I came out to my parents in 2014, aged 13; I was told that thinking something doesn’t make it true, and I did not come out again until I was 20. Queer media was the only outlet I had during this time. I had never played a game nor watched any other media that had resonated with me as strongly as The Last of Us did the previous year. A father figure who would do anything for his adopted ‘daughter’ was just the thing for a closeted queer to attach herself to. Then my feeling of utter happiness when the 2014 DLC release revealed Ellie was a 14-year-old lesbian hopelessly in love with her best friend. It was something no one else seemed to understand at the time; the gaming community was full of twenty-something straight men who only saw two teenage girls kissing as one thing: political.
But it was never political for me. It was simply my existence – so why did it have to come with so much stigma? What was genuinely political about a 14-year-old girl having a crush? In reality, it was only political to the older homophobe. At this time, gay marriage was illegal in the states, and the only lesbians I saw on television were on shows only shown after 9 pm. Gay men who never kissed were the best representation, and trans rights were nowhere to be seen.
Then almost a decade afterwards, Ellie’s sexuality was revealed to the masses. In episode 7 of The Last of Us – this time on the small screen.
I am now 22, out to my family and friends and long over my first queer crush, but when I watched Bella Ramsey’s portrayal of a young queer girl, it still meant something to me that most people will never understand. Bella not only brought the character of Ellie to life, but they had also brought something else to our screens: innocent queer love. Riley and Ellie’s relationship is in no way sexualised to cater to a straight male audience, nor is their relationship toned down to appeal to the crowd who find queer relationships unnatural and uncomfortable.
This was extremely uncommon in the early 2000s. It took until at least the 2010s for queer relationships to be seen as non-sexual and non-political. There was no ‘agenda’ behind this representation, just a young girl coming to understand not just her sexuality but who she truly is. I won’t focus on the episode itself too much (you’ll just have to watch it), but I recognised a younger version of myself in Ellie – the classic longing look, the embarrassment of a suggestion of being seen in any romantic way, or the crushing feeling of jealousy whenever your crush mentioned anyone else they may have been interested in (especially a boy).
Then came the backlash. Again. Unsurprisingly, this episode was met with criticism, it has been labelled “boring”, “lacking real plot”, and once again, there comes the accusation – it was too political. The same accusation the first version of Ellie and Riley’s love story got, the same accusation thrown at the trailer for The Last of Us 2 for Dina and Ellie’s kiss, and the accusation all queer media gets in some way. Political. I ask again, what exactly is political about two teenage girls kissing? Why do all forms of queer love get politicised? Many in the media act as though they are simply making a point of politics being too obvious on television but fail to explain why queer relationships have any political meaning. This was also seen in the criticism shown at the recent show, Heartstopper. A show about young teenagers coming of age and experiencing first love. Many within the mainstream media accuse queer and trans identities of being inherently political, and what they don’t understand is that it is they who have politicised it.
Being unable to see yourself as anything other than a political pawn is and can be extremely damaging to queer youth. People should be allowed to explore their identities without having to be the perfect representation of themselves. The consequence of this way of thinking is people accusing real-life figures of “queerbaiting” and manipulating the youth. The backlash Elliot Page went through simply for coming out as transgender was headed by the idea that he was manipulating young teens into joining the LGBTQ+ community. In reality, just as many of us are, he was simply living his truth.
Bella Ramsey put it best: there are so many more important things to be worried about than two people in love kissing on a screen. The apocalypse doesn’t stop gay people from existing.
Image: “The Last of Us Wallpaper” by CarlitoSan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.