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What Does It Mean to Be Strong?
When you ask any gamer for an example of a strong female character, you probably hear the names Elena Fisher, Jade, Alyx Vance, or Chell come up. Many people (including myself) would describe them as "strong women."
Well, it's a fairly common topic of discussion in the game industry, but what exactly does that mean?
Personally, whenever I use that term, whether it is describing someone male or female, I think of that character as an individual. They are someone who has a distinct identity of their own, who may or may not actually be physically strong. For being fictional, they seem so real because they're compelling and multi-faceted. For a female character, I'd add that it's somebody who wasn't designed solely to better a male character, or to serve as a romantic interest of another (male) character.
I've always liked John Maxwell's quote that says, "Courage isn't an absence of fear. It's doing what you are afraid to do. It's having the power to let go of the familiar and forge ahead into new territory." So basically, truly strong people aren't perfect. They do what they need to or aspire to, despite their weaknesses or any obstacles in front of them.
Feminist/media critic Anita Sarkeesian's video series "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games" critiques various depictions of female characters. Part of this includes the "damsel in distress" trope, which some people defend in saying, well hey, what's wrong with a female character being saved? Is it really bad to have a "damsel in distress" character in a game?
No, not necessarily. It's only natural that every person, male or female, at some point in their lifetime relies on another person for help. However, if she (not he most of the time) is only known as a "damsel" though, then that's not so good. It's kind of like she's a prop. And if you look at the big picture of video games (and other media) and notice this pattern? That's bad.
The only truly bad female character is one who’s flat. One who isn’t realistic. One who has no agency of her own, who only exists to define other characters (usually men). Compelling female characters don't have to be necessarily strong, or good, or geniuses, or lone wolves. It sounds silly, but they just have to be themselves.
The Last of Us: Unfair Sexist Criticisms?
The Last of Us has been called 'The Citizen Kane of Games,' and has been discussed a lot by both the media and gamers alike. It also has been criticized for "favoring the man."
Personally, I only have two negative criticisms concerning female representation in The Last of Us. While playing through the game, I found military dog tags of female Firefly members, but I never encountered any of them besides Marlene. Similarly, I never got to fight against any female hunters. As I've shown before, women have shown they are capable of violence. Naughty Dog themselves have actually evidenced this before in The Last of Us and in their previous series, Uncharted.
As Uncharted fans know, Nate Drake's greatest nemesis was Katherine Marlowe in the third installment. She is one of the most cerebral enemies in any game-ruthless, intelligent, and willing to do whatever it took to achieve her goal, whether it was killing a young boy or blackmailing one of Nate's loved ones. Players never had to battle her, but in The Last of Us (I won't spoil it), there is a major confrontation with a female character. It's brutal, and affecting. So while Naughty Dog has proven that they are comfortable with female character violence, Joel and Ellie never get to fight any lackeys. I'm not quite sure why they made this decision, because Joel and Ellie battle Infected females, and female hunters are playable in the multiplayer portion of the game. I hope it wasn't because it would make players "uncomfortable", but on the other hand, I can't say that it greatly impacted my experience. It was more of a side-note than anything.
Speaking of our co-leads, yes, that's right I said co-leads, if Naughty Dog would have created Jolene and Ellie/Elliot instead of Joel and Ellie, it would have been very different and refreshing. I can't think of any game in which a woman helps protect and teach a young girl/boy about surviving. Having played the game as Ellie and Joel though, I believe Naughty Dog made the right decision because I can't imagine experiencing The Last of Us without either one of them. I've mentioned it before, but I don't believe in sacrificing artistic integrity to fulfill some quota. This game is proof of how diversity naturally enhances the experience, because it isn't fake or scripted.
Even before diving into the game, Naughty Dog did a phenomenal job in equally highlighting Joel and Ellie in marketing The Last of Us. This was the first trailer I saw, and it's what fueled my initial interest in the game. It's pretty rare to have a game with a male and female lead who are relying on each other equally. Joel even looks to Ellie for encouragement on proceeding with the attack, and puts his life in her hands when he throws himself at the Infected clicker.
I can't fail to mention this article either. Neil Druckmann, the game's creative director/writer, fought to include Ellie on the box art cover despite pressure to move her to the background. When I opened the game, I was pleasantly surprised to see both Joel and Ellie's faces on the inside of the case. This is rare, and a great step for female character marketing.
And finally, this was the most recent trailer:
"Could you put your life on the line for me... the way I would for you?"
Again, Ellie is narrating, and in that statement she's describing their dynamic in-game. This exactly describes Joel and Ellie's relationship. They take care of each other. They take care of each other. As co-protagonists, both Joel and Ellie are equal in terms of the story. Even if you are playing as Joel most of the time, Ellie is so integral to the story that she is a constant presence in gamers minds whether she is in the scene or not.
Some publications argue that the game does have sexist undertones, including the "woman in the refrigerator" trope.
Now, if you look at two particular character's deaths without playing the whole game, then I can understand how you would feel that way. However, everybody is human and this is the apocalypse. They didn't die because of their gender. One person's tragic death significantly affects Joel and the whole story, while the other person chooses to go out alone, guns blazing, the way she wants to (which is a rarity in any media). You have to play The Last of Us from start to finish to understand that while it plays upon this trope, it isn't defined by it. In other words, it's original and not stereotypical at all.
