Does The Last of Us Prove Anita Sarkeesian Right About Video Game Violence and Women?

Categories: Gaming

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Spoilers Ahead

Before we get started, I want to set the tone of the article in the first paragraph to try real hard to head off the haters who are eyeing the comment section like a girl passed out at a party. This is in no way a knock against Naughty Dog. I think they are definitely one of the good guys when it comes to trying to forward the presence of women characters and gamers in the world. Naughty Dog's Neil Druckmann famously told The Escapist that they had to specifically request female gamers after their focus testing group didn't bother to include any even though the second lead character is a girl and she's on the freakin' cover of the box.

Druckmann's a good guy, and so is Naughty Dog. That said I watched the latest edition of Anita Sarkeesian's "Damsel in Distress Tropes vs Women" videos literally the day before I started playing The Last of Us, and she has me thinking that there really is a problem with female portrayals in gaming that needs to be addressed. It's a problem that I honestly don't think many game makers, male or female, are aware of because it's so institutionalized.

Flashback
From Celes to Lara Croft: The Evolution of Sexual Assault in Gaming

If you don't have time to watch a 20-minute video on feminine portrayals in video games, let me touch the highlights. Sarkeesian brings up Gail Simone's old Women in Refrigerators list, which was inspired by an issue of Green Lantern where Kyle Rayner found his girlfriend dead and stuffed in his fridge by an enemy. Simone went on to note an embarrassingly long list of incidents where female characters, superpowered or no, were continuously attacked, killed, mutilated, raped, or worse (Don't ask). In every single case the common denominator was that the woman's fate swerved only to evolve the main male character's story. They were emotionally ornamental, depowered, and most of all possessed.

Sarkeesian presents a similar game list, with much commentary on how the tropes have evolved or not, and it's sheer length is as damning as the comic one. Bionic Commando, Castlevania: Lord of Shadows, God of War, Max Payne... it's more than twenty mainstream titles. Each one is concerned with only one thing, and that's using the death or pain of a female as a pawn for the male protagonist's inner journey.

Now, lots of people will argue that taken individually, instances in most of these games make perfect sense from a storytelling perspective. I wholly agree, and think Sarkeesian does a disservice by waving it away so quickly in pursuit of her greater point. As an example, God of War. Yes, I'm using God of Freakin' War as an argument against a feminist point. Don't ever let it be said I'm scared to play the hard setting.



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35 comments
bocajbee
bocajbee

I disagree. 

*SPOILERS*

If Sarah was Joel's son instead of his daughter, I think it would had little impact in that scene overall. 

Likewise, Ellie could have been a young male character & been just as likable, like Sam for instance. Speaking of Sam & Henry, they die in a much more upfront way for the purpose of shocking & getting an emotional response the audience/player than Tess did. The Male characters in this game are just as, if not more disposable than the Female characters as seen through Sam & Henry.

scarface67898
scarface67898

when you can mutilate, kill and abuse women in games just like most of the man in violent video games get treated without it causing a huge deal then women in games will be treat the same .


Im sick of all these "we need more women in games" But we need to be treated better than the man Arguments.. if you want to be treated like men then be treated like men no special treatment 

MrBigBelly
MrBigBelly

I don't think the "women as a prize" thing really applies here. I thought a factor of that theme was that the male protagonist "wins" the female character in a romantic or sexual way, as seen in every James Bond movie. Joel's relationship with Ellie is completely non sexual (as is his one with Tess as well, given the information that the game gives us). I honestly think this game is quite the opposite of the negative portrayal of women in games that Anita talks about. You have a strong, independent female playable main character in the form of Ellie. (SPOILERS AHEAD) In fact, during the Lake Resort level I thought the game was going to completely fall into the "Damsel in Distress" thing. But interestingly, the game flips that entire idea on its head with Ellie freeing herself and fighting her own way out, not needing the assistance of Joel at all. When you play as Ellie in this game, she is a super tough chick who can handle herself and is not sexualized in any way (same goes for Tess). I think that is an awesome thing and the exact opposite of what Anita is complaining about.

