CW/TW: Body Image, Homophobia, Transphobia
Warning Spoilers Ahead!
THE INTERNET RESPONSE TO ABBY AND THE WOMEN WHO LIFT.
Since the release of The Last of Us Part II (2020), much of the discourse surrounding the video game has focused on the character Abby’s body…in particular, her musculature. The loudest commentary about her (at first) was toxic, but the chorus of persons expressing their love for her physique has grown stronger and stronger by the week. In games, let alone horror titles at large, slim (White) female bodies are the standard. Muscles if present, are still relegated to ‘tasteful’ and dainty. Sarah Connor from the film Terminator 2: Judgement Day and her subsequent appearance in Terminator: Dark Fate stand out for a reason. Characters like Sarah and Abby from The Last of Us Part II train their bodies, as well as their minds, to become offensive and defensive weapons. The honing of their muscles shows the impact of survival and what manifests when their drive is to protect themselves and others.
During the last weekend of June 2020 something amazing happened on Twitter. A swell of artists, weightlifters/powerlifters, Women/Gender Non-Conforming people, and the Queer community (many of whom’s identities intersect) all rallied together to celebrate Abby and the bodies that exist across the expanse of muscularity. I also shared a pictorial post to Twitter that was a glimpse into the journey that I’ve had as a power/weightlifter and the joy and utter fulfillment that training towards the body I have has personally given me. The trending topics of muscle(s), buff woman/women was beautifully unique–if you were able to experience it in the moment. The additional education of seeing the existence of body types outside the waspish-waists of Instagram influencers and plastic surgery enhanced hyper-femininity was powerful because the over-saturation of unrealistic bodies has harmed the collective psyche about what ‘womanness’ is or can be.
There’s no ideal feminine and the standards to achieve or exist in the space of it can lead to trauma. The over-policing that occurs for Women (and those that present themselves to the world with feminine aesthetics +/- energy) is rampant in every facet of life and media that captures them via photography, television, films, and video games. In particular, video games reside in this interesting space because the Women present do not physically exist beyond a series of numeric coding, polygons, and so on. Thus, the sky’s the limit about EVERY body. Male and masculine characters across the gaming industry have had decades to come in every size and shape imaginable, but Women and feminine characters have been pigeonholed a lot into the same or similar body types. The female characters that get something new or interesting are usually villainous, anthropomorphized human-animal hybrids, aliens, and Orcs (who even get slimmed/toned down sometimes).
NADINE ROSS: THE VISUAL GROUNDWORK FOR ABBY
Returning to Naughty Dog where the Abby conversation originated, the studio has adeptly challenged what female characters can do and look like via Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross in the Uncharted series. The animators posit what Women like them would (realistically) look like scaling buildings (with calloused hands), forging through the wilderness (with cuts and scrapes), being adept hand-to-hand combatants (bloody/bruised knuckles and all) and in the case of Nadine Ross (with her larger musculature) the leader of a para-military organization. People were mad, well excuse me, some male gamers were upset at the time that Nadine Ross trounced the Drake brothers in combat scenes, but the vitriol and toxic commentary surrounding the character was very very slight in comparison to Abby. Perhaps because Nadine was ‘conventionally attractive’, not too tall, and just feminine enough, so the reaction to her was more positive.
However, if you compare the body proportions, build, and physique of Nadine Ross and Abby they are strikingly similar, height aside. Upon reflection, they had an analogous workout routine and eating regimen to achieve the musculature they had. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the core problem of why Abby, Nadine Ross, and even the latest Lara Croft had different receptions amongst the gaming and pop culture community at large, and this will be crass so here goes…their f*ckability. Women are often rendered to be fetish fuel in games and larger media and not humans or characters with agency so the tightrope is always slippery for having Women visibly exist anywhere. The (male) gaze isn’t merely a term that feminists have posited in academia but propels every ideation of what is and isn’t desirable for men and women — socially and politically.
POLICING THE FEMALE BODY
The derision of womanness and femininity is a global issue that has so many winding tendrils in society that place people on (imbalanced) scales that one can never measure up to. This leads to a stifling of the imagination of what humans at large can aspire to become. Furthermore, this limiting of the imagination does irreparable harm to those that don’t fall in line or off-center of what is ‘normal’ and ‘right’. Actions and language that restricts individual human expression have led to unspeakable and innumerable violence across the globe that have roots in religion, colonization, and patriarchal dictates. The result of holding masculinity sacred is limiting to what roles and bodies Women can aspire to.
Moreover, it’s not about accessing maleness or masculinity in regards to crafting a physique but what the person wants for themselves and a byproduct of gaining muscle. The body shifts its fat and muscle ratios and that’s the long and short of it. The more strength one attains plus muscle groups that are (consistently) targeted that’s the body that will result. Genetics and hormones play a role in muscle definition and sculpture for everyone, so adding an intense workout routine to the mixture is going to result in an Abby or a Nadine body. I shouldn’t have had to do that health and science PSA, but my goodness the lack of thought and knowledge in (the please don’t navigate) comment threads about Abby from The Last of Us Part II was YIKES TO THE NTH POWER territory. Thank goodness, a vocal majority has stood up for the Abby’s of the world and the beauty of muscular women.
