How Naughty Dog’s depiction of feminine rage challenges convention
*** Massive Spoiler Warning for the whole of The Last of Us Part II***
The Last of Us Part II is not a revenge tale. There, I said it. I’m not going back on this one.
After dodging spoilers for almost a year, I finally finished The Last of Us Part II earlier this month. Though the game left me quite literally sobbing into my beef stroganoff at 3am, I cannot bring myself to classify it as anything but a 40-hour long trip into numbness.
I’ll say it again: The Last of Us Part II is not a revenge tale. In my mind, it’s everything but. It’s a story about grief, in all its unbridled, uncontrollable destruction; it’s a story about the kind of loss that has no catharsis; and most of all, it’s a story about rage, uniquely feminine in its internal guilt and suffering that slowly bubbles over and consumes.
Perhaps it’s this, this characteristically feminine aspect, that has inspired the visceral reaction to the game’s story that has put voice actors and creative leads into the crossfire of a social media warzone. Feminine rage is a relatively new concept within the realm of video games — hell, it’s barely had much time on screen or in print in the last century — but as women’s anger becomes the subject of more creative endeavours (Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, and David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl all come to mind), I think it’s time we set aside the kids’ gloves and assess this game on a more conceptual level.
I’ve always had a sort of familial connection to the relationship between Ellie and Joel. For the most part, their dynamic mirrors the relationship between myself and my own dad. Joel and my dad share a lot of things in common – a dry sense of humour, a greying beard, a gruff exterior that conceals a warmer interior and most of all, a tenacious will to protect the people they love.
When I played The Last of Us Remastered for the first time in my parents’ living room, my dad sat through the game’s ending with me as I guided Joel through the winding halls of St Mary’s Hospital. He watched as I mowed down Fireflies, executed surgeons and, finally, pulled an unconscious Ellie off the operating table. As I pushed Joel toward the exit, my dad piped up: “That’s the right choice,” he said. “I’d do the exact same thing, without a second thought.”
In my own head, Joel and my dad were analogous with one another. This is possibly why when I watched Abby drive a golf club through Joel’s skull, I felt as if I too had just watched a father die. I sobbed with Ellie and then I was bitter with her. So bitter that I’d become filled up with the same rage that pushed her toward Seattle. That rage carried the both of us through the first half of the game, even as I became exhausted with watching blood pool at my feet and brain matter splatter across concrete. Where the violence in The Last of Us felt so justified that it was almost framed as heroic, violence in The Last of Us Part II is caustic. It eats away at you until, like Ellie after she murders Mel and Owen, your convictions crumble and you finally collapse in on yourself.
Rage, in most mediums but especially in video games, is almost entirely a masculine-coded emotion. When we think of rage, we conjure images of Kratos beating his father, Zeus, until the screen becomes so bloody that we can’t see. We think of Max Payne, flying through the air and mowing down dozens of people in a single instant to avenge his dead wife and child. Anger and masculinity are becoming of one another; a brooding, take-no-shit man is seen as acceptable, even badass, by most forms of media.
By contrast, femininity is incompatible with rage – the meekness, patience and diligent repression of powerful emotions is unbecoming of the “traditional” feminine experience. In her 1931 speech, Virginia Woolf described an internal voice of femininity that often crept up on her. Described as “The Angel of The House”, her inner self “…was intensely sympathetic…immensely charming…utterly unselfish.” One could see how these characteristics of “ideal” femininity clash with the short-tempered, explosive nature of rage. As such, the characterisation of feminine rage in media, and in life, is decidedly different to that of masculine rage.
In her essay on Virginia Woolf’s narrative exploration of anger, Kathleen M. Helal exposes how Woolf delineated a line between “…the legitimacy of masculine anger…”, which is seen as a “natural emotion…passed from father to son, and seeks to justify itself by exempting men from responsibility…”, and “feminine fury”, which is so “invading” and “illegitimate” that it often causes “anxiety” within the women who express it. Such anxiety is clearly present within both Ellie and Abby. Even after killing Joel, Abby has no respite from the grief she feels over her own father’s death and constantly takes on high-risk assignments within the WLF in order to distract herself from that pain. Similarly, Ellie is continually shaken by the violence her anger causes her to inflict on others. Even violence against those she’s deemed evil — like Nora, Owen and Mel — leaves her shivering and traumatised.
