Mourning Sex

Letting Go & Liking Girls in The Last of Us

Essay - Mourning Sex

Gerald Voorhees (Ph.D., The University of Iowa, 2008) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Drama and Speech Communication at the University of Waterloo. His research focuses on games and new media as sites for the construction and contestation of identity and culture. Gerald is co-editor of Bloomsbury’s Approaches to Game Studies book series.

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[The author would like to thank Dr. David Heineman (@DrHeineman) for feedback that substantially improved the form and substance of this article.]

Naughty Dog’s masterwork, The Last of Us, and the recent Left Behind DLC sparked controversy and discussion around two issues: Joel’s rescue of Ellie from the Fireflies and Ellie’s kissing of Riley.

On the surface these are two distinct matters. And, in fact, Joel’s morality and Ellie’s sexuality can and should be given due attention independent of one another. Each is impactful, consequential and full of meaning.

But, I argue, it is by thinking through the relationship between both of these issues that we might come to better understand the changing contours of contemporary culture. The ideas expressed in these striking moments of The Last of Us and the Left Behind DLC both concern gender and sexuality. Specifically, they speak to the death of heteronormativity, however excruciatingly protracted and melodramatic that death may be, and our general inability as a society to cope with this change.

Heteronormativity is a term coined by American social theorist Michael Warner to describe the pervasive ideology that treats the masculine-feminine gender binary as natural, and therefore sacred and unassailably rational. In short, heteronormativity is premised on the assumption that anatomical-biological sex determines the expression of masculine or feminine gender traits, (ignoring both the biological reality of intersex existence and the social construction of gender roles).  As a corollary, heteronormativity enshrines sexual relations between men and women and vilifies GLBTQ sexuality. While it is still the most powerful gender ideology operative in the U.S., the last several decades have seen heteronormativity challenged in social, economic, political and legal arenas in ways that are finally beginning to slowly dismantle this discriminatory system of institutional and everyday realities.

Mourning and Melancholia

A lot of people and things die in The Last of Us. It is a game whose primary theme is loss. The actions most repeated in the game may be killing, stealth movement and crafting, but trauma and loss are the most frequently recurring ideas. Death colors the tenor of the game and defines the most poignant moments of the narrative: Sarah bleeding out in Joel’s arms, Tess in a pool of blood on the capitol floor, Bill’s lover hanging from a ceiling fan, Sam and the two bullets from Henry’s gun, Joel’s incapacitation at the university campus, David stealing the last shreds of Ellie’s faith in humanity, and of course, the world that died during the open credits and the dream of resurrecting that world that died with Marlene’s final plea to Joel.

But it’s the death of heteronormativity, heroic masculinity in Joel’s case and heterosexism in Ellie’s, that some players and commentators can’t seem to get over. And so they talk about it, wax philosophical, rationalize, gnash their teeth, shake their fists and spew vitriol. In short, they dwell on it. Clinging to a past that would otherwise be dead, they refuse to let it go.

Rather than mourn, those who lament Joel’s rescue of Ellie and Ellie’s kiss with Riley are mired in a cultural melancholia. The distinction between mourning and melancholia is more than semantic. Drawing upon the insights of notable psychologists, Kim Nguyen explains: “Whereas mourning is the slow, healthy release of one’s attachment to a lost object, melancholia is the debilitating, endless process of remaining fixated and resolutely attached to such an object, such as a loved one or a way of life.”

Mourning is an action, and it is temporary and transformative. One mourns and then moves on, having likely learned from what is gone.

Melancholia is an attitude, and it is a state of being. Melancholia predisposes one remain fixed in place, even as the world moves forward.

The Last of Us can be productively understood as a therapeutic game that models mourning. It is not only a game about loss, it also makes an argument about how to deal with loss. In this light it functions to help players articulate strategies for dealing with more common, related situations in their own life.

The Last of Us models to players a relatively (but not entirely) healthy, progressive way of coping with the many deaths it contains. I’ll take the next several hundred words to focus on how the game can be understood as a response to the death of heteronormativity.

