Friday, 8 June 2012

103% Flashback: E3 and Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or 90s Irrelevance?

Originally published in 2012 by Ben Winterton

I was recently involved in a formal debate about the portrayal of women in videogames, and whether this can be seen as progressive or not. The general consensus seemed to be that, whilst the majority of women in video games are seen as either sex symbols or princesses to be rescued, the female characters people care about are neither of those things. For instance, much emphasis was put on characters from the ‘Mass Effect’ universe, as well as the relationship between Chell and GLadOS from ‘Portal’.

This fan theory behind GLaDOS is an unsettling reading into how female characters are received by the community.

Perhaps the biggest point of contention, however, surrounded Lara Croft, and whether her position as the most famous female videogame character can be seen as positive or not.

The argument in favour of her being a positive force is as follows: Lara is a solid action hero, who does not rely on men to save her or do the big shooting for her, but rather is more than capable of playing Indiana Jones herself (the direct reference to a similar male character being somewhat pertinent).

Now, this is all well and good, but I argue that if she is a strong enough character for all this to be true she doesn’t need to be sexualised. Unfortunately, whether justified or not, this is how Lara Croft is seen in the public eye, not least because of a certain pair of films...

Don't say they were OK. Just don't. They weren't.

And until recently, that was who Lara Croft was. A relic lost in the tomb of 90s casual sexism. But now gaming has matured (ok, it has got slightly more mature. Hasn't it? A little bit... please?) and she has become a joke. That was, at least, until the planned reboot came along.

I’d seen screenshots and read about the new ‘Tomb Raider’ angle, but I didn’t really have a strong feeling about it until I saw the E3 trailer. Firstly, she actually looks like a real person. A young woman with slightly amplified but believable proportions. Fantastic.

Furthermore, she seems slightly more real. The fight for survival seems much more intense. Put simply, the trailer Square Enix (Squeenix) released was 3 minutes of Lara getting the crap kicked out of her. It is genuinely brutal, but more importantly defines the game on its own terms. Lara is no longer a wise-cracking superhuman (*cough Nathan Drake cough*) but a real, scared, desperate person.

Hooray! They’ve made Lara Croft relevant! She is going on a quest to save her also-female friend from some dickheads! And here come the men with guns to help her get the...oh wait. Nah, they’ve fucked it up.

Note from 2014: I've since played that game (it wasn't released at the time of this article's publication) and it was a  welcomed notion that Tomb Raider was a decently made title starring a reasonably written female lead who doesn't insult our intelligence or reveal any overtly fetished design behind her appearance or mannerisms. The violence against Lara is inevitable in an action game loaded with hazards, people shooting at her and so forth and only at times did the presentation of this veer into the uncomfortably gratuitous area and is primarily only ever witnesses as a result of failure, and not just for the heck of it.

You won't get the stark stoicism of Samus Aran here, and Lara does have a wee bit of a cry near the beginning of her story arc, which makes sense. It's nice to see an origin story of a videogame superhero that actually makes some modicum of sense from an emotional standpoint and it's not like it takes away from her hero status. Scenes of emotional depletion are presented but Lara's strength comes from her dogged resilience in the face of overwhelming adversity.

The writers aren't afraid to have Lara save and be saved by her fellow crew members and it never feels that she's a damsel when she is saved, rather she is part of a team that includes dudes because why not. Let's not forget that she is the protagonist of this piece and that she drives the events of the story. My largest problem with the plot is that violence against women has been very much used as a shallow plot point to motivate the idea that you're killing a bunch of dudes because they've got some messed up cult ideas about women, which to my mind trivialises the wider issue of VAW by presenting the false idea that it's only on the fringes of our society or among 'the island crazies' that such acts are perpetrated, where this is known not to be the case.

Just having a well rounded female protagonist in a high quality console release is (sadly) activism enough if your studio is trying to tackle gender bias in this industry and the clumsily presented themes on the whole does take some of the shine of the well thought out character work for this new Lara Croft. Maybe the studios just wanted an all male cast of villains so that I'd definitely get the message that their main lead was female. Well I did get it. Cheers Squeenix. Next time you do a Tomb Raider game, I'm hoping you won't undermine your female lead by also pointing out the fact it's odd that she's female. It shouldn't treated as a pleasing novelty, even though it currently is.

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