Why Ellie matters in the battle for queer representation


The Last Of Us was never a story about good people doing good things. And this time, queer people are not only invited to the party, but writing the damn invitations.

Warning: Contains major spoilers.

HBO reported that 7.5 million Americans tuned in to the premiere of episode four on Sunday. This means that millions of people all over the world are tuning in to watch queer characters represented as complex, messy humans.

The original video game was released a decade ago, with gamers all over the world falling in love with the father-daughter dynamic of Joel and Ellie. One year later, amidst a background of Gamergate, Naughtydog released The Last Of Us: Left Behind and confirmed Ellie’s queerness. We are introduced to Riley, Ellie’s best friend and love interest as they explore an abandoned mall. This was a short and tragic affair, with a groundbreaking kiss shaking up the landscape for queer representation in mainstream video games.

I was 17 when this happened, and entering a period of delayed lesbian adolescence, spending countless hours holed up playing through Ellie’s story on a Playstation. And unlike the countless other games we grew up playing, I found pieces of myself in Ellie. How many other young queers played this too and finally felt what the boys at school had found in countless other games featuring male leads?

Left to right: Ellie and Riley. Credit: The Last Of Us: Left Behind, Naughty Dog

In 2020, The Last Of Us II came out. It was harrowing, heartbreaking and drew much controversy – particularly amongst die-hard Joel fans – but expanded greatly upon Ellie’s story. 

Ellie is complex; a tragic figure plunged into darkness through survivors’ guilt and a bloody-minded drive for vengeance. There are no true heroes in The Last Of Us, and no need or benefit in being vindicated as “good”. Ellie’s highly subjective moral values and violent tendencies show this throughout. 

The Last Of Us: Part II. Naughty Dog.

But with this, something big happened. It felt like we were allowed to be represented beyond the surface level of “goodness”. Ambiguity is deeply human – and it’s refreshing to see a representation of queer characters who are complex, selfish and morally grey. The guilt of a survivor. It’s a space to see our own (hopefully less murderous) tendencies play out.

Don’t get me wrong, if I were living in Ellie’s world I’d have been taken out instantly. But why shouldn’t we be exposed to relatable lesbian characters driven by rage and revenge? Many of the stories we love wouldn’t have happened without these themes. Heck, even Shakespeare.

And now we get to see Ellie from the beginning all over again, with the knowledge of her burgeoning gayness, strength, and all of the wonderful and terrible things to come.

Ellie is portrayed wonderfully by the British actor Bella Ramsey, who themselves revealed recently that they identify with the label of non-binary. Ramsey’s Ellie is authentic, true to the original game. They’re tough, funny, and navigate the awfulness and awkwardness of being a 14-year-old queer kid perfectly.

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. The Last Of Us. HBO

And yet, HBO have taken this groundbreaking representation even further. Episode three was dedicated to the expansion of another gay storyline. We’re introduced to Bill, a Conservative doomsday prepper portrayed by Nick Offerman. We’re invited to explore a 20-year love story between him and Frank (Murray Bartlett).

Bill was a minor figure in the original game, and references to his romantic life were pretty vague, but this representation alone won Naughtydog the award for Most Intriguing LGBT Character at the GLAAD awards in 2013. I’m not sure if this is testiment to how strong a character Bill was, or demonstrative of a lack of complex gay characters in wider media.

Left to right: Nick Offerman, Murray Bartlett. The Last Of Us. HBO

In true Last Of Us fashion, episode three was a beautiful and ultimately tragic depiction of Bill and Frank’s relationship. And again, refuses to martyr Bill as unequivically “good”. Just how many people did Bill kill to protect his partner and property? How many survivors turned away from help? How many of his townsfolk did he allow to be lead into mass graves when the military came and he hid? 

Previews for episode five and beyond promise to tell Ellie and Riley’s story, introducing Ellie’s lesbianism for the first time on mainstream television. With it, we hail a new chapter in mainstream representation. A chapter meant for us.

You can catch The Last Of Us on Sky Atlantic in the UK and HBO in the US. Episode five airs on Friday 10 February.

DIVA magazine celebrates 28 years in print in 2022. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQIA media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable. 


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