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Why we’ve been arguing about Lara Croft for two decades

From fembot to feminist, her many paradoxes reflect our cultural ambivalence about what makes “strong” women.

Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider Ilzek Kitshoff/Warner Bros.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Since Lara Croft blew up gaming culture in 1996 with the first installment of Tomb Raider, her character has been so predominantly defined by her sex appeal that two decades on, we’re still trying to extricate conversations about her from conversations about her breasts.

Lara Croft has always been a cultural flashpoint, always in direct relation to her gender. Over the years, she’s also served as an example of gaming evolution, particularly in terms of graphic design. But it’s virtually impossible to find an abiding cultural conversation about Lara that doesn’t ultimately return to debate over whether she’s an empowering character.

And it’s impossible to consider her as a character without also considering the role she holds within gaming as essentially the first, and still one of the only, female characters to helm an action gaming franchise.

Lara Croft was the original cyberbabe” — but from the beginning, she was also a whole lot more

When Tomb Raider first appeared on the scene, swiftly followed by Tomb Raider II a year later, Lara Croft was critiqued as belonging to a long cultural tradition of science-fiction fembots. With her “polygonal breasts” and breathy voice, it was hard for some critics to see her as representing more than a digitized sexual fantasy. A flurry of user-made game patches with titles like “Nude Raider,” made solely for the purpose of removing her clothes to reveal her pixellated body, didn’t help that impression.

“Launching a franchise with a female archaeologist was seen as a novel concept,” Samit Sarkar, an editor at Vox’s sister site Polygon, told me. “Her character model was relatively primitive, since 3D graphics were in their infancy at the time, but it was plainly obvious that she was designed as an adolescent male fantasy: chest twice as wide as her waist, teal tank top, khaki booty shorts. At the same time, she had a take-no-guff attitude and dry British wit that people latched onto, and her video game exploits were, of course, badass.”

The evolution of Lara Croft over the years
Modified from Reddit

By 2000, the media was crediting Lara with originating the concept of the “cyberbabe.” The idea of the hyper-unrealistic female game character who served as a repository for male fantasies would go on to become a much-parodied and much-debated part of gaming culture. And the apparent contradiction between Croft’s sexual appeal and her sophisticated persona would spawn two decades of cultural ambivalence about what kind of character she was. “The battle between these parts of Lara defines the debate around her character,” Sarkar said.

Ironically, Lara’s sex appeal is also what made her one of gaming’s most groundbreaking characters. If she’d been less sexy, she arguably couldn’t have gotten away with being the lead of a video game franchise — and that was huge. Aside from 1981’s Ms. Pac-Man and a twist ending of Nintendo’s 1986 game Metroid that revealed the lead character to have been a woman all along, major game franchises basically didn’t have playable female characters as their leads at that point in the medium’s history.

Lara Croft was a huge exception to a rule that still sadly holds true for much of the gaming industry today: building a franchise around a female lead is seen as a risk. In an unpublished study whose data was reportedly shared with gaming site Penny Arcade in 2012, the video game research company EEDAR found that just 3.6 percent of nearly 700 games it surveyed had playable characters that were exclusively women — that is, female characters who couldn’t be swapped out with a male avatar. And the games in the study with male-only playable characters were said to have sold better than the ones that included women.

So Lara was, in at least one sense, an extraordinary example of female empowerment. It was rare enough that she helmed a franchise in which players can only play as a woman — but that franchise was also a worldwide bestselling cultural phenomenon. Lara, in her earliest incarnations, may have been a fembot, but if male gamers wanted to fantasize about her, they had to get to know her first.

And there was a lot to get to know. As “the female Indiana Jones,” Lara was aristocratic, filthy rich, highly educated, adventurous, and a technological wunderkind. She even killed Bigfoot. In 1998, the British Ministry of Science named her as an ambassador for British scientific excellence.

But despite these character traits, she was still seen primarily as a sexual object — and, disturbingly, as a power fantasy for male gamers who enjoyed having direct control over her. In a 2000 interview with one of her creators, Adrian Smith, he described her as “frail ... someone you’ll want to protect and nurture.” This idea would surface again over her franchise history, most notably in 2012. He also presented her as a universal romantic fantasy — for straight men like himself. When asked, “What’s Lara looking for in a soul mate?” he responded, “Definitely someone like myself: suave and sophisticated.”

Though Tomb Raider’s original publisher Eidos wanted to keep her image strictly PG, it also didn’t even try to pretend Lara appealed to women, as seen in the game’s 1997 “Where the boys are” ad campaign, which suggested men were abandoning traditional male spaces — including a strip club — to go hang out with Lara.

In 1999, Eidos went to court to keep Lara’s name and the Tomb Raider logo out of Playboy, successfully arguing that such a public association of the character with pornography would forever ruin her image. By that point, however, it was clear that Lara’s design was part of the problem.

The cultural conversation about Lara has always involved her breast size

Though most people associate Lara Croft with gaming culture’s problem of sexual objectification, the truth is that she’s probably less representative than you think. In fact, a 2016 study examining three decades of gender representation in games found that “extreme sexualization” of women — all the traits Lara Croft came to embody, rightly or wrongly — actually reached their peak in 1995, the year before Lara appeared on the scene.

So when considering that we have spent two decades being fixated on Lara Croft’s cup size, it’s helpful to keep in mind that this ongoing cultural conversation about boobs has arguably done more to curb systemic sexual objectification in gaming than to perpetuate it.

Part of the reason for the constant scrutiny of Lara’s boobs — which famously got larger in the second installment of the game, allegedly due to a coding error that the developer decided to keep — is that in the late ’90s, larger questions about who was meant to play Tomb Raider and relate to Lara Croft kept getting derailed by the issue of whether women could relate to her if they didn’t also have enormous breasts.

