I Have Mixed Feelings About The Last Of Us Part 2’s Trans Character

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A character model of Lev from The Last of Us Part 2 (Screenshot: Naughty Dog)
A character model of Lev from The Last of Us Part 2 (Screenshot: Naughty Dog)

Whether or not you like The Last of Us Part 2, there’s no denying it’s a diverse game. People of different genders, sexualities, and races exist in its world, and there’s a perverse equality in the way none of them are exempt from suffering. The game’s only trans character, a religious youth named Lev, is notable for being one of the few transmasculine characters in a video game. Ultimately, The Last of Us Part 2 does very little with this rare inclusion, but as a trans person, I don’t need it to.

I’ve struggled for weeks trying to figure out what to say about Lev. There are so few transmasculine characters in video games, both indie and AAA, that the chance to talk about my own identity and a video game character who shares it feels like an opportunity I have to make the most of. But I kept hitting a wall when I tried to write down what I think about how Lev is portrayed or how I felt seeing a character like myself in a game. I had complicated feelings about him, and about the game’s queer characters overall, that I wasn’t sure how to pin down.

Graphic: G/O Media

Wonderfully, there is no universal queer take on The Last of Us Part 2. In his article on the game’s queer themes for Fanbyte, Kenneth Shepard writes, “Too frequently we’re ready to file something away as one thing and condemn people for not having that same reaction to something we did. But it’s not that simple, and as long as queer people remain a beautifully diverse group with different lived experiences, it’s never going to be that simple.”

Some writers, such as Paste’s Natalie Flores and The Guardian’s Keza MacDonald (an occasional Kotaku contributor) found pleasure and meaning in the game’s portrayal of queer people. Others, like myself, or past Kotaku deputy Maddy Myers for Polygon, didn’t find the game’s queer representation to be enough to overcome its brutality and dark worldview. Many trans players were offended by the game’s use of Lev’s birth name and the brutal torment he suffers for his identity. At Paste, Waverly writes of Lev, “For Abby, and the player who experiences the world through her, Lev isn’t a character to be respected but investigated…we never really understand Lev as a person outside of this cisgender investigative lens.”

It’s exciting that the game has so much queer content, and that there are so many queer people playing and writing about it that we get to disagree. That hasn’t always been the case in media: While trying to organise my thoughts on Lev, I watched Disclosure, a documentary about the history of trans people in TV and movies. The documentary is a who’s who of the terrible, offensive portrayals of trans people so many of us grew up with. It doesn’t end on an unequivocal high note — I wouldn’t consider Transparent and I Am Cait positive steps in trans media — but it was inspiring to see how much things have changed over the years and how the trans people interviewed for the film found meaning and success despite the stories they had to work with. (Disclosure’s director, Sam Feder, is a friend of mine.)

At one point in the documentary, actress Jen Richards says, “There is a one-word solution to almost all the problems in trans media. We just need more, and that way the occasional clumsy representation wouldn’t matter as much, because it wouldn’t be all that there is.” Richards’ statement summed up the struggle I was having to write about Lev: The fact that there are so few transmasculine characters in games means Lev carries an immense weight, which extends to all the people who created him and to those of us trying to write about him. His characterization and portrayal take on an outsized importance because of their rarity.

As a trans guy, Lev may be unique in games, but he’s not treated particularly uniquely in The Last of Us Part 2. He suffers, but no one gets through this game unscathed. He experiences slightly more suffering than other characters due to his identity — more variations of violence are inflicted on him than on Abby or even queer characters Ellie and Dina — but none of it stood out to me as uniquely excessive or targeted.

Lev is a faithful member of the religious Seraphites. He shaves his head, something only the sect’s men do, after he’s assigned to be the child bride of one of the group’s elders. The group violently rejects him for this, and Lev and his sister Yara run away. Eventually, they cross paths with Abby, who tries to convince them to escape the sect by going with her ex-boyfriend Owen to Santa Barbara. Yara wants to go, but Lev feels responsible for their devout mother and worries what will happen to her as a consequence of him being trans.

