and silences her voice.
Ellie’s character is also relegated to a secondary and submissive position in the game by denying her the opportunity to defend and protect herself. Ellie does eventually get to carry a weapon in the game; however, she is initially denied one and then is only ever allowed to carry a gun when she is working alongside Joel. Early in the game, Joel refuses to give Ellie a gun until she uses a gun found on the ground to save his life. By maintaining control of the weapons, Joel also maintains control over Ellie; she is dependent upon him. Until Ellie proves to Joel that she will use weapons to support him rather than to kill or escape him, Joel is unwilling to give her this control. After she saves his life, Joel arms Ellie with a rifle and allows her to cover him from a sniper position as they collectively take out a large crowd of hunters.
Importantly, Joel also only permits Ellie to use a weapon when his dominance and authority outweigh hers. When Joel is impaled by a piece of glass, Ellie must help Joel get to their horse in order to escape from the hunters who are pursuing them. Despite his serious injury, Joel refuses Ellie’s help. Every time she attempts to support his body or aid their attempts at escape, Joel pushes her away. Even in his most injured state, Joel actively resists letting Ellie have a position of authority, even as an aid to their escape. Joel’s character remains dominant in these scenes by refusing to submit to Ellie or her attempts to help and protect him. Following Joel’s injury, Ellie does use a bow and arrow without male supervision, but even in this instance, her possession of a weapon is more domestic than protective and is still used in the service of a male. She uses the weapon to procure food so that Joel will recover. The game thus perpetuates gender tropes by projecting Joel as the dominant and protective alpha male while Ellie, even when armed and dangerous, is armed and dangerous in the service of a male.
In addition to remaining submissive to Joel in language and in action, Ellie remains secondary and submissive to Joel in terms of emotional development too. During emotionally crucial moments, Joel is dismissive of Ellie’s feelings. As the stereotypical quiet and mysterious male character, Joel is disinterested in discussing his feelings or in validating the feelings and experiences of others, and so Ellie’s character is similarly stunted and unable to develop. For instance, after Ellie’s first time killing a man, she admits to Joel that she “feels sick.” Rather than acknowledging Ellie’s feelings of guilt and remorse of taking a man’s life, Joel yells at Ellie for not listening to his orders to “stay put.”
When Ellie seeks further recognition or thanks from Joel for saving him by killing the man, Joel again dismisses her need for emotional support by telling her he’s only grateful she didn’t shoot his head off. Similarly, during the conversation Joel and Ellie have after she runs away, Ellie tries to acknowledge her feelings of loss, to which Joel responds, “You have no idea what loss is.” Despite the fact that Ellie has grown up in a world defined by loss, Joel refuses to acknowledge Ellie’s personal experiences or emotions. While Joel has lost his daughter, Ellie has lost her mother, her best friend, and though she’s never spoken of, presumably her father as well.
Joel privileges his own loss and his own emotions over Ellie’s. As the man, his emotions take precedence. This trend continues throughout the game and culminates in Joel’s ultimate betrayal of Ellie’s feelings. When Joel and Ellie finally near the Firefly headquarters, after a yearlong trek across the country, Joel is fully aware of Ellie’s wishes to help save humanity, whatever the cost. She says to Joel “After everything we’ve been through…after everything I’ve done…it can’t be for nothing,” and then goes on to say “there’s no half-way with this.”
For Ellie, helping the Fireflies find a cure for the pandemic is not only imperative, but also redemptive. Ignoring Ellie’s desire to purify her misdeeds, Joel acts in accordance with his own emotional needs. Because his emotions are privileged over and dominant to Ellie’s, Joel betrays Ellie by removing her from the operating table, killing the fireflies, and escaping back to Tommy’s camp. In a further betrayal, when Ellie asks for the truth about what happened while she was under anesthesia on the operating table, Joel lies to her and tells her the Fireflies didn’t need her, that they’d found countless others like her, and that an antidote couldn’t be made. Ellie initially accepts this lie, but just before the descent to Tommy’s camp, Ellie presses Joel again. She says, “Swear to me that everything you said about the fireflies is true,” to which Joel simply says, “I swear.”
Cameron Kunzelman succinctly captures the feelings of the player at the end of the game by summarizing that, “Joel has killed everyone that Ellie knows and has finally filled the hole in his heart left by his dead daughter though torture and mass killings with nail bombs and shotguns and boots on the heads of people trying to survive. Ellie asks him a question and he lies to her and we cut to black.” Thus the game ends with a lie that signifies not just as a lie to Ellie, but as a lie to the player as well.
