Why Lara Croft is My Feminist Hero… and How I Understand that She’s Not

So, what’s the first thing you think of when someone mentions Tomb Raider or Lara Croft? I bet it’s “boobs!” I don’t blame you; she has a fabulous rack. It probably didn’t help perceptions when her first incarnation sported a chest model that looked like Toblerone, but I think the real reason Lara was so sexualized was in the way it was marketed. I’m not going to go off about this in particular because I feel it’s fairly obvious and out of my realm of expertise, but as a teenage girl growing up in the ’90s I knew the commercials and gamer-mag ads weren’t intended for me. I still loved gaming and like most Americans, I soaked up the media. I remember successfully shoplifting a Playstation demo disc from a magazine at Safeway. I remember yelling at a Best Buy clerk (poor guy, I was such a crusty custy) because they stopped manufacturing original Playstation non-analog controllers.

I was a girl and I was a gamer and I was 16 when I bought my first Playstation in 1997. Like most lower middle class suburban white kids in America at the time, I got a part time fast food job over the summer (who could’ve guessed I’d still be working them 15 years later? Why, everyone! Notice I said “lower middle class” not “upper” – trust me there’s a massive world of difference). Having overused my privilege to borrow my boyfriend’s consoles (sweet-talk for “kept them at my house all the time”) I found it necessary (that is, was told “You gotta job now, get yer own!”) to make my first big purchase in life ever – $180 for a brand-new Playstation. He drove me to Best Buy and I him-hawwed and sat in the aisle trying to talk myself into it. I’d never had so much money, let alone spent that much all in one chunk. But I did it and after a nervous and giggly transaction I took my big shiny factory-sealed box off the conveyor belt and beamed like a two year old given a cupcake wrapped in a bow served on a chocolate platter while being showered in glitter and confetti and being paraded around town with a tinny loudspeaker playing “Hail to the Chief”. Best purchase of my life. The boyfriend gave me a few of his discs, Wipeout XL being my favorite of them. I started hounding my parents to rent games at Blockbuster. I managed to glean a disc or two off neighborhood friends, and ended up being given a copy of Tomb Raider 2 with the explanation “This game is fuckin hard”. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.

Now, why is Lara special? Why is she a feminist issue? It’s been pretty much determined she’s not good for feminism and doesn’t do anything worth mentioning – at least, this is the impression I’ve gotten over the last year or so of reading blogs/tweets/youtube videos/game-mag articles in both the feminist community and the video game community because for all the take-downs of feminist tropes in video games I read about, Lara Croft is always omitted; neither mentioned as a symbol of sexism nor as an icon of girl power. I realize my experience is subjective and I have not viewed all of the content in the world, so please forgive me if my perspective is limited. I am by no means an expert on feminism (this is the first I’ve written about the subject) but I am a woman and gamer who grew up in the context of Tomb Raider in pop culture, so take it or leave it I reckon xP  *

So why is Lara a hero to me? A Feminist Hero at that – she does what she wants, with grace, and without question. She goes where she wants, and no cultural atmosphere can scare her into not participating. Subordinate to no-one; intimidating Yakuza bosses, breaking into secret military bases, infiltrating and then surviving a sinking Russian submarine, usurping her mentor and entombing a god – nobody gets the chance to talk down to her twice. She’s rich; for all the railing I do against the rich, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to be one too! Passports, permissions? Pah, parachutes properly procured! The kind of classic action hero tropes we all know and love – a blazing motorcycle chase where she launches off a cliff at full speed and lands on top of a moving train; in a jeep chucking through the Saharan dunes being pursued by mercenaries; in an opera balcony looking stunning in a long high-slit evening gown, goon attempts to coerce an artifact from her, she roundhouse kicks him, backflips onto the railing, flips onto the stage, where the spotlight lands on her, she bows and blows kisses to the audience, roses are thrown, she runs off to continue her escape; she’s every badass that’s ever been in pop culture. She’s James Bond, John McClane and Jackie Chan and she’s a woman. She has a dry cool wit that I think gets completely lost amidst the “Haha I’d like to raid her tomb, knowutimean” imagery in the brand’s advertising.  The very first words I heard her speak was the cutscene at the end of The Great Wall level in Tomb Raider 2.

Level 1: Great Wall Ending

Lara approaches the elaborately decorated wooden door, only to be ambushed by an armed thug. She manages to dodge his gunfire and throw him off, sending his weapon clattering to one side.

“Pardon me, if that was just your way of trying the doors for me,” Lara quips, training her pistols on the man.

Gotta love that dry-cool wit. And TR2 has by far the worst storyline in the entire series. There’s only maybe a dozen lines of written dialogue in it, hah. Where I feel the writing and acting really shines is in Legend – that final scene chokes me up every time.

She’s the spelunker and scholar I always dreamed of being, really. I know this is the nerdiest thing to say, but when I was a little kid in grade school, I wanted to be an archaeologist. Hell, I still do. My oldest passion is paleontology and archaeology – I had books about dinosaurs (and not creationist ones, yay!) and King Tut’s Tomb and ancient Meso-American civilizations and Greek mythology and Lara embodied all the things I had dreamed of since I first learned to read. While I realize archeology is nothing like climbing on blocks and pulling switches and picking up keys in perfectly cubic alcoves, getting to explore the secrets in chambers deep underneath the Sphinx while being a woman and archaeologist and a total badass was so fucking cool. How rare is it to have such an identity as obscure as this be expressed in a cultural icon that is as enduring as Tomb Raider has been? I mean seriously, what an intersection! Archaeology and sexy women, I can’t be the only fangirl of such a thing.

Finally – yes, she’s beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with admiring beauty and I would love Lara no less were she not of the classic Barbie style. I don’t feel inclined to argue much about whether she should look as she does because I can’t thoroughly describe my tastes in attractiveness nor classify “what I like” because my tastes aren’t limited to gender or specific body types. I do consider her beauty as yet another aspect of her to adore, and won’t hesitate in admitting I’ll objectify the hell out of her in pictures (note the pictures I’ve created of her both on this blog -she’s an airplane!- and at my deviantart). I suspect the more I learn the less I will publicly publish the more sexually explicit ones, but that is an argument for another time, heh.

Now as for why I know all of that was really pointless – my perspective is not universal. It doesn’t matter that I can squeeze a good chunk of personal meaning out of something as seemingly vapid as Tomb Raider. People would still make sexist remarks about her because that’s all the meaning they could ever get out of it. They haven’t had my experiences and by the same token I haven’t had theirs. I’m well aware of how Lara Croft is portrayed in advertising, in review media and inside the gaming community, for I have been a part of that community all its life. I’m not here to change that (yet? heh) but I am privileged to be able to give my perspective.

*unrelated but someday I will argue for the validity of emoticons as punctuation >_>

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