Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gender and Savagery in The Last of Us

Marlene from The Last of Us
Warning: This post contains spoilers for 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.


  1. I think the question, more directly, is why is every hunter a grizzled 30 year old man? That question deserves more attention that I can give it here, but in a nutshell I think it's because nobody at Naughty Dog wants to invite serious critique of the in-game violence.

    TLOU has received some attention for its thoughtful consideration of violence. The game never revels in its gore and it's never really "fun" to stomp a hunter in the head; and the violence feels thematically appropriate to the game's story.

    I agree with all of that to a point, but would we say the same things if we had to kill women? (Admittedly, Joel does kill one, in a cutscene.) Or an adolescent boy? Or even a young 18 year old man? Would that emphasize the thematic punch of the in-game violence, or would it make us realize that Joel murdering hundreds of people is obviously ridiculous?

    The game pulls a few phony tricks to make you think Joel is a moral character, or at least not immoral. Joel almost never instigates violence against other humans, but hunters will always attack you on sight. Every hunter is morally compromised because they're firing at a 14 year old girl, but Joel only ever had to fight anonymous bad guys.

    Or what if we WERE a woman killing other women?

    Despite the apparent agency of the women in TLOU, the entire story is predicated on three women being unable to do what Joel can: Marlene can't safely transport Ellie (despite reaching the final destination well before Ellie actually does); Tess dies early in the story and asks Joel to finish the job; and Ellie, despite her gumption, is unable to adequately protect herself. Why, exactly, didn't we play as Marlene instead? Or Tess? Or Ellie, for the whole game?

    I don't mean to sell TLOU short: The game is absolutely built around Joel and you couldn't simply swap a character out and tell the same story. In general I think the game is a big achievement and tells a sophisticated story. But I think we should be careful crediting TLOU for its treatment of women. "For a video game," it's great. But that bar is set very low.

  2. Another point to consider is the game's multiplayer mode, which does have female avatars. I think it even randomizes your avatar's gender and appearance.

  3. I thought GTA4 had a similar problem. Obviously, the civilians in the open world are all lampooned and killable, but all of the named female are all saints with little humor to their depictions. Meanwhile, all the men are violent buffoons, making it seem like Rockstar just wanted to avoid satirizing women specifically.

  4. Same goes for Red Dead Redemption, now that you mention it.