In a recent piece on Paste Games, “The Last of Us: How Sexism Survived the Apocalypse,” Ed Smith argues how one of the main characters, a middle-aged male named Joel, brings sexist tendencies and a “destructive masculine ego” into the post-apocalyptic game setting to restrict that of the other main character, the teen female Ellie. Is The Last of Us a game about sexism? Does the main character, Joel, rob young Ellie from making choices for herself? Looking closer at clues within the entire game, as well as the last scene that Smith describes as being the most obvious evidence for his argument, this isn’t at all true.
The change in perspective at the end of the game between Joel and Ellie that Smith details is less about Joel being a “controlling male figure” and more about her loss of innocence. As a girl who hadn’t left a military compound before the adventure, Ellie is finally realizing the extent to which adults lie for their own selfish reasons. Smith writes, “it’s as if we’re only being invited to play as Ellie so we can experience, first-hand, the totality of her defeat, the completion of her subordination to Joel.” Yet, as some commenters on the original essay mention, these feelings would still be true if she were a young boy. Wouldn’t Joel, as a guardian, ultimately make the same decision to protect him? Why would the argument be different for allowing a son to be sacrificed, but not a daughter? Ellie hasn’t been defeated by Joel; she’s arrived upon a more adult mindset and realized that events, and people, do not always shape up to her ideal. Humanity at its worst (as shown by the cannibalistic and pedophiliac character David) is the new normal.
Ellie’s statement to Joel, “I’m still waiting for my turn,” could also be interpreted as a need for redemption, as survivor’s guilt. She wants to assuage the remorse she faces for being unable to help her loved ones and also for being immune. We also aren’t completely sure that Ellie, who is wholly unconscious throughout the final Firefly encounter and Joel’s rescue, is aware she would have been sacrificed. She only awakens later in the car to ask what happened. We cannot make assumptions that she would feel the same way if Joel explained the entire Firefly operation to her.
We also cannot assume that the Firefly operation would have resulted in anything positive, and this is part of the reason why Joel made his decision to rescue Ellie from surgery. There are numerous hints throughout the entire game that the Fireflies were an obsolete and ineffective renegade operation. The hospital they function within is decrepit, and as it’s been 20 years since the Infection started, one is left to wonder where a vaccine might even be created and tested. Marlene, though friends with Ellie’s mother, was under a lot of pressure to deliver Ellie to the doctors to save herself. As she says into her recorder, “I just gave the go ahead to proceed with the surgery. I really doubt I had much of a choice, asking me was more of a formality.” In her journal, Marlene also mentions that she is terrified of staying with the Fireflies, that she is unwelcome. Ellie becomes Marlene’s tool for her bid in leadership; Marlene is projecting her own wants and desires onto Ellie for her own gain. The problem, as we understand it for Ellie, is that others, not just Joel, decide what’s best for her, either out of love or selfish motivation. Marlene is a key character to show this. Ellie is never able to make the choice, with the full information presented, for herself, but it has nothing to do with Joel being a destructive masculine character, and more to do with the hostile reception of the Fireflies.
In the final scene, as both Joel and Ellie are heading toward Tommy’s encampment, Smith explains a part where Joel “[has climbed] onto the ridge unassisted, [as] an extension of Joel’s desire to appear, and be regarded as, a man.” But Smith conveniently leaves out all of the other times in which Ellie and Joel have been a team, each helping each other through the tight areas of bombed out cities and towns.
Smith goes on to mention that Joel’s “running ahead and knocking the log down means that Ellie is unable to get onto the ridge by herself.” However, if you watch the scene, it is not evident that Joel is aware the log would fall. Joel is not intentionally causing the event. By contrast, his running ahead seems to show that Ellie can handle herself, that he doesn’t need to be right next to her to do everything for her.
Smith continues, stating that “in turn, he takes away Ellie’s ability to do something on her own terms, forcing her to wait for his hand and his permission before she can climb up.” However, when this scene is played in the game, you are not actually waiting on Joel. Ellie is in control and is able to move freely about the area as long as she pleases.
Throughout the game, Ellie has progressed from being a burden to Joel to being an equal counterpart that he has come to rely upon. We must remember that Ellie has no recollection of the world before the apocalypse, so even to navigate and understand cities and their infrastructure (though she was at a military school, we must assume she has not had a ton of schooling in a traditional sense) she is reliant on Joel for his knowledge. Ellie defends herself on numerous occasions, and shoots at Infected in the presence of Joel. Though we cannot control her in these final moments, there is nothing to suggest that Joel is denying her opportunities or stifling her actions as there is nothing threatening in the area to call for any activity other than walking or climbing. To say that Joel knocking over a log is a symbol for the destructive male ego is a bit off the mark. If him knocking over a log symbolizes anything, it is that he is off his guard, and after a year of trials, will finally find some solace.
When we talk about feminism, we talk about equity. Ellie is an extremely strong, bright and cunning girl for her age. We are already captivated at how she works with Joel as a team, offering what she has to give freely, and which Joel praises and receives gracefully as they progress through difficult areas of the game. If there is anything that should be criticized about The Last of Us, it’s that through the duration of their time together, Joel never teaches Ellie how to swim.
Haniya Rae is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She regularly contributes to Architectural Digest andGuernica Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @haniyarae.