Consider Lara Croft’s character in the above ad for the Game of the Year reissue of 2014’s Tomb Raider. Down, down she tumbles into the tomb like Alice into Wonderland, crying out like any number of woman-in-peril tropes. (Was she pushed?) “Ugh! I hate tombs!” she exclaims and stands still for the camera to remind us that she is still cute under all that dirt. Then she slips. A common motif.
A pattern emerges in 2013’s Tomb Raider: Lara meets (or, rather, is confronted by) a new obstacle, Lara emotes frustration, Lara cheers herself on with Rosie the Riveter’s can-do spirit – a gal in a guy’s dangerous world. Acting as her own Number-One Fan, Lara embodies problematic aspects of classical femininity, such as ambivalence, feeling too much and thinking too little, and not the boyish naivete common to hero narratives but its ditsy sister, innocence. A hero begins naïve, becomes wise. Our heroine begins innocent. What’s the opposite of innocent? Fallen, besmirched, corrupted.
A reboot differentiates itself from a shot-for-shot remake with a new story arc for an old story, so let’s look at Tomb Raider’s new beginning and ending. (For corroboration’s sake, please refer to the first minute and last minute of the embedded video.)
In the exciting opening cut scene we see Lara rescued from drowning by a man’s outstretched hand, strong, assertive. “In our darkest moments,” Lara says in voice over, as we watch her panic and scream for help. She goes on: “We find something, something that keeps us going.” The screen cuts to black, followed immediately by the thrust of a man’s strong arm to save her. So this “something” that “we find” is not an internal resolve (gender neutral, available to all) but an external male-gendered power on whom we must rely and in whom we must have faith.
Before the player has any control over this new Lara, she owes her survival to a man. Is this the root of her need for affirmation throughout the adventure? He saved her, she could have died. Lara Croft – once the bossy confident femme fatale – now, for better or worse, meets danger with self-addressed cheering. At press, tellingly, a commenter exclaims on one post of the game’s cut scenes, “I remember when [Lara] was a bad ass who kicked ass, took names without taking punishment,” calling the new Lara “whiny.”
The game’s final screen spells out tritely in super-imposed text the game’s tagline, “A Survivor is Born.” Are we to imagine that the bulk of the game’s action has occurred either in a birth canal or in utero, that every scrape and scratch and bloody murder has been a formative influence, a translation of RNA to DNA, an opportunity to grow? Kill by kill, our fetal hero overcomes another trouble to survive and be a survivor; she will survive, keep on survivin’. For our newborn survivor, to kill is to self-actualize; to give bloody birth to herself.
Complying with established tropes and indulging game-playing misogynists, the game presents an antisexualistic cosmic reality, supernaturally influenced and organized by a goddess, at that! – in which the only good virgin is a sacrificed virgin, sacrificed by copulation or crucifixion, by transubstantiation or by fire, as Lara’s friend Sam will learn.
According to the commercial spot as history lesson above, if some developers had got their way (conversation begins at 3:37), Lara herself would have been such an ill-fated lamb, trapped forever under the weight of a collapsing tomb. Just desserts for a disobedient woman, symbol of the tyrannical feminine, wannabe “Taskmaster.” (Listening to these guys bro out, we commend Lara’s creator Toby Gard for disavowing the character, as he did back in 1996, because he disagreed with the misogynistic direction the direct sequels were heading.)
The third act plays out as a new, if not particularly inventive, position for the old princess-saving ceremony, set to the slam-bang tune of “Bring Us the Girl. Wipe Away the undead samurais.” Sam acts, or rather is acted upon, as the Princess Toadstool to Lara’s Mario, Zelda to Lara’s Link. Lara equivocates her own murderous actions to defenses of Sam’s girlish innocence in peril. Sam prizes her good name and its accompanying perceived purity, the source of her worth as an object without personal agency. If the new Tomb Raider has a romantic element, it is Lara’s obsession with Sam. Brave souls with time to kill can check out the corner of YouTube featuring scenes between Sam and Lara set to songs such as “She Will Be Loved” and, more fittingly, the stalker anthem “Every Breath You Take.” (You can find that one on your own.)
Try this experiment: Reassign our protagonist’s sex, make a he of our she. Diminish none of the hyper-sexuality. Rather, transform our combat-ready Aphrodite into Mars the rake, a war-god ready for love: expand the frame, broaden the shoulders, deflate and reshape breasts into powerful pecs, chisel out a six-pack (inguinal crease included), accentuate the muscles of the back, shape the thighs and calves with hypertrophic definition. Finally, and this is an all-important step, cram lust objects of impractical, if not impossible, dimensions down his pants. The public wants to see their shapeliness outlined in the fabric around the front zipper of the BDUs. Where once the jiggle determined an object’s desirableness, let there be engorgement.
“I can do this,” says our new male-identified protagonist. He is his own greatest cheerleader. Examples exist, in the action-adventure genre of the game state, of male characters talking to themselves, expressing self-doubt, mocking their own foolishness, even giving themselves a little pep-talk. But can we find a male equivalent of Lara’s self-abasing emotionalism, her sheepishness, her incessant need for affirmation from external sources? I can think of one in particular.