Heroic Masculinity: Selfish Joel

In The Last of Us Joel’s masculinity is at stake. The question is not whether Joel is a man, or even whether or not he is manly. Rather, the problem that some players and commentators confront is that Joel acts in a manner that betrays the kinds of heroic masculinity that American society typically valorizes. As Douglas Holt and Craig Thompson explain, heroic masculinity combines elements of the breadwinner (the occupationally successful patriarch) and the rebel (the adventurous, self-made man who plays by his own rules).

For the first nine-tenths of the game Joel perfectly embodies the parameters of heroic masculinity. He excels at his chosen occupation and exercises paternalistic control over his (surrogate) family. He is strong and capable of committing violence, breaking laws as readily as he breaks arms. However, one precept of heroic masculinity Joel spectacularly fails to exemplify is the notion that ‘real men’ are heroes who are willing to sacrifice in order to do the ‘right thing.’

While the notes and recording Joel finds in the hospital depict Marlene’s struggle with her conscience, culminating in her ‘heroic’ decision to sacrifice Ellie, (who she cares deeply for according to The Last of Us).  Joel is too weak, too sentimental, too defined by his relationship with Ellie to be the hero.

Readers cognizant of the influence of sexism on American culture will likely recognize that these descriptors – weak, sentimental, defined by relationships — are traditionally applied to women. In fact, typical of heteronormativity, which is premised on and protects the idea that gender is binary, they are the polar opposite of the strength, rationality and independence traditionally attributed to men.

Is it possible that some of the rage behind Joel’s decision comes from his gender swap with Marlene? Clearly, some of the fervor comes from other perspectives. But, to describe Joel as a “broken man” and claim his actions are “the worst possible choice” requires two interrelated presumptions. First, it presupposes an ideal of a whole, perfect man. Second, it takes for granted that there is a best possible choice and that it is to let the child be killed. In sum: a real man would have accepted the noble sacrifice.

To accept this or, more radically, to adopt the perspective that Joel is a villain, (discussed here, here and here, among other places,) is melancholic. For players holding onto the notion of heroic masculinity, what Joel does is unacceptable and his offense against heroic masculinity must be witnessed and tried in the court of public opinion. True, gender is not explicitly evoked in Joel’s condemnation, but its more than naïve to think that Joel’s excoriation just coincidentally occurs along the lines of his violation of gender norms.

To describe Joel as an antihero, flawed but redeemable, is to mourn. Yes, at the end Joel takes on stereotypically feminine traits and role. So be it. Heroic masculinity is a construct and Joel’s violation of the precepts of heroic masculinity do not make him a villain or a “broken man.” They make Joel human — more human than the broken conception of manhood American culture celebrates.

Heterosexism: Ellie’s Kiss

In the left Behind DLC, Ellie’s sexuality is at stake. Players, journalists and bloggers have asked: Is she a lesbian? Or bisexual? Just curious? An awkward teenager caught up in the moment? Given statements by Neil Druckmann affirming that Ellie’s relationship with Riley is romantic her sexuality should not be a question. But it is. And the discussion runs the gamut from a benign sense of openness to denial to accusations of pandering to be politically-correct to explicit homophobia and bigotry (the latter two only in the comments of articles and blog posts).

In all fairness, a good deal of this discourse occurred before Druckmann’s statements were widely circulated. Not all of it, though. It’s not hard to find comments claiming that Druckmann’s interpretation of Ellie is not cannon; that his is just one interpretation.

At the center of this controversy is heterosexism, the presumption that only heterosexuality deserves to be represented, much less celebrated, in media and popular culture. As a corollary, Ellie’s kiss also violates what Adrienne Rich calls compulsory heterosexuality, the system of cultural mores and institutional mandates that buttress male power by making life easier for women in relationships with men. Put bluntly, Ellie’s homosexuality is doubly consequential — it signifies the loss of both heterosexual and male privilege.