That the game ends with betrayal both of Ellie and of the player’s expectations is important to understanding how this game makes a salient argument within the gender debate in games. Within the narrative of The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie could potentially exist as two equally developed characters; they both possess interesting backstories and both have a wide emotional range. However, both characters are stifled by the game tropes commonly employed in games. Despite his character’s resistance to being a father figure or male protector, Joel is stuck in that role and despite a narrative story arc that would be typical of a central protagonist, Ellie is displaced and subverted by Joel’s character and narrative experience because she is female. The Player’s reaction to the game’s ending, however, calls the use of these stereotypes into question.
Responses to the game’s ending have been mixed, but the ending has surprised the majority of players as it breaks convention by denying a “happy” finish. In doing so, Naughty Dog reveals how broken the conventions and tropes used in the game were all along. Kunzlemen reflects on his feelings about gender use in the game saying, “I’m sitting on my couch and I’m sad because her story is still tied to his.” The ending reveals to the player that the common tropes both Joel and Ellie have been subjected to throughout the game are incongruent to and disingenuous to the actual complexity of their characters.
The question the game asks then is a powerful one, and it’s one that can only be answered once a player has completed the game: would the game have been better if the characters weren’t restricted to the familiar game conventions and tropes that permeate the game industry? For the players that desire to see characters like Ellie triumph, the answer is a resounding “yes”. That the Last of Us contributes to the gender debate through the medium of the game itself is perhaps the most convincing way to advocate for better gender representation in games. Throughout the game, The Last of Us issues a challenge to the game industry to craft well developed characters not without regard to gender, but with an authentic consideration of it. The players are ready for characters like Ellie – they want to play her and they want her to win.
Negin Dahya will be joining the University of Washington Information School in the field of Digital Youth starting in September 2014. Her research focuses on anti-oppressive education for ethnoracial minority groups, with a focus on girls and women using technology. Her research includes studies on “serious play,” ranging from examinations of social and political content in educational videogames to girls’ videogame development for teaching/learning STEM in schools.
Lindsey, thank you for this detailed discussion of gender representation in the videogame,The Last of Us. You are quite right – it is no secret that the current culture of videogames continues to perpetuate serious problems with regard to how women and other marginalized and minority groups are represented (and omitted). Your essay clearly highlights examples of power and control by Joel towards Ellie. In addition, your detailed examples of how this transgresses throughout the game make explicit how dialogue is often accepted as “normal” between male and female characters is actually abusive and oppressive (even if, as some would argue, that dialogue is paternal, or rather patriarchal, as if that makes acts of disempowerment acceptable).
The critical work of Anita Sarkeesian offers a detailed overview of tropes regarding women and videoagmes. How do the roles of the female characters (Ellie and others) in The Last of Us compare to existing tropes in games and media? Considering the larger scope of patriarchy as a framework for when, how and by whom women are depicted may strengthen your discussion of Ellie and other female characters in this game. Approaching the discussion from the standpoint of patriarchy may also help clarify how/why the efforts to include female characters in The Last of Us reproduces existing tropes, constructs new ones, or falls short entirely with regard to creating more authentic, empowered and diverse representations of women.
Your opening comments about the videogame industry, about who players are and what fuels the larger videogame economy, are important to the discussion. Have you explored theory pertaining to ‘technology as masculine culture’? Such a discussion might also create more opportunity to unravel the complex relationship between the high proportion of female videogame players, what games they play, and the ongoing limitations to the way women are represented in games. My main question to you is: How can we theorize about gender and videogames in a way that interrupts the repetitive and limited narratives of videogames as a boy-focused domain, and of (“straight” white) men dominating girls and women? What do you see as the necessary interventions to move this astute and valuable discussion into action with a feminist focus?
[Beginning in January 2014, every essay and commentary we publish on FPS will receive a response from a member on our board of discussants. Articles are paired up with a discussant based on subject-matter expertise and availability. The idea is to propagate a critical, constructive conversation that enriches both the author’s and the readers’ engagement with the text.]
Albor, Jorge. “Experience Points: Gender and Savagery in The Last of Us.” Experiencepoints.net. Experiencepoints. 25 Jun. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
Behm-Morawitz, Elizabeth and Dana Mastro. “The Effects of the Sexualization of Female Video Game Characters on Gender Stereotyping and Female Self-Concept.” Sex Roles 61 (2009). 808-823. Print.
Campbell, Colin. “It’s Time for More Leading Women in Games.” Polygon.com Vox Media Inc. 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
Kunzelman, Cameron. “On The Last of Us.” This Cage is Worms. WordPress.com. 18 Jun. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
Miller, Monica K. and Alicia Summers. “Gender Differences in Video Game Characters’ Roles, Appearances, and Attire as Portrayed in Video Game Magazines.” Sex Roles 57 (2007). 733-742. Print.
Naughty Dog. The Last of Us. Sony Computer Entertainment, 2013. Playstation 3.
