The Last of Us has already made headlines for its spectacular representation of queer relationships and it's doing so again — but this time, for a very different reason.
After months of travelling through a wintery, post-apocalyptic abyss, episode six sees Ellie (Bella Ramsey) finally find sanctuary in Jackson — an idyllic 'communist' settlement that offers a calming reprieve from the deadly cordyceps-infected mutants in the outside world.
As she goes up to her new bedroom — the shell of another teenage girl's former life — she is greeted with something we've seldom seen on screens before, particularly in a post-apocalyptic context: a menstrual cup.
The 14-year-old reacts precisely the way we expect a teenager would — she examines the diagrams on its pamphlet, folds the cup and watches it pop back open with glee, giggles to herself, and calls it "gross".
It's a quiet, candid, and ordinary moment. It isn't graphic. It isn't educational. It's a moment that exists between Ellie and the people in the audience who have periods — it's an understanding between us. And its implications speak louder for how womanhood is treated in The Last of Us — and why it is so essential to the story.
"[Even though] half of our planet is women, these shows never talk about menstruation," co-creator Craig Mazin said on HBO's official The Last of Us podcast. "It's a huge thing you have to deal with in the apocalypse."
"In a post-apocalypse, it's annoying to have to deal with that and have a shortage of options," Mazin told Vulture. "Why wouldn't we show it? Especially because our co-lead is a 14-year-old girl. This is part of her life!"
It's not the first time The Last of Us has shown us how periods are handled in the apocalypse. In episode three, we saw Ellie risk an encounter with the Infected just to retrieve a dusty box of Tampax Pearls. "Fuck yeah!" she whispers. She celebrates discovering a box of tampons — not ammunition or canned food.
Immediately, the bodily experience of those who have periods is put front and centre. People with periods often question how we would fare in an apocalyptic situation, and particularly how we would manage menstruation. The Last of Us tells us that these thoughts matter. Our experiences matter. And the creators are clearly not fazed that they've alienated a large portion of their audience who, in all likelihood, have never seen a menstrual cup in their lives. This scene was for us.
"The intention was that if you don't know what [the menstrual cup] is, you can ask someone or you can Google. It's more for the people who do know what it is," Mazin told Vulture.
“People don’t know how to load guns, and we don’t explain it to them. Why should we have to explain this?”
Though many of us still have questions about the ability to sanitise a menstrual cup, Mazin — and many viewers — have pointed out that using a menstrual cup would remove the need for a constant supply of disposable menstrual products (which is likely an impossibility in an apocalypse). "It's a reusable solution that doesn't require you finding boxes of tampons in Infected-ridden cellars," he said. Viewers aren't shown tokenistic scenes in an attempt at making a statement; we're shown realistic options, should the world ever turn to shit. 'Women's problems' are not just shown on screen; they're offered a place to thrive in a realm that's typically been reserved solely for men.
But the show's portrayal of womanhood goes far beyond addressing periods. After all, having a period doesn't constitute whether you are (or aren't) considered a woman. In fact, the way in which Ellie was gifted her menstrual cup speaks volumes about how female relationships are depicted — as well as the importance of sisterhood.
"Did you get the thing I left you?" Maria (Rutina Wesley) asks Ellie, referring to her brand new Diva Cup.
"Yeah, weirdest gift ever," Ellie replies.
"But useful," Maria says. She then insists on giving her a much-needed haircut — something that we can only assume her adoptive father Joel (as much as he likes to deny it) never considered.
We see how Maria quickly becomes a sisterly figure for Ellie. She finds a new coat and boots that fit her. She trims her hair. She forces her to watch movies with other children her age in an attempt for Ellie's life to regain some sense of normalcy. She's the first person Ellie has met that has even considered her bodily experience as someone who has periods.
"Joel has no interest in helping out on that front, but here is Maria thinking about it already," Mazin said in the HBO podcast. "It's connected to sisterhood and womanhood."
But as Maria challenges the impact of Joel's role in their life, it's clear that she does so out of worry for Ellie, much like a parental figure would. But unlike a parent, they challenge each other. "This is a fist-fight, [they're] just not punching each other," Mazin says in the podcast. It's a subtle mode of communication that some women know all too well — the frustrating, reading-between-the-lines, passive-aggressive talk that neatly disguises a deep concern and love for the women around you.
Similarly, Ellie and Tess' (Anna Torv) relationship was built on a clear foundation of sisterhood. While Joel initially shuts Ellie out, Tess' hearty and cold demeanour steadily defrosts. She speaks to her "like an adult", shares harsh truths in order to protect her, and comforts her amidst Joel's brash reactions. Like a sister, it's a complex and sometimes harsh relationship, but ultimately one that's concerned with what's best for Ellie. And it's Tess and Ellie that sets the foundation for Joel and Ellie.
While depictions of women in post-apocalyptic media can often lean on one-dimensional and stereotypical portrayals (whoever looks that good while being chased by zombies?), The Last of Us gifts us with female characters who are allowed to exist solely as they are — and whose interactions reflect a deep need for sisterhood, even during the end of the world. Their existence doesn't revolve around the men surrounding them.
But the creators don't disregard every element of womanhood in favour of masculinity. The women are depicted as strong and resourceful, yet emotional and thoughtful. They're incredibly flawed, make mistakes, and can be villains. That's the thing about The Last of Us. It doesn't just look at sisterhood and womanhood through idealised portraits — it captures the grittiness, complexity, and ultimately the love that is shared between women, even if it might manifest itself in seemingly insignificant ways, like a menstrual cup.
Note: The New York Times reported in January that Ramsey identifies as non-binary; however, a rep for The Last Of Us has confirmed to Refinery29 that Ramsey does not identify as non-binary and her pronouns are she/her.