‘The Last of Us’ Does a Familiar Disservice to Women in Dystopias
This article contains spoilers for episode two of ‘The Last of Us.’
Tess’ (Anna Torv) final moments were “disturbing and violative,” The Last of Us creator Craig Mazin told Variety. The ‘clicker kiss’, as it’s called now, was a departure from the way the game version of Tess died—and it’s this change, made to “take her all the way to the edge of horror”, that is indicative of a depressingly common trope in post-apocalyptic media—the way women are “softened” through their deaths.
While in both game and show, Tess dies after being bitten by the infected, her actual killing in the game is by FEDRA (Federal Disaster Response Administration) soldiers, one of the last in-universe remnants of the United States government. While they have a more antagonistic role in the games, FEDRA’s involvement in the show has been muted—perhaps to emphasize that the true villains of the story aren’t the people doing horrendous things to survive in a horrendous environment, but rather the mindless zombie hordes.
The changes made to Tess’ death in the show strike a chord because while they present the audience with the visceral horror of the clickers, they are also fundamentally unnecessary. She has been bitten and infected by an incurable disease but that’s not enough—Tess’ final moments are a violation. Her sacrifice, while vital to the survival of the protagonists, has taken on an uneasy tinge in the light of the ‘clicker kiss’. Tess’ importance to the story—as a strong character, a friend of Joel, and a role model to Ellie—is overshadowed in popular culture by the shock value of her death. The poignance of Tess’ death takes a backseat to her assault—regardless of badassery and masculine competence, women aren’t safe from men, even undead ones.
In order to serve Joel’s narrative, Tess had to die—the loss that would motivate him in getting Ellie safely West. Yet, the unnecessarily prolonged and voyeuristic manner in which the show deviates from her original death only reinforces the fridging tropes we’ve seen again and again. For a story originally lauded for its nuance and character development, and its unique approach to writing women characters, The Last of Us’ HBO adaptation falls into an old and familiar trap—trading in continuity for shock value. The true impact of Tess’ death was hidden as well—in-game Joel saw his closest friend gunned down by the pseudo-government, but all show-Joel witnessed was the explosion.
It’s also indicative of how “hardened” women in sci-fi dystopias are rendered vulnerable by their gender through deaths that violate their frigid exteriors. It’s the descendant of the “fridging” trope. Coined in early 1999 by comics writer Gail Simone, fridging refers to the injuring, raping, killing, or ‘depowering’ of women characters in an effort to jumpstart “protective” traits in male characters, often used to move their story arcs forward. The death of the female character is used as a plot device rather than having weight on its own—the usual role delegated to supporting characters. One of the first major instances of this trope was in Green Lantern vol. 3 #54 (1994), which found the eponymous hero coming home to his girlfriend murdered and stuffed into a fridge by one of his nemeses.
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This trope is uncomfortably common in media, especially in film and television—and even more so in science fiction and action genres. The cliché of the dead wife or dead daughter used as the hero’s siren song for revenge is present in almost all mainstream movies and shows. To name a few: the original Mad Max (1979) and Inception (2010) have the protagonist’s wife die before or during the first half of the movie. The fridging of women in general is even more common, and rarely are their deaths portrayed with the same gravitas given to their male counterparts.
But in science fiction and post-apocalyptic genres, this trope takes on suggestive undertones of body horror: the “hardened” exteriors of women in dystopian landscapes are often cracked open upon death. In horror films, the women about to be killed are naked and wet—see Psycho (1960), Shivers (1975) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)—making their physical vulnerability appear to be a punishment that takes the form of murder. In others, their reproductive biology is used to horrific effect, and menstruation and childbirth becomes unnecessarily (and unrealistically) gory. Womb horror is a startling common trope, used hand in hand with sexual assault and violence.
Moreover, women in post-apocalyptic narratives are often assessed on their ability to provide services to men. It appears that, once any formal governmental system breaks down, the only logical outcome is rape and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV). These are justified, in-narrative, as ways to repopulate the earth or to “ensure the provision of viable offspring”—see Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) for hyperbolized but not unfounded approaches to this trope.
But these are deeply cynical, unimaginative forms of dystopian storytelling. Femininity needn’t be punished. In the world of The Last of Us, where people are selfish and death is an ever-present, looming specter, Tess is a rarity. She is unkind and ruthless and harsh, yes, but also desperate for hope and redemption, and intended to spend her last moments saving those she cared about. Her humanity was what overcame Joel’s cynicism in the final moments of episode 2. This makes the manner of Tess’s death doubly distressing—violated from the inside by a disease and the outside by a fungus in the shape of a man.
Women in dystopian narratives rarely have a happy fate—either killed off to enable men’s pain, justify vengeful violence, or to give a lesson on the dangers of being a woman in such an overtly masculine environment. Regardless of gender, softness and femininity is not a crime, and the perception of it representing weakness is reminiscent of a bygone era. The ‘dead wife’ gimmick has been exhausted to the bone. We need to start keeping women alive in apocalyptic fiction—not for their perceived ‘value’ to society but because they’re human, too, and that they can show compassion, kindness, and sincerity (all traditionally ‘feminine’ traits) in more affirming ways without repercussions.