In The Last of Us, the game's post-apocalyptic setting strips away any former societal privileges, statuses, and roles. It's a dog-eat-dog world, and every character is responsible for their own well-being and survival. It's stressed that you shouldn't care for another person. To survive you must do whatever it takes, whether it's killing someone else or leaving someone stranded. The government is policing citizens in quarantine zones while abandoning anyone too far away from its perimeters. Hunters are scavenging, hunting and killing anyone they come across (sometimes eating them too). And the Fireflies are in a power struggle with the government, willing to do whatever it takes to save humanity. There are no perfect characters, and it is something the game, and gamers, benefit from immensely. All of the characters feel so genuine.
Bill is an associate of Joel who is so paranoid of relying on someone else that he prefers to live alone. His base is surrounded by booby traps, and he talks to himself to cope with the world. A stranger you encounter, Henry, is traveling around, looking out for his brother, Sam. He's one of the most decent persons you encounter, but even he will do whatever it takes to keep Sam safe. And finally, there's Joel, who at the start of the apocalypse is barely living. He's a closed off man who's broken after losing someone he loved needlessly. Joel's done some really bad stuff to survive such as killing, and smuggling drugs and weapons (it's implied he was even a hunter at one point), which is something that still haunts his brother, and former partner, Tommy to this day. Tommy on the other hand, has moved on from Joel to start anew with someone he loves. He's helped start a quiet little community with his wife, Maria, who is the head leader of their group.
As you can see, the various male characters all have different ways of coping with the end of the world. Joel may seem like a stereotypical "gruff, tough" man, but the story doesn't rely on what would be a trope. Nobody is on a killing spree or a lone wolf for no reason. Joel especially is still reeling from his loss, but he doesn't turn into some vigilante or Rambo. He is an example of how some people naturally deal with grief in that he internalizes all of his feelings. The game flourishes because these different perspectives breathe so much life into the story. This wouldn't be possible without the female characters as well.
Tess is Joel's business partner/ambiguous romantic partner (it's open to interpretation), but she is the unquestionable, no-nonsense leader of the duo. The first time players meet her, she is waking up Joel after being jumped. Tess completed their trading mission alone. She doesn't need to be consoled, rather, she just says that she did the job, and now wants to get even. When the duo are on their way to achieve this, walking through the quarantine zone, people address her. Joel also defers to Tess when confronting other people and situations. He does voice his concerns, but is more than happy to have Tess take the reins. She even has to remind him to keep "in line" a few times. Tommy is similar in that he finds strength in his wife, Maria. He used to survive by working alongside Joel, but he couldn't take it anymore. Tommy still has nightmares to this day, but he's found something to live for with the (relatively) peaceful community he helps Maria run.
Marlene is another leader, of a group called the Fireflies. When Joel and Tess first meet her, she's gravely injured and makes a deal to meet the duo across the country. Well, she makes it unscathed, though she loses a lot of her comrades along the way. She's a resilient leader, and unlike Joel, is willing to do whatever it takes to try to save humanity even if it means sacrificing something precious to do so.
Noticing a pattern here?
Ellie is no different from these women, and in creating her as a co-lead for Joel, it makes for one of the most memorable stories I've experienced in any media. It's not hard to see why Ellie is beloved by many fans (myself included). She is not some warrior or wunderkind. Ellie's just a young girl trying to do something with her life during the apocalypse. She collects comic books, is inquisitive about how life used to be, and hilariously pains Joel with her puns. Ellie claims from the beginning that she doesn't need any babysitter, and despite an initial lack of weapons or physical strength, she uses her wit, size and determination to help Joel get through enemies and obstacles.
As the game progresses, and their relationship deepens, you can see how much Joel looks to her for strength. He even says to Marlene that they wouldn't have made it so far if it wasn't for Ellie.
She is indeed a strong character, and the game would be nothing without her thoughts and personality. Ellie is brave for her age, but she's not afraid to let out her emotions. She curses more than anyone in-game, but is also compassionate enough to try and console others. And unlike most people in The Last of Us, despite their differences, Ellie is the only person in the game to actively reach out to form a relationship with another person, Joel. The bond they forge is really beautiful, and it's a good example for other developers to learn from.
I won't spoil anything, but at one point, Ellie comes into a particularly grim situation in which she faces a truly deranged man, but she is never a "damsel in distress." It wouldn't have made me angry or anything, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that she saves herself, and afterwards Joel comforts her. This is exactly what she did when Joel was in his own life-threatening situation. It's a really beautiful thing, and a brilliant gameplay option, because you get to step into both of their shoes and become both of them. Those moments were so refreshing that I wish they could have happened more.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In my opinion, I do think The Last of Us has been unfairly criticized. If anything, it does what a lot of other media neglect to do, which is develop a wide spectrum of characters. I could go on about the brilliant characterization Naughty Dog achieved, but even if you haven't played it yet, you can see how The Last of Us didn't strive to create heroes on pedestals or "male power fantasies." They simply told a story, full of men and women who both have vulnerabilities and make mistakes. This is exactly what I would like to see in the next generation of storytelling, especially for female characters.
"Screw writing “strong” women. Write interesting women. Write well-rounded women. Write complicated women. Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man. Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no sh-t, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks. THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN. Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people. So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong. Write characters who are people."
(Source unknown, unfortunately.)
If you should garner anything from this post, it's that you shouldn't have a well-written man or woman, just have a well-written character. That's exactly what Naughty Dog did. They didn't write good black, gay, straight, young, old, male or female characters.
They simply developed well-written people.