Can Lara Croft ever really be feminist?
Lara Croft is a character who inherently comes with decades of baggage — and I don’t just mean the absurd chest size that’s tended to define her iconography.
The latest iterations of Lara in the 2013 video game reboot and corresponding 2018 movie reboot (if you’re keeping score, that’s a reboot within a reboot — and please, god, make it stop) have attempted to cast her in a more feminist or relatable light. Some of those attempts feel sincere. Overall, none of them amount to more than #feminism as #woke #branding.
Truth be told, the Alicia Vikander-starring Tomb Raider is still probably one of the best video game adaptations Hollywood has ever managed to produce. True, that’s a pretty low bar to clear, when you’re out-classing, like, the Resident Evil movies and 1995’s Mortal Kombat. But it is a mostly unobjectionable, entertaining way to spend two hours — that presents no modicum of originality or risk.
To its credit, the Tomb Raider movie does a surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) better job than the new video games at fixing the male gaze-y stuff seemingly embedded into Lara Croft’s mythology. Take her well-documented daddy issues, for instance. For the first time, this origin story at least tries to remove Lara from beneath the long shadow of daddy Croft.
Usually, the entirety of Lara’s wealth, capabilities, success, motivations, interests, and characteristics are passed down to her by Richard Croft. The movie instead pointedly establishes her as a scrappy delivery girl strapped for cash, rejecting his inheritance money and mysterious disappearance because she believes he’s still alive somewhere. But even this “major” deviation is half-hearted. Despite a truly stellar performance from Vikander, Lara as a character remains paper thin, with her every want, need, hobby, and aspiration still tied to her father.
There’s a difference between having a parent’s absence be part of a hero’s character or origin story — a la Batman, Harry Potter, or every other hero’s journey archetype — versus having it be the only part. Batman is an outcast, annoyingly sanctimonious, masochistic, idealistic. Harry Potter is devoted, stupidly brave, alienated, loving, loyal.
But I haven’t the faintest clue who Lara is, other than very insistent on finding her father. She’s a mission, not a character. People in the film often ascribe other characteristics to her, but there’s little evidence for them in her actions. Honestly, Lara doesn’t even seem tangentially interested in, you know, tombs or archeology — unless it’s related to finding dad.
As always, the question of Lara’s relationship to her mother, or even the existence of her maternal lineage, is barely addressed. 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.
No matter how much both the film and games try to avoid the male gaze, it becomes apparent that a room full of dudes doesn’t really understand what that is. Sure, Lara’s old Barbie-doll figure is replaced by a more athletic ballerina build. But I ask you again, is a minor improvement like that really enough to make her more than a coveted woman trapped in the prism of male perspectives?
I’m not arguing for a sexless Lara. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman demonstrates how a beautiful, feminine, sexy female action hero does not need to be constantly leered at, threatened with rape, or coveted in order to exist on screen.
But an early scene in Tomb Raider sees Lara Croft playing the part of a literal fox in a game where hordes of men on bikes chase her tail as a prize. What’s worse, the scene’s intention of establishing her character’s cleverness and skills is interrupted by her failing miserably… because she’s distracted by something related to her father.
I mean, yikes. If that’s not an allegory for the issues with Lara Croft as a feminist character, I don’t know what is.
But, listen, maybe you’re not walking into the Tomb Raider movie with all this pent-up yearning, baggage, and disappointment at the biggest missed opportunity for women in games. Even if you are, there is still mindless enjoyment to be found in Tomb Raider.
Lifelong fans of the games will likely appreciate the subtle nuances the writers bring to their interpretation of her legend by avoiding series conventions. It has fun with recalls to the games, without being too beholden to them to make a good movie. Daniel Wu, Lara’s partner throughout her arduous journey, is a source of charm and grounding humanity that matches the Oscar-winning Vikander.
Yet as someone who has loved games all her life — despite the fact that they marginalize and exploit my gender to absurd degrees — I cannot help but leave Tomb Raider feeling a bit… empty. I’m tired of subsisting on scraps of seemingly empowered female heroes — especially after having tasted full meals like Wonder Woman and Jessica Jones. It’s a telling sign when the most exhilarating part of a supposedly female-centric movie is when the protagonist kicks a dude in the balls.
Lara Croft is still struggling to find her identity as a hero for women, rather than just a female action icon who is a reaction to men. The new Tomb Raider movie may not rest its appeal on Lara’s bosoms like so many others have.
But frankly it’s 2018, and she deserves more than that. We all deserve more than that.