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A recent article was published around these parts discussing the representation of women in video games. It made several good observations and pointed toward numerous issues which have oddly persisted through the years – I still recall the moral panic around Grand Theft Auto’s attitudes toward sex workers almost two decades ago and it’s more than a little disconcerting that we’re still in exactly the same place.
However it did get me thinking about the discussions one often sees regarding the First Lady of Video Games; Lara Croft.
It’s not unreasonable to be unable to see past the visuals, especially when everyone knows the old anecdote about how Lara got lumbered with her breast-size. However, once you examine the games themselves – dare one say it – as texts, there’s a lot more to Lara Croft than just T&A.
Now I’m happy to admit that this argument is going to smack a little of “fanboy apologist” rhetoric; that while everything I’m about to argue is valid, it doesn’t change the fact that in the broader popular subconscious she is just a purely sexual icon. However, since the same argument has been made of Wonder Woman recently, there’s no reason we can’t accept for now the depressing notion that sometimes positive characters are unfortunately wrapped up in sleazy visuals for the sake of wider appeal and marketing. Capitalism does it again.
For clarity, we’ll be discussing Lara in terms of the three distinct eras the games fall under; CORE – referring to the first iteration from 1996 to 2003, CD – referring to the Crystal Dynamics reboot in the mid-2000s, and modern – referring to the current, gritty, Batman Begins-afied version of the series. The main point regarding Lara is that while she’s heavily sexualised, she’s distinctly un-sexual in the games themselves. In a typical male-driven adventure of this sort, you’d expect a female character to show up, need rescuing and become a love interest.
The main point regarding Lara is that while she’s heavily sexualised, she’s distinctly un-sexual in the games themselves.
A gender-swapped, or otherwise, version of this has never been the case in Tomb Raider; these stories don’t have love interests and practically every character Lara meets within gameplay is a rival adventurer or someone sent to kill her. The final CORE entry Angel of Darkness took baby steps toward a love interest (who was also a playable character) but the CD reboot erased those potential sequels. The first in the modern series did go in for a more traditional damsel-character but in the form of Lara’s best friend Sam, thus subverting the trope by having the relationship be platonic – though there is a strong queer subtext to their relationship.
The games have also largely avoided drawing attention to her gender. The very first appearance of Lara onscreen involves a man walking over to her and attempting to flirt, which she efficiently shuts down. However as they’re old colleagues/rivals and he’s there on business, it has the air of workplace chit-chat rather than anything (too) creepy. He’s also only there as a lackey to attempt to recruit Lara to the (female) main villain’s cause.
This repeats through the series, while characters – mainly the villainous ones – will often condescend Lara, it tends to come at the expense of her youth rather than gender and not just because most of her villains are themselves women. The exception here of course being that horrifically misjudged moment in the modern reboot where she was threatened with rape in preview footage. The response from fans was wholly negative and the offending moment in question changed in the final game. Gross and lazy as it was that rape was being used in lieu of character development yet again in mainstream pop culture, it did bring into stark relief how relatively untouched by sexuality the series was up until that point, outside of marketing and aesthetics.
The lack of other characters for Lara (and the player) to be expected to care about is also reflected in the stories. In the CORE games, Lara Croft is purely in this for self-interest. When the series starts, she’s already made her money from journals of her adventures (after her parents cut her off due to disagreeing with her life-choices). This makes her slightly unique, even amongst male protagonists; she’s not doing what she does for love, fame, fortune or a pressing need to save the world but purely because she enjoys it and quests for knowledge and understanding of the past. That she happens to thwart world-ending plans every other week is a coincidence.
The CD reboot slightly changed this with the quest to find out what happened to her mother driving both Lara and her father into adventuring. Still it’s unusual to have a character so singularly driven by pure self-direction rather than an external factor. That such a driven, wholly independent and (originally) self-financed character is dressed up in hot pants and a tank top is unfortunate since this is where the attention of anyone passing by the series is drawn. Doubly so now that the modern iteration of the character is finally designed and dressed more conventionally but has been rewritten as an objectively weaker and less self-determined person, largely being simply reactionary to the situations she finds herself in.
Everything discussed so far is by no means a complete thesis on representation generally or even Lara specifically. For example, it would be nice to see a character be able to own and express her sexuality without it being so with a distinctly male-gaze in mind. And Tomb Raider’s approach of making Lara borderline asexual doesn’t really solve the problem either – unless it were revealed that she identified as such. The point here was merely to shine a light on some of the more interesting and arguably positive aspects of character. If she’s going to continue to endure as one of the primary faces of gaming, it’s worth looking past the hot pants and realising there’s a more interesting example of a female protagonist than it would seem.