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
While there are some interesting points made here, I think you are misguided. Ellie, before everything else, is a child, not a girl or a woman. The story and dialogs would have been pretty much the same if Joel had had a son instead of a daughter, and if Ellie were replaced by a teenage boy. As a matter of fact, we can replace every “gender” in this article by “age”. Sure, The Last of Us use some specific tropes and sterotypes. Sure it adresses fatherhood and authority. But the lens and limitations are not defined by gender, just by the classic use of a father/child story, like we’ve seen countless before. The issue here is that both of the characters can’t stand out of their traditional roles of father/child. I don’t think it has anything to do with gender, at least in this particular case. God knows there are other games for which it’s a relevant topic.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and counter-argument with me. While age is a factor worth considering in the narrative, I consider it to be a too-easy scapegoat for issues of gender representation. It has become a trend in games to include women as the daughter figures. This choice is one that easily sidesteps the issues of gender representation by dismissing the problems as age-specific rather than gender-specific. Choices were made whereby Naughty Dog decided to make Ellie a certain age and gender (amongst many others), and both those choices have ramifications for the game, and how the game fits within the large construct of narrative games; both choices merit analysis, but neither cancels the other out.
“I think you are unfair in your criticisms. Much of the submissive qualities in Ellie and dominant qualities in Joel is only because Joel is older and Ellie is younger, Joel has seen the outside world and Ellie hasn’t. What Joel was displaying is his paternal instinct, he would have done the same if Ellie were a young boy (like Sam). Every instance when you think Joel is displaying the oppressive male dominance, just imagine Ellie as Sam, and it still fits his character.”
“Moreover, let’s not forget the relationship between Joel and Tess in the beginning. Tess is the dominant one. At one point she tells Joel to “get your ass up here”, he replies with “bossy today”, and then proceeds to do what he’s told. If Joel were sexist, would he be that submissive to Tess?”
(Quoting myself, shamelessly looking for attention.) I’d argue that the whole premise that Joel is sexist is false – see Tess example, and his taking away Ellie’s agency is not because of sexism.
Regarding the developer’s choice of making the older character male and the younger female, it is because the writer, Neil Druckmann, is a father. He always talked about writing honestly, so I imagine the story would be worse if he tries to write a controlling over-protective mother, unless he knows one personally. So the problem here is not with TLOU as a narrative, the problem here lies with the game industry that hires too few female writers.
Thanks for the comment, Nicolas! Just to jump off from Lindsey’s point, I think it definitely matters that this is a teenage girl and not a boy. Joel sees Ellie as someone who needs to be taken care of; I’m not sure the same would be true if it were a boy, I mean, apart from the whole immunity thing. It’s all speculation, but I think Joel would try to train the boy to “take care of himself” from the outset, since it’s more accepted (and expected) for men to be able to solve problems through violence. Joel might also be more willing to accept help from a boy.
Of course, age matters too, as there are plenty of women in the game that can handle themselves just fine, and Joel definitely treats them differently than Ellie. But that’s the value of intersectional readings – you can take all of these things into account at once.
I appreciate the points you raise. And I appreciate your efforts to find and secure the critical perspectives available to players and, possibly, intended by the designers. But I’m not sure that The Last of Us does enough to signal the irony. That we’ve got to wait until the end for that moment of reflection raises doubts in my mind about the intentions of the designers.
I played The Last of Us shortly after replaying BioShock Infinite for the third time as part of a presentation at my university. As many have noted, BI is incredibly problematic, both narratively and in terms of its representation of gender, age, race, and historical consciousness. But I also find plentiful signals of irony in the game, parsed out across the game play experience, visible to me in terms of environmental design, the way that game play elements like player death and resurrection happen (i.e., returning to the office), and the way that all of this is tied up to a fractured, pathological main character (Booker/Comstock). BI is overtly about the desire of white men to “replay” history and interpersonal relationships to sustain their power and the illusion of innocence. It is about the desire of the white male to control the narrative, control the female, and the game plays out the contradictions of that desire in a much more overtly critical way than we find in LoU.
So, I’m left with the conclusion that The Last of Us is a more “conservative” game than BioShock Infinite precisely because it fails to adequately reflect on the conventions of its own gameplay.
I think the game does a bit more than acknowledged here to position Joel’s stance on his relationship with Ellie as something that should be challenged. My personal reading of The Last of Us was that Joel was much more of an unreliable narrator (or the gaming equivalent thereof–unreliable PC?) in terms of how much we were supposed to agree with his worldview, up to and including his treatment of Ellie, especially in the earlier portions of the game.
Then again the relationship that Naughty Dog’s created doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As Joyce establishes (and establishes very well) at the beginning of the essay, videogames have a history of tropes that limit and denigrate women, and Naughty Dog really didn’t due enough to merit the benefit of a doubt.
Ellie actually talks often about her past she tells you about her school, she tells you she likes gnomes but hates fairies, she hates the twilight rip off posters, she loves video games how she learned to ride horses, and many more things if you talk to her in game with various prompts.