If this were a traditional, male-orientated revenge fantasy, would we have any room for this type of conjecture? In God of War (2018), Kratos tells his son, Atreus, that anger can be harnessed as a weapon. In The Last of Us, many of the players viewed Joel’s decision to save Ellie as righteous and justified, if not a little bit extreme in execution. As Helal pointed out, Joel’s rage is seen as a “natural emotion” and, thus, he is “exempt…from responsibility” for the things he’s done. By contrast, the rage of Ellie and Abby feels fruitless and, to some, unjustified.
Some players have voiced criticism that Ellie’s quest for rage-fuelled catharsis lacks the justification that Naughty Dog willingly handed to Joel. If she knew what he did, they ask, why does she feel so motivated to avenge him? Why does she care? Even worse than that, many players have had the narrow-minded gall to ask why Ellie spares Abby at the game’s conclusion, as if the entire game hadn’t been culminating to that pointless, grief-stricken dog-fight in shallow seawater.
Though I don’t have the time nor the energy to launch into a full debate on the misogynistic and transphobic bile that sullied The Last of Us Part II’s release, I will say that many of the opinions expressed about this game’s story are based on outdated expectations on how grief, trauma and loss should be expressed in feminine characters. Hell, even people’s expectations of feminine bodies seemed to be so “scandalously” challenged with regards to Abby’s character design. I’ve seen her referred to as “trans-coded”, which is just plain inaccurate and further breeds a misguided implication that women who look like her can only be trans. I’m exhausted by the fact that I have to state this but women do not have to conform to the majority’s expectation of how they should look. Furthermore, it’s an implication that’s highly dangerous to non-binary and trans individuals, who already face vilification and violence if they don’t “pass” for their preferred gender. More importantly, though, like plenty of bad takes on this game, this rhetoric entirely misses the point.
This game is about grieving women who, in that grief, lash out in blind fury. Woolf theorises that the closer women come to expressing their anger, “…the closer they come to the aftermath of that expression.” This aftermath, in Woolf’s theory, comes either in a “destructive form of self-confinement” or a “productive form” of understanding that anger. Ellie and Abby embody that “destructive…self-confinement” that Woolf seems to dissuade. They internalise their anger, bottling it up until it’s ready to be unleashed in a tirade of vengeful violence. Then, when the dust settles, they look back at what they’ve done and fall apart.
I’ve heard commentators refer to this game as an exercise in empathy and, given that an aspect of femininity is a hypervigilance to the suffering of others, I find it hard to disagree with that interpretation. As I’ve already explored, feminine rage is characterised by a conscious anxiety of its expression. Following that theme, the game does everything it can to make you anxious over your actions in order to emulate the emotional experience of its protagonists. Each individual enemy has a name that their allies will call out if you kill them in front of them. People will beg for their lives if you injure them and then hold them at gunpoint. The game’s combat with humans is relentless and emotionally tiring, so much so that you can practically feel Ellie’s and Abby’s exhaustion at having to partake in it.
This leads me to the criticism of the “revenge bad” thematic discourse of The Last of Us Part II. Some players have found this interpretation lacking, due to the lack of agency you have when committing revenge itself. While I understand that frustration, I think this view is fundamentally flawed in its assumptions. Naughty Dog is known for crafting linear games. It creates characters who we are encouraged to relate to and understand rather than embody ourselves. This is unlike other studios like Bethesda and CD Projekt Red, which seem to relish in giving players the freedom to make their choices according to their own moral compass. Approaching The Last of Us Part II with the same expectations as you’d have with other game studios inevitably leads people to disappointment because we’re not supposed to superimpose our own decision-making processes onto Ellie or Abby; we can only bear witness to their worldview and hope they come to the right conclusions.
Given that this game is so predominantly posed from a feminine perspective, I’m not surprised people reacted in the way they did. It’s simply not a game that appeals to the majority. It centres unconventional, feminine characters, who perceive the world from such a perspective and are consequently crippled by it. The Last of Us Part II is not a revenge tale; it’s a story about overcoming and forgiving violent, vengeful actions, which is something we rarely ever see masculine characters doing.
When Ellie spared Abby’s life in the shallows of a darkened sea, I was not relieved. Instead, I was empty. Just as empty as Abby seems after beating Joel to death. Just as empty as Ellie seems as she struggles to play Joel’s guitar with her three remaining fingers. Revenge doesn’t bring catharsis to grief; nor does compassion, really. Naughty Dog attempted and (in my opinion) succeeded in portraying the middle-ground – that sad, anticlimactic equilibrium where we forgive ourselves for our mistakes but are then weary at the knowledge of just how far we have to go.
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