I think you jumped a little too far to your conclusion of "The Last of Us reinforces Anita's Complaints because a female character dies" while I believe the statement of "The Last of Us breaks free of the usual shitty portrayal of women in games with a strong, independent female character" is a bit more genuine.

DooneW
DooneW

Thank you for this article. It's very good even if I disagree with your God of War argument :) Still, this comes from a really good place and that's pretty apparent to me. You also have given strong testimony on the content of Anita's work, which most critics fail to even acknowledge. Keep up the good work.

liquidsix
liquidsix

The creator of the video also has disabled comments. For whatever reason, it's just as dishonest as some religious nut who disables his comments or a crooked senator caught in a lie, wishing it to be expunged.

liquidsix
liquidsix

"I am implying that the sort of people who will read the headline and want to hammer out an angry response based on it alone are the same sort of people that have no respect for a woman's right to her own body." - Not true. I myself support a woman's right to choose but could care less how they're portrayed in a video game. To add further confusion to the types of people you may believe populate the world, much to your chagrin JefWithOneF, I also voted for Obama 'and' support the 2nd amendment. What's next? People upset because not enough children with autism are portrayed in video games? What about black people always being portrayed as thug/gangsters? In the end, it's story telling and if you don't like it, write your own story and stop reading/playing the video games you dislike so much. Funny thing, people making generalizations about people in video games but make similar generalizations regarding the point of view of others are doing the same thing you believe the developers have done.

blueman
blueman

"Before we get started, I want to set the tone of the article in the first paragraph to try real hard to head off the haters who are eyeing the comment section like a girl passed out at a party."

You already set the tone in your first sentence. What a horrible example when you're trying to support feminism...

JefWithOneF
JefWithOneF topcommenter

@Matthew Ashton Thanks!

JefWithOneF
JefWithOneF topcommenter

@matthew.schwabby There is the lack of a sexual aspect that tends to be prevalent (Though I would argue not necessary), but having beaten the game last night I still think the comparison holds water. Without spoiling too much, Joel ends up completely dominating Ellie decision making process to further his own healing over Sarah. It's implied that he actually goes against her direct wishes simply because they aren't what he wants, and the whole things finishes with him lying to her about it.

I hadn't gotten to the lake resort when I wrote this last Wednesday, and Ellie proves herself heaps better than most female protagonists. I'm still struck by how much of the early game hits those notes, though. 

Regardless, thanks for the very thoughtful and polite response. 

ladyyui8
ladyyui8

@liquidsix"What's next? People upset because not enough children with autism are portrayed in video games?"

Get back with us when people with autism constitute HALF of the population.

"What about black people always being portrayed as thug/gangsters?"

Which is another problem that needs to be addressed, not something which lessens or negates the validity of THIS problem.

drusilla.grey
drusilla.grey

@liquidsix You support choice, bully for you! But that has not one thing to do with this article. That doesn't make you a feminist or even an ally of women - especially if you could care less how they are portrayed. You are part of the problem.

No one cares for whom you voted, or that you like guns. 

Privilege... yeah, that term gets thrown around a lot. But it applies here because you can't seem to see past yours. You have absolutely no idea what it is like to be one of the marginalized groups. How would you like being always used as a prop or only appreciated in terms of the purposes you could serve to sexually gratify someone else? People only concerned about your looks and not you as a person or how smart or able you are? Yeah, that's what women deal with daily. And that's how 99% of games use women.

Or try intensely gaming online for a week as a woman and see how you get treated.

Or try raising a daughter who wants to game more, but wants a game where the girl is  the protagonist... find one that is appropriate - where the girl isn't abused, or isn't skimpily clad, or doesn't need rescued...

And yes, there is a big problem with how black people are portrayed in games. 

Please realize the article isn't about you. Nor is it condemning people who like the game. It is a critique of those who make the games, and of society in general. And pointing out what we need to focus on to fix it.

JefWithOneF
JefWithOneF topcommenter

@liquidsix I'm not sure why who you voted for matters, but I'm pretty sure you missed the point. 

