The video game industry is yet another form of media that is highly influenced and managed by the white male vision that embodies the ideals of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity. According to both the Entertainment Software Association and the Interactive Software Federation of Europe, women today occupy half of the entire gaming population. And yet, women continue to face severe underrepresentation in mainstream video games with minimal improvement in the last two decades. When looking at every video game presented at every Electronic Entertainment Expo press conference in 2015, only 7 of the 76 games, less than 10%, centered around a female lead. Meanwhile, 30%, more than three times the video games with female heroines, centered around male protagonists. In the years following 2015, up until 2019, this trend has remained consistent with males currently being nearly five times more likely than females to be portrayed as the main character in a video game (Ivory, 2006.) Studies show “65%…of the reviews indicated male playable characters, whereas only 22%…mentioned female playable characters” (Ivory, 2006.) According to the video game research company EEDAR, only 4 percent of the 700 games they surveyed had exclusively women leads or characters that couldn’t be exchanged for a male character. As much as female representation is important, the quality of this representation is equally important. The portrayal of women in games often reflects traditional gender roles and stereotypes causing female characters to often be subjected to sexual objectification or created only for the purposes of being a supporting character for the male lead. The worldwide, bestselling game Tomb Raider was one of the very first videogames to feature a playable, female character. Through the evolution of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, we can see the evolution of feminisms in video games and the increasing demand for better female representation in media.
1996 Lara Croft
In video games, it is not uncommon to constantly neglect or stereotype the female gender throughout the duration of its gameplay (Kondrat, 2015.) In fact, “female characters are more likely than male characters to be portrayed as sexualized (60% versus 1%), scantily clad (39% versus 8%) and as showing a mix of sex and aggression (39 versus 1%)” (Dill, 2007.) Before Lara Crofts 1996 emergence in Tomb Raider, there were no playable female characters in any major game franchise. The only exception to this was the 1986 game Metroid that did not reveal their lead character as a woman until the very end of the game as a major plot twist. The introduction of Lara Croft, at the time, was a major breakthrough in female representation in both video games and media in general. This female character was strong, powerful, and adventurous, and the entirety of the plotline revolved around her, something not very common at this point in time. Because of this, many women in pop culture began to idolize her character. However, Lara Croft was soon seen as a less reliable feminist icon as she was realized to be designed by men for the purposes of satisfying the majority of the male player’s fantasies. In the original 1996 version of Tomb Raider, the female protagonist wore minimal, tight clothing throughout the entirety of the game. Her body was also designed to be highly unproportionate in order to better appeal to male audiences. This focus on Lara’s body rather than her character caused the purpose of her existence to shift from her strength to her sexuality.
By the year 2000, the media was crediting Lara Crofts and Tomb Raider with originating the concept of the “cyber babe.” The “cyber babe” concept fed into the trend in the gaming culture of hypersexualized female characters who only served to satisfy male fantasies. Many consumers worried this concept would cause young girls to feel further dissatisfied with their own bodies and cause them to attempt to “recraft their bodies in line with these impossible images” (Kennedy, 2002.) According to the cultivation theory, repeated exposure to media content “influences how social realities are perceived and understood.” Those who play a lot of video games, especially those in their adolescence, may begin to base their beliefs about gender on the realities presented in sexist video games (Begue, 2017.) Almost reinforcing this, the game’s original publisher very openly discussed the intended audience of the game, as seen in the game’s 1997 “Where the boys are” ad campaign that was targeted towards men.
2001 Film Adaptation Tomb Raider: Lara Croft
The first film adaptation, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, featured Angelina Jolie and premiered in June of 2001. Although being the highest-grossing film on its opening weekend, the film received generally negative reviews for its “bland plot” (Kilkenny, 2018.) Still, the film was initially praised for its forwardness in featuring a strong female heroine in a male-dominated industry. However, later the film was highly criticized for its accommodation of the male gaze in what was supposed to be a movie tackling feminisms. Similar to the video game, Jolie wore minimal clothing to enhance her sensuality, even when unsuited to her environment and physical needs. Throughout the film, Jolie was also constantly scrutinized under the male gaze. Some critics claim the 2001 film objectifies Lara simply by the way the camera itself frames her (Dolihn, 2018.) In the film, Lara is filmed with the same third-person point of view as video games. Through this lens, the audience is encouraged to identify her as an object rather than focus on her individuality and experiences. For instance, at the beginning of the movie, the camera pans across Lara as she is taking a shower. In this scene, it feels as though we are watching her bathe rather than experiencing the shower itself to understand its relevance to the plot. Throughout the film, Lara is continuously placed in compromising positions, and at one point we even see the entirety of a battle through the opponent’s eyes rather than her own.
