The Last of Us: Deaf Representation

Image Source: Mashable

Spoiler Alert ahead! 

Since the game release of The Last of Us in 2013, fans have been eager for new content. I was thrilled when HBO Max announced that they are making an adaptation that is co-directed by Neil Druckmann, the same director who made the game.  

A survival horror game created by Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment, an outbreak of a parasitic fungal infection called Cordyceps controls humankind, transforming them into flesh-eating zombies. The story follows Joel, a broken man with a traumatic past who survived the downfall of human civilization by being a smuggler. Joel has to smuggle his most important cargo yet, a sarcastic, playful teenage girl named Ellie, who is immune to the Cordyceps infection and is the hope for returning mankind to what it once was. Joel has to protect Ellie from the dangers the post-apocalyptic world presents, such as raiders, clickers, and dangerous environments. 

In the most recent episodes of the show adaptation, Joel and Ellie find shelter in one of the dilapidated buildings after being attacked by raiders; this is where they wake up to find Henry and his little brother, Sam. Of course, it wouldn’t be fun to incorporate every single detail from the game into the show, which is why the latest change in the recent episodes was intriguing – Sam’s character is portrayed as deaf. 

Played by Keivonn Woodard, it is refreshing to have someone like Woodard on screen by being a young African American boy in the media who is deaf. The deaf and hard-of-hearing community is diverse, including race, gender, age, and religion. Therefore, having an African American who is deaf normalizes their presence, creating a gateway for more characters who may be African American, deaf, and/or young to be shown in the media. Furthermore, casting an actor who is deaf shows an authentic representation without stereotypes and educates the audience on how they navigate in real-life. For these two groups – deaf and African American communities – representation is critical in today’s society since they are a minority in cinema. However, one important thing to note is that his character, Sam, does stand by the stereotype of deaf people being dependent on others in the media. The directors of The Last of Us changed the idea of Sam being deaf to accentuate the idea that Sam is dependent on Henry. They were successful in doing so, although not considering how the deaf community is currently under falsified representation, formulating incorrect depictions of deaf people unable to assimilate into society independently. 

Being aware that a young boy, Sam, whose purpose is to be dependent on Henry due to his age, I ponder if the directors were aware of the struggles that the deaf community had in the media and how wrong it is to utilize a disability to highlight this point. Nonetheless, Hollywood has much to learn from these minority groups and should have more awareness of what characters they deserve to have in the media.