The Last of Us: My thoughts on Joel [SPOILERS]
February 26, 2014 16 Comments
As with last time, SO MANY SPOILERS.
Okay, folks. Last time I went a little crazy talking about all of the things that make The Last of Us awesome. But now it’s time for some more nuanced feels. So today I’m going to talk about two things that sucked, and then more generally about ways that de-stereotyping Joel’s character would have made the game even better.
Things that sucked #1: Joel’s daughter gets fridged
Remember how I said it was refreshing that there was no creepy womanless dystopia? Yeah, it’s because I’m really not fond of the Disposable Woman trope. The game started off so promisingly by having you play as Sarah, Joel’s 13-year-old daughter. Sarah is engaging and “spunky” (much as I usually hate that cliche), someone I could see growing up to be a badass zombie-killer in a post-apocalypse. But no! Joel and his brother Tommy get Sarah out of immediate danger only to have Sarah get shot dead by a trigger-happy soldier and she dies in Joel’s arms. At which point, according to the backstory, Joel pretty much goes on a 20 year murder rampage. And then when the action starts up and he murders a bunch more people because he’s, you know, a bad person on account of his daughter dying (and oh yeah zombies).
Which. Honestly. Yawn. I’m sorry, but girl-shaped-person-death-inspiring-murder-rampage is just about the most commonly used trope ever. EVER. And it just gets fucking old.
Did I cry when Sarah died? Of course I did. But I have a baby, so pretty much anything even tangentially related to the death of a kid makes me cry. Hell, there is a Raffi song on one of my daughter’s favorite CDs that makes me cry every. Damn. Time. Sarah’s death still made me mad.
Yes Joel’s relationship with Ellie is predicated on the loss of his daughter. But there are so many ways that Joel could have “lost” Sarah that didn’t require adherence to the “daughter dies in arms, goes on murder adventures” cliche. Sarah could have grown up to join the Fireflies and gone missing in action. She could have grown up and joined the government forces, forcing Joel to stay away from her or get thrown in prison. She could have simply parted ways after she grew up, unable to deal with the painful memories that Joel evoked of a pre-apocalypse world. There are so many ways that it could have gone that taking the lazy way out was almost a deal-breaker for me.
Things that sucked #2: Joel is the platonic ideal of toxic masculinity
Okay, so don’t hate on me too hard when I say this. I did find the relationship between Joel and Ellie really endearing. I thought it was sad when he told her in anger that she wasn’t his daughter and touching when he called her baby girl. I enjoyed their relationship as it unfolded because it was a nice portrayal of family that you choose for yourself. And yeah, the relationship between them felt like something fresh – new ground for an old genre. But that new ground was entirely broken by Ellie. Joel? Joel is pretty much incapable of expressing any emotion that isn’t stoicism or anger.
Meet the new video game male hero, same as the old video game hero.
And you know what? I get it. I get it that game studios don’t want to make games without a white male masculine power fantasy as the lead character. I know that it was a problem for Naughty Dog, and that they were even asked to move Ellie to the back cover and (thankfully) refused. And because of the excellent writing, the relationship between Joel and Ellie manages to shine despite Joel’s status as an emotional cripple. Of course, it certainly helps that we’re culturally conditioned to admire “shitty human beings” (as Tess refers to him) as “anti-heroes”.
Things that would have made Joel a better character: make him a woman
There’s a long and proud tradition of amazing female characters that were originally written as men and then gender-flipped at the last minute. In movies you have Ellen Ripley and Salt – roles that were originally written as male and then flipped. In games you have characters like Final Fantasy XIII’s Fang, who again was written as male and then flipped. Generally, it’s a great way to make an interesting, stereotype-free female character. But Joel specifically would have been so much better as a woman, and here’s why.
1) Ass-kicking grandmothers: Pretty much every Action Girl you see in games or movies is somewhere between 18 and 35 tops. It is a truism that ass-kicking grandmothers can make anything awesome. Female-Joel would be certainly be old enough to be a grandmother, which automatically makes Female-Joel 100% more awesome than canon- Joel.
2) At last! Something new!: Man, aren’t you just so, so tired of stories about mothers who lose their child, become traumatized and emotionally stunted, and go off to have morally ambiguous murder adventures? Man, I am. Because don’t you just see that story everywhere? Except for how you don’t. Female-Joel would be something entirely new in the world of character types for women.
It also would make the relationship between Ellie and Joel way more interesting. Think about it, women are always stereotyped as nurturing and overly-emotional. So a Female-Joel who lashes out at Ellie for not being her daughter, who tries to cut herself off from her emotions where Ellie is concerned but develops a loving (if profoundly fucked up) relationship with her anyway? Especially in light of the fact that their relationship is explicitly a parent-child relationship, as Joel sees Ellie as a replacement daughter? That’s some awesome stuff right there.
There’s also the fact that Joel’s training Ellie to be a capable hunter would also be way more interesting between Ellie and Female-Joel. When you think of “mother-daughter bonding”, I’m sure that “teaching your daughter to be a sniper” or “crawling through zombie-infested tunnels” aren’t activities that would usually come to mind. Heck, the closest you can get to a stereotyped activity would be “shopping”, ie, rummaging around in junk piles for useful crap.
Lastly, why is it only men who get to go on murder adventures after the loss of a child? Let’s see a woman get in on the murder adventure action, thanks.
3) Men aren’t the only ones who want power fantasies: There are some days when I come home worn down by a shitty day at work, or by personal stress, or by a day full of micro-aggressions that I don’t have the power to respond to. When that happens, I often find myself wanting to get away from my problems by shooting a bunch of stuff in the face for a while.
Female-Joel would have made TLoU a much more entertaining experience for me, because I wouldn’t have had to do the mental work of shoehorning myself into a representation that doesn’t fit me. Yes canon-Joel is a well-written character, and yes the writing and level design make TLoU an engrossing game. But I’m not a middle-aged, tall, muscular dude with Video-Game-Hero-SameFace.
It would be pretty cool to be able to play a game where someone who actually looked like me got to star in their own power fantasy. And I’m sure that such a game, done well, would have sold well to the 44% of gamers that are women, if nothing else.
But I guess that’s probably too much to ask for.
 First brought to my attention by Elin Dalstal of Gaming as Women, among other things
 I could NOT track down an original source for this image. Anyone able to help out with that?