2013 Lara Croft
In the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider, the game features a younger version of Lara Croft designed to better explore her backstory. The reboot of Tomb Raider is highly praised for its evolution of Lara Croft’s character and design in comparison to the original model (Brusuelas, 2018.) At first look, the look of the new female protagonist is highly evolved as she is designed to have more of a realistic, muscular build. The game also features more options for her wardrobe that corresponded to the environment and actions of the gameplay. For instance, instead of strappy short shorts, she wears long cargo pants, and you have the option to place her in a coat for the winter landscapes. What’s more, because of motion-capture technology, there is more emphasis on her face and her expressions rather than her bodily features.
The redesigned Lara is also praised to be a much more complex and multi-dimensional character outside of her looks. In the 2013 gameplay of Tomb Raider, Lara experiences and conveys emotions such as frustration, pain, wonder, hope, and loss in a way that was revolutionary for both male and female video game protagonists. Also, in this reboot, Lara is not the only female character of importance. During the game, Lara creates meaningful relationships and has important conversations with other women, such as her friend Sam Nishimura (Kilkenny, 2018.)
However, despite these major advancements in Lara Croft’s character, many argue her character is still seen primarily as a sexual object and enjoyed as a power fantasy by and for the men who can control her. In a 2000 interview with one of her creators, Adrian Smith described the younger, remade Lara as “frail, someone you’ll want to protect and nurture.” Correspondingly, in an interview with the executive producer of the Tomb Raider reboot prior to its release said the players will want to protect Lara, and “root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character” (Pinchesfky, 2013.) Players were not encouraged by his words saying, “I don’t remember having many problems projecting myself as Lara – and I don’t particularly want an avatar in a game that needs protecting. Players aren’t expected to want to protect Nathan Drake in Uncharted, or John Marston in Red Dead Redemption, or Max Payne – so why Lara?” (Hamilton, 2012.) In another highly controversial interview, executive producer Ron Rosenberg stated that this new side of Lara who needs protecting will be because of her increased vulnerability (Pinchefsky, 2013.) Because of this interview and one of the trailers released, it was suggested that following the kidnapping of her best friend, Lara’s prisoners will attempt to sexually assault her and turn her into a “corned animal” (Hamilton, 2012.) Following the immense backlash against their apparent decision to include a sexual assault scene and dehumanize a victim of an assault in the reboot, studio head Darrell Gallagher clarified that sexual assault was “not a theme we cover.” When asked about the scene, he did not deny the sexual implications drawn from the scene but instead stated it never escalates past a perceived threat.
2018 Film Adaptation Tomb Raider
The 2018 adaptation differs slightly from the original plot of the video game. This film was reviewed as a major upgrade from the 2001 version featuring Angelina Jolie. In this adaptation, Lara Croft is seen to reap all of the benefits of the 2013 gameplay, without so much of the controversy. While still not receiving exceptionally high ratings, Lara was portrayed as a fiercely independent, powerful woman. In this film, she was dressed practically, while still expressing femininity (Brusuelas, 2018.) She was never sexualized by other male characters throughout the film, and the camera refrains from panning over her sexually. Additionally, she portrayed a decent range of emotions while building real relationships with those around her. The biggest critique of the film was its choice of representation behind the camera. The reboot featured an all-male production team with only one female writer. University of Brighton professor Helen Kennedy says, “This film is a reflection of the time. There is a largely female audience, and we need more films written by women, played by women, and hopefully, as we gain more equality, directed by women.” (Kilkenny, 2018) Although receiving better reviews, the typical sexualization of women is still prevalent in this film despite it being better concealed. According to Kondrat (2015), the representation of females in video games is usually sexualized and “presents them as objects of the male gaze: most women appear to be hardly older than 30, in most cases wear skintight, figure-accenting clothing and are slim” (Konfrat, 2015.) While this is more apparent in the older versions of Lara, these observations are still seen in the 2018 film.
Slowly but Surely
While once created for solely satisfying a male fantasy, Lara’s character has grown to become a worldwide, bestselling symbol of female empowerment. As the expectation for female representation in media began to evolve, so did her character’s purpose. In recent years Tomb Raider’s female lead has transformed from depicting a patriarchal version of feminisms to showing real, complex female representation. While still being problematic for its deeply patriarchal roots that the story never managed to escape, the overall improvement of Lara’s character is one that inspires future change within a male-dominated industry. Female representation in video games, and female inclusion in their creation, is far from reaching true equal, but through Lara Croft’s character we see how the expectation for better female representation on and behind the screen is evolving and intensifying.
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