When he attempts to go back to see her, she attacks him, and he accidentally kills her in the struggle. In the ensuing escape, Yara is killed. Lev and Abby eventually leave Seattle, only to be captured and held prisoner by human traffickers. Ellie eventually frees the pair, then goads Abby into fighting her by threatening Lev’s life. At the end, Ellie lets them go again. They survive, though the player never finds out what’s next for them. None of it is uplifting, but The Last of Us Part 2 isn’t interested in positive messages.

Screenshot: Naughty Dog/Kotaku

Players learn Lev is trans during a firefight with some members of the Seraphites, when a character calls him by his birth name. When things calm down, Lev asks Abby, “Did you hear what they called me?” When Abby says yes, Lev replies, “Do you want to ask me about it?” Abby says, “Do you want me to ask you about it?” and Lev says, “No.”

Many trans players on Twitter objected to this scene, seeing it as a needless and violent example of “deadnaming,” or using a trans person’s birth name to hurt them. Personally, I liked that the scene wasn’t a big, dramatic reveal. I appreciated that the game’s action didn’t screech to a halt while Abby grappled with the existence of trans people or while Lev poured out his feelings about his gender. The use of Lev’s old name felt realistic to me — people who once cared for Lev deployed it to make it clear how they saw him, to assert their image of him over his own in order to bully him into compliance.

That moment, and the worry and pre-emptive emotional work Lev does afterwards to address it, felt familiar to me from interactions with my own family and friends. I like that we don’t see Lev grapple with his gender identity; cis people, like Yara and Lev’s mother, are the ones with the problem. As in real life, the struggles that come to Lev from being trans aren’t from his own feelings about his identity, but from cis people’s. Unfortunately, just like in real life, Lev pays the price for cis people’s problems with trans people. His refusal to give up on his mother leads to both her and Yara’s deaths, and he is forced to live with the consequences.

Lev isn’t necessarily a complex character, but he also doesn’t just walk around being trans like so many trans characters in media do. In particular I enjoyed how religious he was. Religion is rarely handled with any nuance in video games, and while the Seraphites don’t rise far beyond “evil religious people you have to kill,” we see Lev work to hold on to his faith, and we see how it benefits him. At one point, Abby asks Lev, “Do you regret shaving your head?” and he replies, “We’re not supposed to have regrets,” repurposing a tenet of the Seraphites into what I saw as a message of personal strength.

In another scene, he counsels Abby through her fear of heights by leaning on his faith, saying, “Think about the good parts to fear…Every bad feeling…they’re all signs that you’re actually stronger…Only when weak may I carry my true strength.“ When Abby asks how he still likes the Seraphite prophet even though the Seraphites want to kill him, he replies, “She wouldn’t want any of this. Her writings don’t have any violence in them…They’re taking her words and twisting them. Read the text.” As a religious person myself, I saw a lot of truth in Lev’s refusal to let his faith go just because some people used it to wound him. His confidence with the Seraphites’ theology was inspiring to me and showed a facet of trans life I see every day in my own experience but rarely see portrayed in media.

Screenshot: Naughty Dog/Kotaku

But pointing out that the game realistically depicts a trans guy isn’t necessarily praise. It can be read as a criticism: As Waverly at Paste points out, “since [Lev] is the only trans character, period, this becomes the game’s only representation of trans people. It communicates that even when all the structures of the world fall away and communities relearn how to come together, trans people will forever be made to face the same violence they’ve always known.”

As a trans player, watching Lev’s suffering was difficult. It reminded me of painful moments from my own life and made a game that was hard to play even harder. I don’t appreciate it for that — I don’t need a video game to remind me of the struggles I’ve faced as a trans guy — but I’m not angry at it for reminding me of them either. The anger I felt at The Last of Us Part 2 wasn’t that it showed me my own suffering, but that I never felt like the story rose above demonstrating that suffering exists. As I wrote in my review, “Eventually, my numbness turned to an anger I’ve never felt about a video game. Late one night, I paused the game and asked myself aloud if the developers thought I was stupid, if they thought the existence of violence had just never occurred to me before.”

