More than the Male Gaze: In Defense of the First Lara Croft

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Classic Lara Croft

With Alicia Vikander‘s new movie Tomb Raider (an adaptation of the 2013 reboot series of the same name), general audiences outside of the gaming community are getting a glimpse at a different Lara Croft. Vikander’s Lara is a woman learning to become the badass tomb raider of the 90s, gaining confidence, and ultimately is less sexualized and presents a body type that is not based on the male gaze and unrealistic body proportions. The latter of which has plagued the classic 90s heroine since her creation.

Lara’s body is a conversation that feminists can’t escape. So I’ll say it now, Lara was built for the male gaze. However, she is the first female protagonist in gaming. Core Design (the developer) and Toby Gard (the creator) were taking financial risks for two reasons: Tomb Raider was a genre-blending puzzle-platformer-action adventure game in the third person, and the main character was a woman. In the early to mid-90s, audience statistics skewed the industry towards men and boys dramatically. To companies, it was unthinkable that this audience would play a character that was marked as feminine if she wasn’t sexually appealing – Samus Aran is technically the first female protagonist in video games but her gender isn’t revealed until the end, covered by armor and androgynous.

Although Lara’s success would be the first step in highlighting the amount of both existing women and girl gamers who had been overlooked and bringing a new generation to the scene, she had no predecessors to lean on.  Lara’s infamous proportions were created by an “accident.” The all-male design team was adjusting her proportions when they decided to make her breasts as large as they could. Instead of correcting it, they let the “accident” stand and gave us the polygons that would quickly become her trademark.

However, Gard didn’t just want her to be an object in a story. In fact, he conceptualized her closer to being a heroine like Tank Girl (see concept art above), a woman who owns her sexuality and breaks the norms of what it means to be feminine. Before you roll your eyes, this character archetypes fits within the line of the “Riot Grrrl” feminism of the 90s. Like anything, what is considered empowerment morphs and changes as society and culture progress?

Feminism aimed to demolish the double standard and line between genders and a reclamation of the feminine (often in sexual ways) that had been pushed away by the feminism of waves before it which looked down on femininity and positive sexuality. Beyond that, she fit the roles that were opening up for women in the action genre like Buffy, Xena, and Tank Girl. Previously these were roles traditionally held by men (the warrior, the chosen one, the sex-charged hero respectively). This sex positivity however became a problem when a male-dominated media began justifying female exploitation because women weren’t modest.

In the current discourse, rebooted Lara isn’t seen as made for male gamers. Although the use of threatening rape in the first reboot game is a kind of sexualization that could be debated further that is another article entirely. The classic Lara Croft has fallen out of favor in most cases and is shown as only a set of breasts. She is used as an example of how men see women. The classic Lara’s been cast aside and has spawned think pieces comparing the busty version played by Angelina Jolie in 2001 to Vikander’s rendition of the rebooted character. Now, this doesn’t erase or justify the misogynistic and vile comments made about Vikander’s Lara including transphobic rhetoric and a hatred for the movie because Vikander’s breasts are not large. However, framing the classic Lara as a piece of the past to be disregarded erases the work she did for women and girls in the 90s. In my opinion, reducing Lara’s impact to her breasts is no different than saying that the Lara of the reboot games is unworthy because of her realistic body proportions.

Lara Croft has always been more than an object. Although she has been sexualized she has never been shown in need of a man to complete her story or to move her along. In the classic games, there are long periods of time when it’s just you, the puzzles, and a tomb to raid. The glory is hers and the strength displayed while fighting off tigers, moving stone walls, and running from boulders is a joy I felt as a little girl. She is and was her own character. To say she was an object and not someone to look up to is completely wrong and does nothing but stigmatize sexual and sex-positive women.  We not only see her as strong, but we see her intelligence and danger.

An accomplished archaeologist and adventurer, she plays for sport and not the cash prize at the end. Although it’s easy to dismiss her because of her origins, once you actually play and read her source material she was a fleshed-out character unafraid in a world that wasn’t made for her. Beyond this, the data around her release doesn’t support the argument that she was only there for men. In fact, Eidos’ (the publisher) initial consumer reports confirmed that Lara’s audience was in fact 40% female. A number unmatched by other games.

The classic Tomb Raider series also held groundbreaking game mechanics and pioneered the fully 3D rendered 3rd person video game. It not only brought adventure but it blended that genre with platform and puzzles, making it a harder play-through with smarter AI and traps. It also introduced multi-layered levels, a new feature to action adventures that were routinely limited to a flat-floor system. Lara’s adventures set the stage for the action adventures after that and the creators of the Uncharted series have been noted as building Nathan Drake (the male protagonist) out of Lara Croft.

Although she has a problematic past, the symbol Lara has become for women who game and the amount of work the character put in blazing the trail for other solo-led games is unquestionable. However, it seems that as much as men want to claim her body to rage against the more realistic Lara Croft from the reboot franchise, women seem quick to abandon her because of it. It’s important to remember that our experiences with representation and media as women is not a monolith. Although women find power in the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise and her realistic body proportions should be applauded, we must also remember the empowerment felt from the classic Lara. Men do not own Lara Croft, and women shouldn’t throw her away.

1 thought on “More than the Male Gaze: In Defense of the First Lara Croft

  1. “Men do not own Lara Croft, and women shouldn’t throw her away.”

    Fantastic post, Kate! I fell in love with Lara Croft when I was a little girl. While my brother and his friends were off playing as Italian plumbers and ground-stomping gorillas, I was a strong, capable, intelligent, BADASS tomb raider! What does bust size matter when you can conquer the jungle, the mountain slopes, raging rivers, and the depths of the earth?

    Lara paved the way for characters like Tifa Lockheart, KOS-MOS, Faith Connors, Fem Shep, Ciri, and so many others. Anatomically improbable or not, gaming owes so much to Classic Lara!

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