A RANT, A RUMINATION, AND A REFLECTION ON CLOTHING
Indeed, we’re often a visually driven aesthetic people, which is a by-product of consumerism, capitalism, and commercialism. The archaic notion of ‘what sells’ translates into what’s palatable and what’s desirable, thus leaving a minefield for Women to navigate and financially buy into. For example, to protect and preserve my mental health, I started buying all of my clothing online years ago because the mall and ‘Women’s clothing’ stores can be a very harrowing and uncomfortable space. Plus, everything therein is pre-packaged to put Women into some very restricting boxes. Moreover, I’ve developed an androgynous style over time that works for me and my body, plus compliments my tall and muscled physique. I also dress in a way where I’m covered a lot (thank you North Carolina sun) plus I don’t like when my bare skin touches things in environments that I’m not privy to their cleanliness so…*waxes poetic in my rambling about life*…existing as a muscled person is an experience. Bare arms in the gym only.
UNPACKING ABBY’S CHARACTER-BUILDING AS THE AGENT OF COMEUPPANCE
From a storytelling perspective, Abby in The Last of Us Part II spoke to me (muscles included) because her story is compelling. After all, the impetus that led to her physique is a traumatic experience. Not every person who becomes ‘swole’ does so because something bad happens in their lives, but there is something important about highlighting Abby’s experiences to the physique she has now and how she crafted a powerful body when she felt powerless. Not only is her body a means to an end, but she’s comfortable in her skin with no illustrated signs of dysphoria or self-loathing. What’s more is the fact Abby is applauded, appreciated, and respected for her talents in combat, physical agility, and strength by her family and friends. As the story progresses, we also discover that Abby is witty and my favorite juxtaposition — large and soft. Who doesn’t love a big ole softy character?
Our ideation and approach to large people is often fear or unease. Whether this is a remnant of something primal or media manufacture I’m not sure, but the physical features of Abby’s size, semi-permanent scowl, and biceps have increasingly made some people despise her. Plus, *spoiler alert*, she kills Joel from the first game installment. Some people, blatantly or unknowingly, didn’t want Joel (or Tommy) to have any consequences for their actions in the previous game and — !OOPH! — it shows on Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube. Plus, the agent of Joel’s comeuppance being female (and not conventionally attractive to soften the sting) frighteningly made people’s misogynist laced violence jump all the way out.
THE HORROR WITHIN FANDOM
The social media accounts of anyone attached to Naughty Dog, The Last of Us Part II, and Abby’s voice actor Laura Bailey have been inundated with death threats and homophobic +/- transphobic language. Did the delay of the game for several years have anything to do with the reaction to Abby in the storyline now? Maybe. Is the current quarantine and pandemic combo that’s going on have people’s teeth on edge about every single thing, especially their dislikes about people and things beyond their control? Absolutely. In my last editorial before the game’s release, I wrote about the game’s content leaks, COVID-19, and Internet rage. I still stand by my thoughts then about not being petty for the sake of argument and hate, but discussing this game with legitimate and fair critical assessment.
From some of the comments in the first few hours after the game’s official release, it was apparent that many had not played the game yet and were parroting other’s angry discourse. What’s wild is my prediction back in April (because of past horror in the gaming community) translated seamlessly into the present moment.
“The quickness to hurl hate under the banner of homophobia about Ellie (whom the Internet apparently forgot they loved and cherished to death a few years ago) and a ‘potential’ antagonist character we hardly know anything about with transphobia because of a masculine physique/presentation is so layered. When you don’t toe the line of collective visual or aesthetic palatability the response is (out)rage. I don’t know if many haven’t played The Last of Us, The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC or have short-term memories about all of the characters’ who had deeply riveting stories due in part to their Queerness, or in spite of it. Heterosexuals and Queer people alike were all just humans trying to survive in an apocalyptic fungal-laden hellscape. I pondered what our priorities would be at the end of the world, but then I remembered our general malaise about COVID-19. Perhaps, in all of the hullabaloo about the leaks it was easier to just unload a collective furor at a target, any target, and why not people or bodies so conspicuously absent from video game narratives the most?”
THE DISCOMFORT OF SITTING IN THE GREY-AREA
The only things that may have veered course from my initial predictions were people hating how violent the game and Ellie was (ironic), the fact Abby was not Transgender (a completely different character was whose story is fraught with a lot to unpack), and the fact people had to sit with a complex grey-area game ending. Didn’t the first Last of Us have one of those too or am I misremembering (all of the YouTube videos that warred about Joel’s actions)? People seemed to be intrigued by the prospect of Joel having to pay or make penance for the things he did in that game or are we all experiencing collective amnesia?
Once again, is it who made Joel ‘pay’ and the instrument that killed him or how Joel died defenseless and powerless, akin to how Abby felt when her world was shattered? It’s interesting who we’ll give our compassion to because of an established familiarity, eh? When the game reaches its conclusion Abby has gone through a complete transformational character arc that challenges every notion that we thought about who she was and who she could become in the future. Sadly, a segment of the gaming community saw ‘brute’ with her design and wrote her off completely because of her exterior. Meanwhile, those who took a moment to breathe after she was revealed and flexed their empathy muscles a tad saw the full interiority of who she is — a character that’s human just like The Last of Us.
Nadine Ross and The Controversial Legacy
Continuing the conversation about 'digital blackface'.