lara croft: feminist hero or just another male fantasy?

Tracing the history of the most famous female computer game character, and figuring out her place in the world (real and virtual) today.

by Matthew Whitehouse
26 March 2018, 7:58am

“Who would you rather hang out with?” asked the contents page of British style magazine The Face. “A blue hedgehog, a short, fat plumber or an adventurous posh lass with big guns?”

The year was 1997 and Lara Croft, the female protagonist of computer game Tomb Raider was fast becoming one of the best known women on the planet. A year away from a huge sponsorship deal with energy drink Lucozade, she’d already released a single (the frankly bizarre Getting Naked with Dave Stewart), uzi-ed the crowd during Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me on U2’s PopMart Tour, and been given human form, via a computer store opening stand-in, actress Rhona Mitra.

“She runs like a girl. She fights like a girl. She makes millions for Sony because she looks like Girl Incarnate,” wrote journalist Miranda Sawyer in The Face. “She’s Lara Croft, fantasy of millions and star of the PlayStation’s Tomb Raider.” Little wonder the magazine plumped to put her on the cover.

Launched for the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation in 1996, Tomb Raider followed the adventures of English archaeologist Lara Croft as she traversed underground layers and underwater tombs, battling monkeys, mutants and the occasional Tyrannosaurus Rex. It was an instant hit, shifting 7 million copies worldwide and earning plaudits from gaming magazines for its graphics, control and playability. But the game was also met with criticism -- for its physical objectification of the character and the boy-toy way in which she was portrayed.

“I watched my cousin play the first game and I just fell in love with this kickass woman -- all I wanted to do was run around exploring and fighting and being ridiculously cool,” says 30-year-old Elle Osili-Wood, writer and presenter of gaming and eSports show, Daily Download. It’s a sentiment shared with many others. 23-year-old computer science student Kiara Lee describes being introduced to the game by her grandfather -- “watching him play for hours on end, fascinated by Lara and all the places she went to in the game” -- while 44-year-old games journalist and developer Chella Ramanan, who recently discussed the game on an episode of BBC podcast Unpopped, came to the franchise through its 1997 sequel Tomb Raider II.

“There just weren't female leads. I always assumed I'd play as a guy, or an alien, or a monkey, or a worm -- never a woman.”

“Most of my gaming up until then had been point and clicks like Beneath a Steel Sky and Broken Sword, so Lara Croft was the first female lead character for me,” she says. “It was one of those games everybody loved. We’d play it after the pub, passing the controller around or just shouting out suggestions for puzzles.”

Chella describes how, although there had been female characters in games previously, “it’s telling that one of the notable ones is Samus Aran from Metroid. Not only was her gender a secret, revealed as an Easter egg, you could also win an award that let you play the game without the armour, leaving Samus in just a leotard. Women in games were generally rewards for male players -- nudity or kisses as reward for playing well.” As Elle puts it, “There just weren't female leads. I always assumed I'd play as a guy, or an alien, or a monkey, or a worm -- never a woman.”

Lara, then, was different. Smart, no nonsense, tough. “She wasn’t a sidekick and she was also centred in a game that capitalised on the power of the PlayStation to deliver a cinematic experience,” Chella says. But they weren’t her only assets. “Her huge breasts can’t be overlooked,” she says. “Ultimately, Lara’s gender and her sex appeal were still framed as things to be marvelled at.”

In the late 90s, British pop culture was gripped by what would come to be known as “ladettism” -- a period described by Chella as a sort of “twisted empowerment, in which women could act like men by drinking pints, swearing and watching football, but also had to look hot.” As Miranda Sawyer noted at the time, “Lara Croft, a fantastic, complex character in a mind-breaking, world-beating computer game, looks just as good when she's frozen, when she's out of the game.” The character quickly became the movement’s silicon poster girl -- a pin-up who looked great on an office calendar but could still raid tombs with the best of them. “These are breast-happy days and Lara fits in very nicely, ta,” Sawyer dryly noted.

“I remember the Lucozade ads, which mostly traded on Lara’s action hero persona,” Chella says. “However, outside the game, Lara was also likely to be semi-nude and lounging on a bed with guns by her side. Off-duty Lara gazed out at you from posters and magazine covers. Her outfits went from the fairly practical shorts and vest to a slinky catsuit with low-cut front zip, a high-cut wetsuit leotard that wouldn’t keep anyone warm, and the occasional evening dress, cut to the navel and split to the thigh.”

The effect was to elevate Lara to icon status. Tomb Raider III followed in 1998, as did a fourth installment, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, in 1999, and a fifth, Tomb Raider Chronicles, in 2000. A live action movie, starring Angelina Jolie as the hot-pants wearing protagonist, followed the next year. While the success of the franchise meant that even those who had never considered themselves gamers were suddenly aware of a major computer game character, her portrayal continued to be highly sexualised -- no less in the movie’s now infamous shower scene.

“She was very clearly designed with the male gaze in mind, and there's no escaping her sexualised origins,” agrees Elle. “Still, I can't deny how exciting and empowering it felt to finally play as a woman, and one who was doing everything men usually did on the way to rescue a damsel in distress. In fact, it was so unthinkable at the time I hadn't even realised it was something I needed.”

Elle believes that the success of Tomb Raider proved that women-led games could be successful. “It showed there was a market for titles that featured women doing more than being kidnapped by Bowser,” as she puts it. “And her fantasy bimbo look definitely inspired game designers to be more representative and aspirational when creating future female characters.”

While Chella is quick to point out that next three long-running game franchises to be released -- Metal Gear Solid, Grand Theft Auto and Fallout -- remained very much male-dominated, she points towards both the new film (starring a noticeably less scantily clad Alicia Vikander) and the game’s 2013 reboot, as signs of progress. “Lara is now in trousers and her breasts won’t give her back trouble,” she notes. “The new film largely avoids the blatant sexualisation -- although it does still use a sparring scene as an excuse for the camera to linger on her lithe, oiled body.”

And therein lies the crux of Lara Croft. On the one hand, she’s a complicated, self-reliant, intelligent woman. On the other, she’s a computer game character, created largely by men and, at the time, largely for men. “But I do think that her evolution is something of a barometer for women in gaming,” Elle stresses, of an industry in which women players in the US increased from 40% in 2010 to 48% in 2014. “Lara has developed as the industry has, and a lot of that change is thanks to her.”

“Lara is or has been both a feminist hero and and an figure of objectification,” says Chella. “She’s a feminist hero because she’s still here and she was one of the first really compelling female game characters. She’s the only game character to transcend games and become a huge pop culture icon.”

She continues. “Lara’s longevity proves that she’s more than just a sexy woman with a gun and in the right hands she gets to be more than that male power fantasy. The Tomb Raider reboot has given us a new Lara for a new generation. Long may she reign.”

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