TR5: The Objectification of the Heroine

I remember when it was at least a little bit ambiguous. I remember seeing an article (probably in a print magazine — this was the 90s) with a title like “Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Sex Kitten?” And really, there has always been a good argument for the former, if you look at just the story. Lara is highly capable, self-sufficient, and confident enough to simply go for whatever she personally wants, no matter how well-guarded. The only man in her life is a doddering butler, seen in the Croft Manor tutorial levels in the second and third games. And by all reports, the developers weren’t even really going for sexy at first. They simply had the idea “Hey, what if we made the hero a woman? That would really help the game stand out, wouldn’t it?” and then made a character model that would make her gender obvious even under a severely restricted polygon count.

But the public reaction was what it was, particularly among gamerdom’s sexist lout contingent. Looking at old Usenet discussions can give the impression that Lara’s sex appeal was the game’s only notable feature, despite its innovations as a game, and the limitations of the graphics. The first “nude patch” that I was aware of was for Tomb Raider — for all I know, it may well have been the first ever. As I mentioned in my last post, the control that the game gives the player over Lara’s body seems to encourage objectification (although I can’t quite pinpoint why this effect doesn’t seem as strong in other games that offer a similar degree of control).

If sex appeal was what got people’s attention, the designers were quite willing to pander to it: the second game teased the player with a shower scene, and its ad campaign pitched it as “where the boys are”. No one asked “Feminist Icon or Sex Kitten?” any more. The answer was clear. It wasn’t as dire as certain other games I could mention, but it was setting the precedent for them. We’re too early for “jiggle physics”, but Lara’s breasts were the main beneficiaries of increases in polygon count over the series. By Chronicles, they’re more detailed than most characters’ faces.

The fourth game, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, featured a playable flashback sequence to Lara’s youth as a pigtailed teenager. I remember hearing about this and naively thinking “Huh, they’re showing her as a kid? Maybe they’re trying to make her less of a sex object and more of a human being.” But in fact teen Lara is buxom beyond her years, and still objectified — she’s merely young enough for the objectification to be a measure or two creepier than usual. The game actually takes some advantage of this: when Lara’s older male mentor Von Croy takes her to the ruins alone, the implied skeeziness does a lot to prepare the player for his transformation into a bad guy. In effect, Von Croy is used as a vessel for the player’s impure thoughts.

Teen Lara shows up again in the third chapter of Chronicles, where, driven by curiosity, she sneaks onto a boat to a demon-haunted isle. Von Croy isn’t around, and her relation to the priest investigating the site seems a lot more savory, because he didn’t bring her there on purpose and, unlike Von Croy, is at least somewhat concerned for her safety. And yet the game first takes care to almost show young Lara taking her shirt off, and I’m honestly a little disappointed in it for that. We had been doing so well at not being overtly creepy up to that point. I’m really going to have to take a look at Rhianna Pratchett’s take on the character after we’re done here, to get the taste out of my mouth.

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