‘The Last of Us’ Has A Pretty Big Problem With Pinkwashing
Pinkwashing is when LGBTIQ identities are used to gloss over problematic issues, and 'The Last of Us' is a doozy.
As ‘wholesome’ as the queer representation in The Last of Us might seem, it also also a typical example of pinkwashing, writes Merryana Salem.
‘Long Long Time’ is the third (totally heartbreaking) episode of HBO’s The Last of Us. In their first major deviation from the video game, Neil Druckmann, and co-writer Craig Manzin flesh out the implied queer romance between Bill and his partner Frank.
– This episode contains spoilers for Episode 3 of The Last Of Us.–
In the original game, Frank is already dead when Ellie and Joel cross paths with a grief stricken Bill. Playing as Ellie, the player eventually finds a “sticky” male porn magazine while exploring Bill’s house, implying that Bill is gay and his partner was more than a friend.
Episode 3 brings this vague subtext to the foreground and dedicates almost an entire episode to Bill and Frank’s life together – from their bear trap meet-cute to their final day. In the HBO series, when Ellie and Joel finally arrive at Bill’s, she finds both men dead in the bed they shared after committing mutual suicide.
As Bill, Nick Offerman offers a more subdued take on the precocious anti-establishment characters he’s known for. Offerman’s Bill is a conspiracy theorist doomsday prepper who wants for nothing in this new fungi infected world. Having hoarded and looted all the resources he needs and secured them behind electric fences and booby traps to keep people out, he relishes steak dinners and warm showers with a smug smile.
Enter Frank (Murray Bartlett), an openly gay man who finds himself at the wrong end of Bill’s booby traps. Almost immediately, Bill is flustered by Frank’s presence. After Bill provides Frank with a warm shower and a hot meal, Frank kisses Bill. One tender confession he’s only ever been with a woman before later and the men share the night together and eventually the rest of their lives.
A flashback sees Frank take issue with Bill’s isolationism and unwillingness to share his hoarded resources. Their eventual compromise on the issue is what brings Joel and Tess into their lives. But the last word from Bill comes as a letter he addresses to Joel in which he leaves Joel sole access to all his resources.
The episode is being praised as touching, heartstring-tugging TV at its finest, and it is. But Bill and Frank’s story is also a perfect, albeit subtle, example of pinkwashing.
What Is Pinkwashing?
‘Pinkwashing’ was initially coined by Palestinian activists, Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism in 2010. The term has come to refer to the ways in which institutions promote queer affirming policies and representation to both justify and draw attention away from their problematic policies. But it was originally termed to call out the Israeli Defence Force’s promotion of LGBTIQ inclusiveness as they kill and displace hundreds of Palestinians every year.
In Episode 3 of The Last of Us, Bill is an isolationist and libertarian, upholding his personal liberty and lifestyle at the expense of anyone else. Far from framing this attitude as negative, a song plays cheerily over Bill hoarding, looting resources, and setting up security systems that would prevent anyone in the immediate area from even using the electricity in the local plant.
Frank’s challenge to Bill’s isolationism is framed, not as a larger social issue in which Bill is keeping essential resources from those who may need them on pain of death, but merely as a conflict within their relationship. The conflict is chalked down to Frank wanting to have friends over for dinner, but Bill won’t let him.
As the audience, we’re never positioned to question Bill’s isolationism outside of how it limits his social life. We’re meant to admire and sympathise with how his attitude allows him to build the queer life he never got to lead before the world ended.
Any of the wider consequences of Bill’s rampant, violent individualism are pinkwashed by his relationship with Frank. As the audience, we’re never positioned to question Bill’s isolationism outside of how it limits his social life. We’re meant to admire and sympathise with how his attitude allows him to build the queer life he never got to lead before the world ended.
In 2007, Jasbir Puar coined the term ‘homonationalism’ to describe LGBTIQ people and movements who align themselves with nationalist attitudes; queer people who ascribe to an ‘us vs them’ mentality to the detriment of less privileged groups. People like Bill, whose queer marginalisation doesn’t push them toward radical empathy, but toward supremacist attitudes.
Why The Pinkwashing In The Last Of Us Is Not A Surprise
But It is hardly surprising that The Last of Us creator Neil Druckmann uses queerness to pinkwash harmful libertarianism. Druckmann grew up as an Israeli in the occupied West Bank of Palestine — one of many of Israel’s “settlements” where Israel’s checkpoints, walls and military forces prevent Palestinians from accessing resources like water and electricity (sound familiar?).
What’s more, Druckmann has frequently spoken of the IDF as a major source of inspiration for The Last of Us. In one interview, he admits that a key influence on the sequel’s revenge-driven plot line was his own animosity toward Palestinians after he saw a group kill an IDF soldier.
Druckmann’s pro-military stance also gets a thorough pinkwashing via the The Last of Us: Left Behind extension. The player plays as Ellie as she breaks out of her military boarding school to hang out with her best friend, Riley, who she has a crush on. The two teen girls were thick as thieves before Riley joined the democratic revolutionary group Fireflies; a decision Ellie rails against, claiming that the para-military force FEDRA are the real “good guys,” keeping the world together and the Fireflies are an enemy of Peace. Once again, the audience is positioned to side with Ellie, the beloved protagonist, and to see their argument as a personal one. With Euphoria’s Storm Reid billed as Riley in the HBO series, it’s likely the show will not adjust this showcase of pinkwashed military essentialism.
It is difficult, especially as a queer pro-Palestinian Arab, to parse The Last of Us’ queer love story from Druckmann’s Israeli settler-colonialist attitudes.
It is difficult, especially as a queer pro-Palestinian Arab, to parse The Last of Us’ queer love story from Druckmann’s Israeli settler-colonialist attitudes. They bleed through Bill and Frank’s love story in Bill’s violent resource hoarding, and the romanticised isolationism that only benefits himself and his husband.
There’s no denying that portraying queerness at the end of the world is always somewhat refreshing. Apocalypse media has long been critiqued over its lack of imagination for envisioning futures where only the most privileged survive. But to see Episode 3 so celebrated brings the disconcerting reminder that the majority are still most comfortable with celebrating queerness that aligns with conservative values of individual liberty over community good. Not to mention a queerness that keeps away from the main story, and suicides off screen quietly so as not to inconvenience others.
This is an opinion piece, written by Merryana Salem (they/them), a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster. They are on most social media as @akajustmerry.