I think you are unfair in your criticisms. Much of the submissive qualities in Ellie and dominant qualities in Joel is only because Joel is older and Ellie is younger, Joel has seen the outside world and Ellie hasn’t. What Joel was displaying is his paternal instinct, he would have done the same if Ellie were a young boy (like Sam). Every instance when you think Joel is displaying the oppressive male dominance, just imagine Ellie as Sam, and it still fits his character. Once again, it is just his paternal instinct.
Moreover, let’s not forget the relationship between Joel and Tess in the beginning. Tess is the dominant one. At one point she tells Joel to “get your ass up here”, he replies with “bossy today”, and then proceeds to do what he’s told. If Joel were sexist, would he be that submissive to Tess?
You simply ignore how TLOU subvert the common gender tropes. It was Ellie who saves Joel in Pittsburg, it was Ellie who saves Joel at the university, it was Ellie who saves herself from David, Joel were the one providing emotional support to the tragic and trouble hero – Ellie – after her experiences during Winter chapter. Everything is reversed, don’t you see?
I think you undermine your own point here by noting that Joel is paternalistic. Paternalism is not simply being a protective father figure. More often than not, “Paternalism reflects views of women as underdeveloped adults, providing justification for men to be authoritative and monitor, protect, and make decisions on women’s behalf” (Wikipedia [Link]). In other words, it is a loaded term when discussing gender.
The counter-argument here is that Ellie is not an adult and therefore it is reasonable for Joel to take the paternalistic stance that he does. However, culturally speaking, boys are far less likely to be treated paternalistically than girls (which could explain why this paternalism persists into adulthood). Furthermore, I do not think you could gender-swap Ellie and not have the social and cultural dynamics change. To believe so would be to ignore the larger context in which TLOU exists. (If you are interested in this topic, check out this Chrome plugin [Link]that genderswaps web content. You may be surprised to see how switching genders actually reveals inequalities rather than demonstrates equality).
Personally, I see TLOU as an (unintentional) send up of the male protagonist. After all, Joel struggles to and ultimately succeeds in constraining Ellie’s agency, a fact reinforced by the structure of the game as Ellie’s playable section only comes about when Joel can no longer be in control. What players learn in that brief moment, however, is that Ellie is just fine in the lead. In fact, you could say that Joel’s paternalism actually held her back (and in a way, held us back as players) from that realization, in the same way that other games which have reinforced gender stereotypes have held back games from exploring other aspects of our culture.
You quote a sentence in Wikipedia that is taken out of context and unsupported with concrete evidence. First, the quote is from the Wiki page on Sexism. If you assume Joel is sexist in the first place then yes, paternalism is component of his sexism. But Joel is not, as shown by Tess as a counter-example. So that quote doesn’t apply in this situation. Secondly, I use the term paternal instinct in the purest sense: the father’s instinct to protect and shelter his kid, male or female. Hypothetical gender swapping Ellie is totally valid in this specific context. Look at Henry and Sam, that pair is a mirror to Joel and Ellie in the way that Henry constantly shelter Sam and take away his agency. Yes, Joel does take away Ellie’s agency, but not because of sexism.
Regarding the developer’s choice on who is the playable character, they are trying to tell a story, and the playable character is the point-of-view, it’s simple as that. I think it is a well told story. To say that we mostly play as Joel has anything to do with sexism is just desperately looking for evidence to support your theory.
Thank you for your reply, but I think you, and the original author, should be more positive and celebrate the fact that Ellie is a beautifully written female character who is brave and capable and selfless. This is rarely seen before in games.
Well, your views on sexism, paternalism, and academic evidence certainly differ from my own. But that is hardly going to be amicably resolved here! So, I guess if I could make one last point it’s that saying that games can do better does not invalidate what they have done well. In fact, it comes from the belief that they can build on that success.
I think part of the problem is, yes, the developer is trying to tell a story with a particular point of view, but why does it have to be yet another story about a dad-dude protecting a girl/woman? It’s just been done so many times and I don’t think you can ignore that context. Also, Lindsey does note in the article that other writers have seen Ellie as a positive character, so you’re certainly not alone there.
If you just look at this game in isolation, then there is more of an argument about gender not being a factor (though I’m still not convinced), but in my view you have to look at how the game exists in a larger ecosystem. Every decision is made for a reason, right? Why not play as Tess, or Ellie (more), or any other woman? Why is it almost always configured like this?
It’s not that “the game is sexist,” per se, but that the game is produced in a system which has strong-man-protects-weak-girl/woman as its default. That default is what makes the examples in the article all the more compelling to me.
That is a good point 🙂 (Sorry I’m copypasting myself below)
Regarding the developer’s choice of making the older character male and the younger female, it is because the writer, Neil Druckmann, is a father. He always talked about writing honestly, so I imagine the story would be worse if he tries to write a controlling over-protective mother, unless he knows one personally. So Neil wrote Joel instead of Joeleen, and TLOU is what it is, for better or worse. I think the problem here is not with TLOU as a narrative, the problem here lies with the game industry that has too few female writers who, if they write honestly, would create believable strong female characters that we all want.
Somehow when thinking about Joel as a female character, the Korean movie “Mother” (2009) by Joon-ho Bong pops into my mind… but I digress.
I love that you all are so responsive and you make great discussions. It’s been very enjoyable for me talking about this.
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