The Last of Us Part 2 is diverse, but it doesn’t do anything with that diversity besides point back to pain. Queer and trans people just exist in its world, because they exist in the world in general, and bad things happen to them because the game depicts a world where bad things happen to everyone. To look at it positively, this means we aren’t used to educate or create empathy, limited roles media often relegates us to. Nevertheless, there may be players who revised their opinions of trans people after playing through Lev’s story. There may be trans players who saw Lev’s suffering as validation of their own.

In his book Pass with Care, Cooper Lee Bombardier writes, “We spend so much time and energy convincing non-trans people of the truth that we are a vulnerable and victimized population that sometimes we forget how fucking strong and resilient we are.” Lev’s ultimate survival could be read as an example of the resilience of trans people; the game’s narrative lead Halley Gross told Kotaku she wants the game to show “resilience,” though she cited Ellie as the game’s example of it. Lev’s resilience might be that he survives all the cis people around him; I don’t think the game wanted to teach this particular lesson, but I’m glad if a trans player out there took that message away. The Last of Us Part 2 doesn’t say anything about its queer and trans people. I’m relieved that I don’t think the game says anything bad about us, but it also means anything drawn out of the game’s silence belongs to the players who create that meaning for themselves, rather than to the game and the people who made it. The game merely shows me that trans men exist, a fact I already knew.

Screenshot: Naughty Dog/Kotaku

As I’ve written on Twitter, I often feel beyond the need for trans representation in games. This is a privilege that comes from nearly two decades of being out as trans, decades spent writing, producing, and publishing work by and for other trans people. Prior to coming to games writing, I worked in trans theatre, and later in trans fiction. Due to that work, at this point in my life, I don’t “need” Lev; I don’t need to see someone who shares my identity in a video game. When I look around my apartment, I see the books I published, the plays I wrote, the books and movies and games made by my trans friends and peers. Even while social distancing, not a day goes by that I don’t see or talk to another trans person. I quoted trans writers and artists easily in this article, drawing on the opinions of people like me to explain and enrich my thinking. My trans life and my trans imagination are bigger than any story that can fit in a video game. I hope some solitary trans youth saw Lev and found that representation valuable, but, as historian Susan Stryker says in Disclosure, “Changing representation is not the goal, it’s just the means to the end.”

What I want from Lev is for other trans players — both those who love him and those who are hurt by him — to not need him either. Instead of struggling to decide what I feel about Lev, I want to look at what my feelings are actually pointing to. What kind of trans stories do I actually want? Do I want to see more people like myself in more media? Do I want more complex and nuanced trans stories? Do I want to tell my own stories without feeling hamstrung by the expectations or limits of cis people? How do I get those things?

Trying to decide whether a transmasculine character in a video game made by a big studio is “good” or “bad” doesn’t get me closer to those goals. Queer or trans people might have helped create him, and he’s voiced by a trans voice actor, but he’s still just one character in one video game. There are other stories out there — maybe not so many in video games, or in works created by cis people, but plenty exist in other mediums, and plenty are still waiting to be told. I don’t need to make Lev more important than he is. I can see him as a step on a path to something better.

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Comments

  • I had no idea Lev was trans, I thought he shaved his head to separate the men from the boys or some macho crap like that

    • You missed the dialogue where Yara said that Lev shaved his head as rebellion for being forced to be a bride for a Seraphite elder then? Conversation happened in the aquarium just before Lev goes AWOL

  • It’s better than what people thought was going on when the game leaked months ago. It was thought that Abby was the trans character, and when you consider her actions that might make her a less favourable character amongst the TLOU fandom, think of how much worse it would be if she was also a trans representative!

    • Huh, is that why there is still this whole “Abby is a trans no woman has muscles like that” rhetoric crapping on over the internet?
      I didn’t think the fandom could crack through rock bottom, but there you go. At least the not-as-vocal majority are still audible among the mess.
      Lev is a great character, I thought. A lot of emotional depth despite not being able to openly display it.

      • Man, the women at the Snap over the road from where I live? There’s a few bigger than Abby. Those idiot incels on the net complaining about Abby seriously have no friggin clue what can be achieved from a serious lifting regime.

  • It is more how they built most characters in the game or rather how they did a fair bit of character assassination.

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