Lara Croft: Sexist or Empowering?

Since she first made her debut back in 1996, Lara Croft has long been accused as being a shameless sex symbol in the industry thanks to her generous body proportions and mannerisms. And I will admit, I had my own misgivings about her for a long, long time after seeing the games and following the discussion. After all, why would I want to play a game where a female character is made solely to appeal to men because of her sexuality?

But in the years since, I’ve actually become a big fan of the Tomb Raider series, playing a majority of them and eagerly awaiting Crystal Dynamic’s reboot coming this spring. And after spending time with them and getting to know Lara more as a character, I’ve actually found myself pondering the question: Is Lara the sexist image that so many accuse her to be? Or is she an empowered representation of females in video games?

And after looking into it and reading the thoughts of others, I’ve found the answer is not really so cut-and-dry. Sure, she’s a character who’s quick to don a pair of ridiculously short shorts and a revealing tank top and take to the snowy mountains of Peru in search of ancient artifacts, but she’s also a well-educated woman who’s capable of defending herself and navigating some of the most dangerous corners of the world, often without anything by the way of companionship. So, what can be said of the buxom treasure hunter?

In a 2008 article for Edge Online, author Kris Graft cited one female gaming industry PR rep as saying “what Lara did for women in gaming is provide great strides forward in including female characters as the playable character in video games. Yes, we’re still looking for more strong females in games, but without doubt there is an improvement in this area, no matter how slowly it moves, and Lara Croft and her success are responsible in part for this.”

This brings up an interesting point. Sure, playable females have been in games for years, stretching all the way back to the early days of Samus Aran. But whereas Samus wasn’t revealed to be a female character until after the end of the game, Lara is an overtly female character from the start. You didn’t know the little bounty hunter was a girl in a suit when you played Metroid, but you’re fully aware Lara’s a woman from the second you pick up the game off store shelves.

I remember sitting in a Psychology class back in my high school days and discussing women’s portrayals in the media. Surprisingly, the ancient textbook we’d been given actually cited Lara, and one of the writers brought up the point that Lara, for all her aesthetic, mimicked everything a male video game character would do, all without many of the limitations placed on so many other female game characters. She had essentially taken on a male role while retaining her own female identity, making her an empowered figure within the gaming sphere.

Now, it could be argued that she does command an unrealistic imagining of the female form. But one of the greatest hypocrisies in our society rests in the hands of millions of little girls in Barbie dolls. What do they teach little girls in america? Big boobs and no waist = you can do anything!

So is Lara sexist? Like I said, I’ve been a skeptic of hers in the past, but in all my Tomb Raider fandom today, I’d argue that once you break her down and understand her as a character, she’s actually one of the most positive female representations in gaming. Her presence in the late 90’s suggested that not all powerful game characters need to be beefy, bald-headed marines in order to be powerful, which is a paradigm shift that persists even today.

Sure, she’s probably appealing to the shallow souls who like seeing an exaggerated female figure in action. But to me as a female gaming enthusiast, she’s an interesting and unique figure that suggests there is room in the world for strong and empowered female characters in video games.