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

"Horrible," seems rather strong here. To me, "a horrible example," is Gloria Steniem lobbying against Brad Pitt taking the role of Patrick Bateman--citing misogyny--but quiet as a church mouse when her son-in-law Chritian Bale took the role.  Susan Sontag's general personal conduct is a horrible example. The complete and total disregard for women our so-called advanced civilization exhibits--while never missing a chance to denegrate other cultures--is horrible.  

Mr. F's opening line is an argument to irony.

JefWithOneF
JefWithOneF topcommenter

@blueman I am implying that the sort of people who will read the headline and want to hammer out an angry response based on it alone are the same sort of people that have no respect for a woman's right to her own body. 

devium44
devium44

Yes, but his decision to do so is not necessarily portrayed as correct, let alone glorified. If anything, it serves to show that he is not an infallible protagonist but a real person susceptible to the same selfish desires that everyone is. The whole sequence turns the trope on its head.

MrBigBelly
MrBigBelly

@JefWithOneF Thank to you too for the article. Its got me thinking more about the game.
Let me frame it this way: yes, they could have swapped out Joel's daughter and Ellie for male characters and the emotional impact of the game would still be the same to the player. But, then the game is just a dude fest like every other piece of media out there and we would have missed out on having such an awesome, strong female character that is so unusual in games, especially ones like this. Those great sequences with Ellie would have been just another part of any other video game, but they are pretty noteworthy and unusual in Last of Us since you play them as a female character.
I guess the main point I'm trying to make is that, yes, it is pretty interesting that some of the earlier beats in the game do line up with what Anita is talking about, but I wouldn't be too quick to lump this game in with some of the examples she highlights as problematic. A lot of the games out there are just heinous about this stuff and like I said about Ellie in my previous post, I think you can really make a point that this game is more empowering of women than damaging.
Another point to consider: like you said in your post, Anita does make it clear that its not the fact that women die in games that is troubling, it is how they frame the deaths and the characters that are dying that is the issue. I guess I didn't feel that the death of Sarah and Tess were particularly gruesome, and they certainly weren't pointless and graphic for the sake of being graphic like a lot of the games she points to in her video. I feel like they really give those characters meaning and their deaths added a lot of death to the story.

Your points about the ending are true, though. That was dickish and arguably chauvinistic of Joel, but given the rest of the game I think it is safe to say that they aren't trying to make the point that men know better than women. I think they were just trying to show that Joel is totally fucked after all that shit they went through. I do feel like that a lot could be interpreted by that ending.
I'm not trying to be argumentative, its just that this game is noteworthy with how much discussion you could have over it. I am definitely considering that it could be the high watermark for me video games-wise. Again, great article.

liquidsix
liquidsix

@JefWithOneF @liquidsix No I haven't and it doesn't matter. When you do that then it means your argument is weak and comes apart at the seams. 

liquidsix
liquidsix

@JefWithOneF @liquidsix Didn't miss the point. Many different types of people out there. Your point was making the assumption that people who violently(or angrily) disagree with what this women has to say must be a chauvinist or something like that. So to sum up, one who votes left doesn't mean they will never support something the right considers sacred and vice versa. I believe in a woman's right to choose and at the same time think this lady just might be full of shit and wanting to start an argument for attention.

devium44
devium44

I wouldn't call it "dickish" or "chauvinistic" what he did. Selfish maybe. But any father can probably see why he did it. And this is why Sarah's death is so important. Instead of being emotionally pointless, we see the emotional toll it takes on him and we able to understand his relationship with Ellie and the lens through which he views her, fairly or unfairly. Sure, Sarah could have easily been "Pete" or Ellie "Kevin" but then the game would have missed the opportunity to build smart, incredible, complex female characters, not to mention invited the "lack of diversity" argument.

JefWithOneF
JefWithOneF topcommenter

@glozii Based on Ellie's final speech and her saying that the whole thing can't be in vain in Colorado, I stand by her probably have going through with it. You're right, though, they didn't ask her.

