Staff Writer Jessica Anne Rose examines The Last of Us and its protagonist Ellie through the lens of female queerness.
(WARNING: Contains spoilers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us: Part II.)
Though fans of The Last of Us franchise today may be more familiar with the HBO television series adaptation, 2013’s Game of the Year and IGN’s winner of Best Narrative was already breaking barriers and telling the story we have all come to love. The DLC, The Last of Us: Left Behind (2014) however, was met with a little less excitement despite its captivating fight scenes, attention to detail in the setting and providing more backstory for main character Ellie prior to the events of the first game. Why? Because fourteen year old Ellie, our beloved foulmouthed badass, was canonically shown to be a lesbian. This was a bold move from the game’s writer Neil Druckmann, who knew it would undoubtedly create backlash, especially among a dodgy group of straight men who loved the game and had already sexualised Ellie despite her being a child.
Ellie Williams is our protagonist for The Last of Us, its DLC and its sequel. She is scrappy and easily riled up, unafraid of violence, and a lover of terrible puns. She speaks without thinking, causing tension between her and other characters, but for a fourteen year-old orphan who grew up during a zombie apocalypse, she turned out pretty alright. She is fiery, she curses like a sailor and loves to challenge authority, but she brings comedic relief to a game set in such a dismal setting. As Ellie grows older and she is presented to us as an eighteen year-old in The Last of Us Part II, she retains her likeability and only grows stronger in her shooting and defensive abilities; she fights off hordes of infected, an entire camp of Rattlers, and her enemy’s friends by herself. I haven’t played any other game with a female protagonist who relies on nobody but herself and succeeds in what she sets her mind to because of sheer intelligence and strength. Guys, she is literally the cure to mankind and is an unbeatable entity – and you’re going to disregard all that just because she likes girls?
For the highly anticipated television adaptation, the search for the actress to play Ellie meant over 100 auditions, which is unprecedented for a video game adaptation. Druckmann and television adaptation co-writer Craig Mazin found their Ellie in nineteen year-old British actor Bella Ramsay. They’ve been in Game of Thrones, Catherine Called Birdy, and listen – I trust Neil Druckmann. He built the complex and haunting universe of The Last of Us, he wrote the characters’ incredible stories and he created the terrifying Clickers, Bloaters, and the different factions of surviving humans. Yet, Ramsay was inevitably doomed to be bullied relentlessly online – particularly, I may add, for their appearance – because they weren’t the fan cast choice for Ellie or didn’t resemble the character enough.
The character in question is not based on a real human’s face model. She is entirely made up by the game designers, and with 2013-era graphics, doesn’t have normal face proportions. So nobody was going to look exactly like our loveable lump of pixels in the first place. Nobody was ever going to be perfectly ‘right’ for Ellie as for over a decade she had become so adored by players who became protective of her. Which is fair, as we’ve seen the Uncharted adaptation and we all know how miscasting can destroy the integrity of a series and its stories. I knew nothing about Ramsay as an actor, a person, or whether or not the series would live up to the game’s reputation or not. But as Dr. Miranda Corcoran says in her module on adaptation – an adaptation is not meant to replicate its original. It is meant to connect with a new audience whilst maintaining the core elements that made the original a success.
And despite the hatred that was spewed at Ramsay throughout filming and premiering, they have won over the audience with their magnificent acting, not by trying to be the Ellie voiced by Ashley Johnson, but by creating their own interpretation of the character that is equally as adored. The cherry on top for me is that Ramsay identifies as non-binary and wore a chest binder for 90% of filming – something her co-star Pedro Pascal, who plays her father figure Joel, is said to have personally really helped her with. (And before you say that’s why they got the role; they revealed this after the series was released and critically acclaimed.) So despite the sexualisation of Ellie’s character, and trolls online who have attempted to erase Ellie’s identity as a lesbian over the past decade, she remains a legendary character we would fear insulting. Why shouldn’t a female lead in a video game be so incredible in all aspects and also happen to not be interested in men? Thanks to the tenacity of writers like Neil Druckmann, actors like Bella Ramsay who embody these women for us despite vile online trolling, and the women like myself who love video games they can see themselves in – characters like Ellie Williams exist. Clicker-slayer, brick-f*cking-master, Ellie Williams, who just so happens to be a lesbian, but for once, that is not the most ‘revolutionary’ thing about her.