The narrative structure of the Left Behind DLC supports this. Ellie and Riley’ kiss is sandwiched between scenes that take place while Joel is incapacitated. That is, Ellie’s queer sexuality is something that emerges when patriarchal power is quite literally dying in a dirty basement.

The bigots, clearly, are trapped by their melancholic attitude, clinging to heterosexism and going down with the ship. Though it’s more subtle, denying Ellie’s sexuality and/or decrying it as politically-correct pandering are also melancholic responses. There is something potentially troublesome about the inability to accept two girls kissing as indicative of their sexuality, and something equally discomforting about the inability to recognize that GLBTQ people really and actually do exist in all walks of life (even if you do not see them kissing their partners in the office or at a restaurant, public places where overt displays of queer sexuality are discouraged by heterosexism). But it does make sense.  The ideology of heterosexism confers status and privilege, and  it can be difficult to recognize, much less to accept responsibility for the benefits one derives from such a system.

Of course, we can also mourn the death of heterosexism. Some of us already have. A number of players, journalists and bloggers cheered the revelation that Ellie is gay because it reflects the diversity of the world in which we live. And some of us are still in the act of mourning. We can observe it in those responses that have not necessarily whole-heartedly embraced the demise of heterosexism but are clearly open to the possibility.

Leave it Behind

Joel’s refusal to accept the heroic, manly conclusion that so many players desired from The Last of Us and Ellie’s revelation that she is gay in the Left Behind DLC are more than simply signs of the times. After all, social change is never natural or inevitable; it is always a struggle.

These controversial moments in The Last of Us and the Left Behind DLC are concrete instances of a more pervasive struggle over the values and beliefs that govern what are, in a given society, the taken-for-granted, commonsense notions of right and wrong, reasonable and unreasonable, and intelligible and unintelligible.

The various responses aired through discussion boards, blogs and journalistic accounts are not only evidence that this is a struggle, they participate in the struggle too. (Of course, the game and DLC had larger audiences and more time with those audiences, than any article, review or forum.) That players and opinion leaders felt the need to focus on these moments in The Last of Us and the Left Behind DLC, to alternatively shower praise and blame upon them, is symptomatic of the turmoil in American culture experienced as a result of the loss of heteronormative privilege accompanying changing gender roles and attitudes toward sexuality.

There is much to be enjoyed about The Last of Us but if we are to also accept the therapeutic lesson it offers then we should consider not only who but also what is Left Behind.  The world in which the pinnacle of manliness is strength of will, utilitarian reasoning and self-sacrifice. The world in which someone’s sexuality could be presumed from their gender. In this regard, The Last of Us is a model for mourning sex.


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Discussant’s Reply

Emily Flynn-Jones is a Banting Postdoctoral Research Fellow at York University, Toronto. Her research interests include games and gender, niche subcultural gaming communities and deviant approaches to play. She is currently on a short Fellowship at The Museum of Play conducting a visual ethnography of representations of the female player.

Gerald, this is certainly an article for the moment.Thank you for this insightful read. It makes for a great companion to Lindsey Joyce’s piece on gender and The Last of Us a few months ago. When we talk about gender and gaming we tend to be talking about women. We absolutely must have those discussions but there is a decided lack of work on gaming masculinities and how this gender work, performance and identity figures crucially in the shaping of games content and culture. A fuller, richer feminism in the field needs to consider a variety of identities (hegemonic and marginalized) and understand how these intersect and this essay contributes to that.

You offer a sharp cultural diagnostic, one that I think we have been missing both in terms of understanding the reception and backlash to diversifying game content and the violent and vitriolic behaviour associated with a particular hashtag. Melancholia certainly seems to capture the way loss is performed and experienced as precious toys are being taken away and the toxic title of “gamer” dies a slow death. To all those involved, good mourning to you!

This piece leaves me with a sense that change (albeit slight and slow) is being affected, but also with the burning question: how does this feminist psychoanalytical assessment of the state of masculinity in the games community help us figure new and meaningful ways to intervene? What new possibilities or challenges does this melancholy pose for feminist and advocacy projects?

[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.]