|Marlene from The Last of Us|
Jason Killingsworth over at Edge recently wrote an interesting article, Sexism sells? The Last of Us Begs to differ, that praises Naughty Dog's efforts to undermine traditionally sexist gender roles in video games. As Jason rightly points out, all the female leads are, for the most part, complex characters with agency of their own. Ellie in particular stands out as an audacious and forthright young woman unique among what few video game characters she can call her compatriots. My one issue with the portrayal of women in the game is simple. Where are all the female hunters?
The Last of Us includes female civilians, female corpses, female leaders in the case of Tess, Marlene, and Maria, and even female infected, both runners and clickers. Yet for some reason, Pittsburgh's roving bands of marauders so hell bent on killing Joel and Ellie are entirely male. I killed over 500 hundred of the cannibalistic bandits, and I don't recall shooting a single-female.
Now we could argue the game makes some narrative contrivances to justify the absence of women in the group. We do hear some hunters near the end of the game mention "women and children," so we know the group does, in fact, have female members. David, one of the group's villainous leaders, also seems fond of Ellie as a sexual addition to the group. Perhaps we can surmise that the hunters highly prize women, keeping them isolated from the rest of the group to act as a sort of harem.
Still, if this were the case, we should expect to see at least some women in the group. With so many deaths among the males, I would imagine the hunters would be willing to take anyone brave enough along with them on raids. Also, at one point in the game, we watch two hunters shoot an unarmed woman in cold blood for supplies. If the group were so focused on keeping some sort of procreation stock of women, why did they not bother with this one?
The oversight, likely an attempt to avoid portraying the murder of women based upon assumptions about political correctness, is slightly jarring against such a strong backdrop. Even more than some of the game's more "gamey" elements, the lack of female hunters violates the narrative tone by undermining the pervasive human savagery depicted in The Last of Us. Joel eludes to evil deeds in his past and consistently talks about the need to survive above all else. The apocalyptic world makes savages of us all.
Even the female leads dip into madness like everyone else. Marlene, perhaps justifiable, attempts to kill Ellie to find a cure, and Tess doesn't hesitate to hunt down those who have double-crossed her. And of course Ellie herself cuts into men repeatedly, most dramatically when she takes a machete to David's head again and again. At the extreme edge of survival, societal gender norms are transgressed and renegotiated. The world has changed for everyone... except for those damn hunters.