Why The Last of Us Was a Turning Point for Feminism in Video Games
The Last of Us series is known for its powerful female characters and there’s no denying the impact Ellie and Abby have had on women’s representation in video games. Whether it’s subverting expectations or showing realistic portrayals of both men and women, The Last of Us has left an enormous mark on the gaming industry.
And with The Last of Us Part 1 coming to PS5, now is the perfect time to take a look at what made the original game so important.
The Last of Us follows Joel and 14-year-old Ellie as they navigate across a terrifying, post-apocalyptic America that’s been ravaged by the Cordyceps fungus. The pair battle bloodthirsty bandits and horrific mutations caused by the fungus to reach the Fireflies, a revolutionary militia group working to create a cure — and they need Ellie’s help, because she’s the only person in 20 years who’s immune to the fungus’ infection.
The game begins by embracing a lot of gaming stereotypes: a masculine, unemotional hero who’s haunted by his past is suddenly and unwillingly responsible for saving a damsel in distress. But very quickly, we see these stereotypes rejected and flipped, because our girl Ellie doesn’t need saving — she saves herself, and Joel too.
Despite her age, Ellie can hold her own. She’s strong, resourceful, feisty and isn’t afraid to challenge Joel’s authority. She calls Joel out on his shitty behaviour and disobeys his orders when she believes she knows better — and thank goodness she does, because it literally saves Joel’s life many times throughout the game.
The young girl who started the game on a pedestal as a precious, fragile thing becomes Joel’s protector. When he’s injured and needs time to recover, it’s Ellie who fights off their enemies and gets him to safety. She tends to his wounds, searches the dangerous landscape for supplies and even hunts for food in blizzard-like conditions.
And despite this, Ellie isn’t a one-dimensional character. Her strength never outweighs her vulnerability, and she’s visible afraid even though she never stops fighting for what she cares about.
Ellie obviously isn’t the first or only strong female character featured in a video game. But her character is still important — especially because she isn’t overly sexualized like many other women in games.
Because the gaming industry has been traditionally dominated by men, female characters are often scantily clad and hyper-sexualised, often serving as eye candy who rely on the men around them for salvation. Ellie is none of these things and it’s so refreshing.
In The Last of Us Part 2 and Left Behind, the Ellie-centric expansion that’s been remade in The Last of Us Part 1, Ellie also challenges the heteronormativity of video games. Like women, LGBTQIA+ people exist but are still underrepresented in games, and it’s powerful seeing this intersectionality represented in a major blockbuster like The Last of Us Part 1.
Perhaps even rarer is that Joel’s character also subverts gaming stereotypes. He goes from someone who purposefully distances himself from his emotions and can’t even say “thank you” when Ellie saves his life for the first time to someone who allows himself to feel and opens up about his trauma — namely, the tragic loss of his young daughter Sarah, twenty years earlier. This progression is so important for men because it shows that emotions aren’t weak, and that feeling them and processing them actually makes you stronger. It’s a great thing to convey, especially when male characters in games are typically portrayed as something for straight male gamers to look up to.
While there are a lot of positives, the game isn’t perfect. Other female characters like Sarah and Tess largely serve as tragic backstory to explain Joel’s motivations and advance the plot, and the main cast of characters is Extremely White. But The Last of Us was a great step in the right direction and helped start a movement of video games treating female characters and players as equal to the stereotypical heroes and gamer bros.
The fact the game has won so many awards and sold more than 20 million copies worldwide shows that players and the industry are hungry for better representation. Showing intersectional perspectives results in deeper, more satisfying storytelling and helps address the discrimination that many people from marginalised groups experience in the industry. The more games embrace this, the better and more inclusive the industry will become and the better women, people of colour, LGBTQIA+ people and people with disability will be represented.
The Last of Us doesn’t highlight all of these perspectives, but it’s shown other game developers that players want to see diversity — and that’s helped paved the way for so many other wonderful games. It’s fantastic to see, because at the end of the day we all belong in this industry.