The first time I watched Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, back in 2001, I remember feeling very conflicted. On the one hand, here was a strong female action heroine, capable of holding her own against the toughest guys. On the other, the scene I recall most vividly is one of Angelina Jolie exiting her bathtub, boobs barely covered by a skimpy towel. In other words, the exciting sight of a woman kicking ass was tempered by the realization that she wasn't created to inspire me, but rather to cater to my little brother's emerging libido.
That split between what media culture professor Helen W.Kennedy once called "Lara the feminist icon," and "Lara the cyberbimbo" has been a constant throughout the character's 22-year journey, which will take its next steps in the upcoming reboot starring Alicia Vikander on March 16. This latest iteration of Lara Croft appears to be an attempt to reclaim the character's more overt feminist traits — but what is it really working with?
When audiences were first introduced to Lara Croft, a female Indiana Jones-like character, on October 25, 1996, it was in the form of a 21-year-old adventuress wearing a teal tank top and barely-there brown shorts, further obscured by a utility belt. Her long hair was practically swept up in a French braid, her feet protected by bulky hiking boots. Creator Toby Gard, a designer at Core Design in the United Kingdom, had originally conceived of the character as a male archeologist, but eventually gender-swapped, creating the entity we've come to know.
With each new update, the hemlines got shorter and the neckline deeper. The most successful (and rare) female protagonist in a still largely male-dominated video game industry was also the embodiment of its worst tendencies.“She is one of the most iconic representations of women in gaming, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing,” Anita Sarkeesian, executive editor Feminist Frequency, told the New York Times in 2016. “She is a hypersexualized character that promotes a deep objectification of women.”
It's interesting to note that Gard once tried to protect his creation from ever-increasing sexualization, arguing: “I don’t think that the character would ever get into Maxim-style poses.” Still, from the very beginning, her absurdly exaggerated proportions, which included a 24-inch waist balanced out with a 36DD cleavage, suggested that there was always an intention to market her as a sex symbol.
For her role in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life (2003), Jolie had to wear padded prosthetics to increase her breast size from a 36C to a 36D, which apparently posed some logistical issues for director Simon West. ”The main decision was whether to shoot above the breasts or below the breasts,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2001. ”They’re such a big thing to frame around.” Ha ha, Simon. Ha ha.
Her Lara was badass — that scene where she annihilates an entire commando of fighters while hanging on a harness in silk pajamas remains one of my favorite ever — but she was always framed in relation to the men around her. It never felt like we were watching her journey; Daniel Craig and Gerard Butler always got in the way.
Still, things have changed since Jolie's Lara went into retirement. For one thing, women now make up 41%, or nearly half, of all video game users, according to a study from 2016. This has prompted game manufacturers, including Crystal Dynamics (the developer holding the rights to the Lara Croft franchise) to re-imagine how they market female characters. In 2013, the company rebooted the game, switching out Lara Croft's signature shorts for more practical cargo pants. This updated version of Lara, voiced by Grey’s Anatomy actress Camilla Luddington, has more human-like measurements than her cartoonish predecessor; her muscles, somewhat of a prerequisite for someone who spends their days climbing in an out of ancient structures, are more obvious and defined. This was a Lara meant to appeal to all her fans, women and men alike. (The third game in the rebooted franchise, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the trailer for which has just been released, will be handled by a new company, Eidos Montreal. But just what that will mean for the character remains to be seen.)
It makes sense that Alicia Vikander's incarnation of the iconic character is based on this new version. The actress has made very clear her intention to reframe the narrative to one that is more empowering to women, without the sexual ambiguity of past takes. During an appearance on the Graham Norton Show, she addressed certain male fans' criticism of her slight build head-on, joking that her “breasts are not as pointy as the first Lara’s.”
Director Roar Uthaug's decision to focus on the character's origin story rather than the legend we've come to know, as well as omitting any form of love interest, are clear signals that this Tomb Raider isn't the one we've grown used to seeing. Just as every new generation of women stands on struggles and successes of the one that came before, so, too, does our most famous woman gaming legend. And this Lara did not come to play. Vikander trained for four months with a combination of MMA training, rock climbing, and weightlifting, gaining nearly 12 pounds of muscle for the role.
Her Lara Croft is the perfect new addition to a canon of re-imagined female heroes that is still too small for my liking, but growing fast.
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