For the 1998 essay collection From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender in Video Games, Cal Jones, then the reviews editor for PC Gaming World, articulated an argument that would recur throughout Lara’s history: that her impossible anatomy made her a sham of a feminist role model, and that women (and himself) knew better than to fall for it. “Lara, get those melons out of your vest and I’ll like you a whole lot better,” he concluded.

In 1997, the Independent lightly examined the way tabloids had been ranking potential actresses who could play Lara based primarily on their breast size. Teenage girls were supposedly driven to get breast implants because of her. The models who played her were hailed for matching her physical proportions.

In essence, while it was assumed that male gamers would be eager to embrace Lara because she was hot, the idea that women could also relate to her if they didn’t mirror her physically was hotly contested.

There also seemed to be a nebulous sense of unease around the idea that Lara was virtual and not real — that we could inhabit her and even manipulate her, but never fully know her. The perpetual discussion about her breasts, then, may have served as a way to both negotiate and combat this anxiety.

At first, the discussion mainly fixated on the weird triangle boob effect caused by the early days of graphics, and the way it emphasized just how alien she was to the typical presentation of a male sexual fantasy. But update after update, the breast chat kept right on coming. And the more physical we made her, the more we kept her cyborg-like nature at bay.

The focus on her cleavage also, of course, gave us a perennial starting point for larger discussions about the depiction of women in the media. In 2015, for example, a website devoted to fighting eating disorders depicted Lara with anatomically realistic proportions as part of a series devoted to pointing out how unnaturally women are depicted in game design.

As gaming culture advanced, the mainstay conversation about her physical appearance also began to expand and overlap with an emerging critique of an archetype she had arguably helped originate.

Is Lara Croft a strong female character? Or a “Strong Female Character?

2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider
Square Enix

Lara Croft’s success is built on a number of paradoxes. She had a list of badass character traits, but was also, for most of her franchise, a total cipher with zero development. For all the conversation about her boobs, early installments of the game showed her from behind most of the time during the actual gameplay. According to her own creator, she was simultaneously “strong” and “frail.” She was a virtual fantasy, but was made flesh and blood by the first Tomb Raider movies starring Angelina Jolie — which necessitated yet more discussion about cup size.

All of this made her synonymous with a conversation that recurred throughout geek culture in the late-aughts and early tens: the issue of the “strong female character” and the pernicious embedded sexism within its presentation as a form of female empowerment.

For most of the first decade of her existence, Lara was lauded as a strong female character — no quotes. But as conversations about depictions of women in media began to evolve, and notions about pop culture tropes began to expand, the early critiques of her character as anti-feminist began to return. Lara increasingly began to be seen as an example of a character whose “strength” is deceptive, usually depicted as purely physical, while her primary purpose is to placate the male gaze, and her overall character satisfies a patriarchal depiction of femininity.

This critique got a major boost from 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot and the subsequent 2015 sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider. As part of the press around the reboot’s development, in 2012, Eidos announced that “you’ll want to protect” the new Lara Croft — from sexual assault. This famously caused a gaming community firestorm around the trope that equates female “strength” to forcing them to survive sexualized violence. (Though Eidos downplayed the element of sexual assault after it drew backlash, it’s still arguably present in the ultimate version players experienced.)

The Tomb Raider reboots provided a cultural touchstone for emergent criticism of the Strong Female Character archetype, while also providing a space for reimagining what that archetype might look like from a more overtly feminist perspective. Crucially, the new Alicia Vikander Tomb Raider drew heavily upon the reboot and sequel, and has carried all of the franchise’s frustrating litany of paradoxes along with it. “Can Lara Croft ever really be a feminist icon?” Mashable’s Jess Joho asked in response to the film:

Lara once again feels like a woman who was not birthed from a womb, but rather sprung from the mind of a patriarch, fully formed, like your modern-day Athena in a ripped tank top.

And fundamentally, that’s precisely what Lara Croft is. She began as the pixelated creation of a man, molded for the consumption of a presumed male audience, and continually iterated upon by teams made up of predominantly men. Yes, both the new games and movie have women in lead writing roles. But evidently, one woman’s voice cannot retroactively undo decades of Lara serving as a virtual plaything for boys and men.

Former game developer (and current congressional candidate) Brianna Wu told me she “never cared much about Lara Croft until the 2013 Tomb Raider because so much of the conversation was about her body. It felt like she was yet another character created for men.” Now, however, the focus is — finally, hopefully — off her body, Wu says, and “is now about her internal struggle to be more than she is.”

But as much as fans like Joho and Wu are ready for a more nuanced version of Lara, some male critics and fans have taken issue with Vikander’s version as too nuanced. In a much-maligned piece for PhillyVoice, writer Jerome Maida blasted the new Lara’s lack of sex appeal and “interchangeability” with any male character (comments that have since been redacted from his review). Others just kept focusing on her boobs.

“A lot of this discussion is about male geeks marking their territory,” Wu told me. “They liked it just fine when Lara Croft was a character created for their satisfaction. And they honestly can’t understand what others see in her.”

But Lara clearly resonates with women who’ve long been treated as afterthoughts in the gaming world. “There’s a reason when you go to Pax [a nationwide series of gaming conventions] you see so many women cosplaying her,” Wu said. “I know I identify fiercely with her — and I’m not the only one.”

How far this cultural reappraisal will carry the Tomb Raider franchise into the future is anyone’s guess — but it’s clear that the ongoing trend of reevaluating and reframing Lara Croft as a feminist icon has yet to outstay its welcome. The many paradoxes of Lara Croft have helped shape depictions of women in the first decades 21st century, and will be with us for a long time to come.

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