These are all great points, and I agree with every one of them. I think Naughty Dog did a great job with all aspects of the game. I'm just wondering if even with so many advances, so much progress, they didn't still fall into the tropes Anita mentioned automatically. 

That was my point, I guess. Regardless, you guys are great. Friend on Facebook! I'd like to have you around!

glozii
glozii

@matthew.schwabby @JefWithOneF

 **SPOILERS AHOY**

The fact that Joel had lied To Ellie in the end was not because she is a girl, I think it had more to do with her age and maturity. Would you tell a child that you sacrificed the last remains of humanity for them? Especially from the way she acted and carried herself after killing David? And the way she reacted to Joel leaving her with Tommy?

The fireflies at the hospital didn't ask Ellie if she was willing to let herself be operated on, knowing that it would kill her. They didn't even let Joel continue to try to save her when she drowned. It didn't matter if she was dead or not, they still had use for her. Its not like the fireflies had even tried to find a less lethal way to a vaccine, they just desperately jumped head first for the brain surgery, all for the shaky hope that this time it would work, even though they had tried and failed to develop a cure or vaccine many times before.

Besides it might have all been for nothing, what if they did go through with the surgery, and successfully made a vaccine? Vaccine is not a cure, its more of a preventive, the people who were infected stay infected. But the people who received the vaccine wouldn't have to be afraid of being infected, leaving them time to think about and remember all that they had done to survive. From the ambushes to the raiding, gunning people down in the streets for supplies, and lets not forget eating people. You name they done it. Maybe Joel didn't believe that they deserved the vaccine, I wouldn't fault him for it.

I personally don't believe that people would handle all that on their conscience when the haze of all out survival clears from the eyes. If anything things would get worse.

As for Tess I really liked what they had done with her character. Usually in this type if scenario the character would have paired off in that 'last people on earth' or the 'the worlds gone to shit so we might as well' even the 'scratch that itch to relieve stress' kind of way (if anything Bill ad Frank were probably like that). To me Joel and Tess weren't together romantically or other wise, they were just two bad asses that trying to survive. Tess could have been written as a guy and it wouldn't have change the story/game. Loved how they written her death because I was expecting them to do the last kiss thing, but nope. They were close, you could see that, but they were more of a 'business partner who I know would watch my back type' of close.

Tess was not portrayed as a sneaky, manipulative, conniving, bitchy snake in the grass that we have all seen women written as . She wasn'tsexualized at all, I was actually pleasantly surprised that the gamemakers seemed to try to be as gender neural as possible. 



JefWithOneF
JefWithOneF topcommenter

@matthew.schwabby @JefWithOneF We can definitely agree that the game is better than all the others Anita mentioned! I loved it, and taken on its own I don't think I would have a complaint. It's just that when you view it in the context of all those other games that use those same story beats, it's indicative of something larger.

JefWithOneF
JefWithOneF topcommenter

@liquidsix @ladyyui8 You seem to be under the impression that the person who writes an article or makes a video owes you the ability to respond on their forum. They do not, and it has nothing to do with the strength of what they say.

liquidsix
liquidsix

@ladyyui8 @liquidsix I disagree. It believe it means their argument no longer holds any water. It's just another away for someone to act childish, similar to someone who says they will harm her, which is also childish, I agree, but this is the internet. If you post a picture of yourself linking your intellectual material to your one-of-a-kind face then you better expect some whack job to come out of the woodwork. Part of the territory, isn't it? Doesn't matter what it is. Just as I've said earlier, the way women are treated in video games makes NO DIFFERENCE to how they will be treated in the real world. If you believe that be the case then make sure you join MAVAV because obviously video games contribute to violence, right? Anyway, unsubscribing, feel free to try and tear apart my argument.

ladyyui8
ladyyui8

@liquidsix Yes, actually, it does matter. When you reach a point where you aren't getting "discussion" responses anymore, and are instead being besieged with nothing but crude name calling and threats of violence, then there's no point in allowing comments. The people she has to deal with aren't wanting to actually debate her, or challenge her argument....they want to attack and demean and dehumanize HER. THAT is the intellectual dishonesty which results in comments being disabled.

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

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