Petit, Carolyn. “The Last of Us and Grading on the Gender Curve.” Gamespot.com
With the recent trailer release of The Last of Us: Part II, which may, for all we know, come out in the very far future, and even as fanboys have begun posting frame-by-frame analyses of what those three-plus golden minutes promise, I’m compelled to go back to the original game. For some time now I’ve wanted to write about a certain philosophical point, which isn’t often mentioned in game reviews and posts, concerning Joel, the main character in The Last of Us, and about this question of choice.
There has been, and likely still is, strong reaction to the ending of The Last of Us, specifically on the choice presented to Joel and the decision he makes. Commentary from gaming sites, along with much lauding, are often expressions of shock and even some moral hand-wringing over Joel’s decision. The situation I’m referring to is near the end of the game, when Joel had to choose between saving Ellie, the young girl he was assigned to protect, or letting her die so that the Fireflies (a resistance group) can extract from her a vaccine to stop the viral outbreak. Almost without pause, Joel chose to save Ellie. His decision is often described as selfish, or at the very least made players uneasy, and given Joel’s backstory, his decision is without a doubt morally questionable. The death of his daughter, Sarah, in the opening sequence of the game, builds into the final chapter when he has an opportunity to re-enact a similar scenario, only this time with an opportunity to change the outcome. In choosing to save Ellie, Joel realizes a kind of personal redemption, but one that comes at the expense of saving all humanity.
This makes for a neat and compact analysis of Joel’s character, but there is more going on here than a mere description of selfishness can do justice to. For one, consider the world of The Last of Us, full of men who’ve made themselves into animals, a world of grim survival and brutal violence, of loss and lost hopes, a world where a military state arose as a means of dealing with the viral outbreak, and where men hunt each other like the animals they’ve become. As I played the game, I often asked myself, ‘What good is there in any of this?’ Not of the world, which was surprisingly beautiful in all its ruin, but what good was there in humanity? Joel’s daughter wasn’t killed by an Infected, she was shot by a soldier following orders. People were being indiscriminately executed in the streets of walled-off towns. People schemed with and against each other, vying for a little more power, a little more influence. So, when Joel decided to save Ellie over that of general humanity, he had reason enough, because what good was on display in people?
Of course, there’s the argument to be made that because of the ruined state of the world, people will act horribly, as they do in The Last of Us, but if given the chance, and a healthier context, people can be good. Yet if that’s all it takes, then what a thin and delicate line that is. I’m reminded there’s no truer picture of human behavior than when we are under duress, and then all kinds of horrors come out. I think Joel’s distrust of goodly causes or any hope for humanity, as he tells Tess “No, no, no, that was your crusade!”, is simply a reflection of what’s around him. There may be those few who retain their compassion and work from their better selves, but the odds are they won’t survive against the marauding bands who are ready to cook their flesh. In light of that, Joel bet on those he knew and against those he didn’t, which is to say he chose to save the one life he knew, Ellie’s, and said to hell with the rest.
But the other, possibly more important point is that Joel’s decision was the act of a free man. The exchange between Joel and Marlene near the end of the game was exactly about this. After explaining to him that in order to extract the anti-virus, doctors would have to take Ellie’s life in the process, Marlene demands that “There’s no other choice here!” To which Joel responds, “Yeah you keep telling yourself that bullshit….” The contrast between Marlene and Joel is a contrast between two very different philosophical outlooks. Marlene stands for a cause, she thinks in terms of what’s best for others, or the group, which is characteristically utilitarian; but Joel sees things from the perspective of the individual, independent from others and of large groups. He judges from within his purview and hasn’t much thought beyond that. In this way, he is pragmatic, if oddly libertarian.
So the contrast is this, to Marlene there is no choice, because the clear and greater good is to save many people at the expense of one life; on the other hand, what Joel emphasizes is that there is always a choice and, in fact, there’s even more of a choice when we think there isn’t one. Or, put another way, when the choice is between what is generally accepted as the right thing to do, against what is generally agreed to be the wrong thing; even then, there is still a choice. For Joel, as a free individual, though he’s aware of what the ‘right’ choice is (look at Joel’s expression when Marlene pleads her case, before he shoots her), he chooses in the other direction.
I’ve already explained some of the personal motivations for Joel’s decision, as regards his daughter, but to add to that, Joel has probably seen enough in the world to know that the claim ‘There is no choice’ can easily become a justification for all kinds of horrors. Case in point, David. Though there’s no scene that reveals David’s reason for reverting to cannibalism, we can safely imagine, as the leader of his group, that he had considered the options and concluded if they want to survive, ‘they have no choice’ but to start eating others. I’m sure that’s what many people have told themselves as a way to justify all kinds of terrible acts. History, we all know, is full of them.
But putting the reasons and justifications aside, what’s more important to me is the fact that in its purest form, the decision Joel made to save Ellie’s life, over that of humanity’s, is an illustration of true choice. He chose against a larger, albeit more abstract, good and went for the smaller, more immediate and concrete good, though he’s likely aware he should have chosen the other way.