Gender as Enablement & The Glorious Power Fantasy of Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

Lara Croft’s eyes shine in the bonfire, portending a hellish warpath to come. She pillages the mountainside, taking the blood of men as spoils that tint her face in dashes of bright crimson. She’s the silent hand of death under cover of darkness, casting a glinting arrow that pierces through the moonlit wood.

Lara Croft is an action hero, but one possessing something that distinguishes her from the figures that precede and shape her. Underneath the dirt, blood, and grime that betoken her gritty rampage, Lara Croft retains the feminine angle that frames her actions apart from most videogame protagonists elsewhere. The game foregrounds this gendered detail, explicitly reminding us that we are experiencing a distinctly female perspective in a land where homicidal men swap tales of Japanese warrior queens who were at once alluring and ruthless.

Her flight leaves behind a soulless frontier that finds its original tranquility restored with the lack of the misogynist, belligerent men that ruin it. Lara Croft exorcises the gaming landscape of unchecked male arrogance by unleashing a primal, retaliatory female power. Her ability to deny the advances of gruff, encroaching men and force them to flee in helpless terror is one of the most satisfying gaming pleasures in recent memory. In a patriarchal culture of gendered domination and imbalance, having the ability to temporarily right wrongs and level the playing field transforms what was once a product of a sexist culture into a profound feminist character ravenous for atonement.

Well received yet infrequently understood, Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 Tomb Raider affirms its role as likable blockbuster entertainment but savages the grander gaming community in general. More than any other violent female protagonist in a game, Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft enacts a distinctly gendered violence that arouses both the personal and the political as an ideological reparation following years’ worth of injustice and blatant sexism. Even as a reboot, it refuses to deny its thorny past of problematic gender politics and a detrimental gaming community at large. Instead, the debased contexts and culture surrounding the entirety of the Tomb Raider series enables Lara Croft to reply back.

The very conscious decision to author a story involving bloodthirsty warrior queens and specifically male aggressors is just a part of this message of vengeance. Lara Croft is literally thrown into a hard world of brutal trials that will push her initially naïve countenance to its limits. Early in the game, her actions prove instinctive yet clumsily volatile, conveying both the surprising precision and brutal animalism of one trapped in a corner. When male aggressors seize her and her companions, she’s forced to accept that violence remains the only viable way to make oneself known in a place beyond repair. It’s the kind of grim realization that many women recognize in hostile online spaces populated with indifferent, frequently argumentative men. To combat patriarchy and discrimination, one is driven to vindictive aggression.

Upon arming the first handgun of the game, enemies will yell “Oh shit!” or “She’s got a gun!” and therein emerges a newfound clarity and satisfaction: eviscerate the problem if you can’t talk through it anymore. In this way, Tomb Raider presents a welcome power fantasy that imagines a world in which eliminating men who hate women is as easy as pulling a trigger, or pushing a button. It’s all wish fulfillment and temporary escape from the confines of reality, but it’s a pleasure to dream. And it can dare us to do better.

Go to any public online space or forum, and you can still easily uncover mindless discourse still lavishing Lara’s bust size and downplaying the gender politics that seek to destabilize these attitudes. Lara Croft’s M-rated violence consequently seems fueled by vengeance and a malevolent disgust at the men who have downplayed her since the first iteration of Tomb Raider. This 2013 installment transcends its own boundaries, pushing forth an intertextual reading of a woman decisively revolted at the blatant misogyny surrounding the way she’s been treated over the years. As you shoot and tear down enemies along your warpath, Lara’s struggle recalls a gendered version of Death Wish or Dirty Harry but minus the shaky politics of both. Like the protagonists of both films, Lara Croft unleashes a built-in anger (here, years in the making) and directs it at the horde of nasty male enemies before her. Male enemies that, like the collective gaming community that’s battered her integrity for years, has left her bludgeoned but unbowed.

And so, she lashes out like a bat out of hell. You get to share her experience in killing men who have wronged her, both literally in the male antagonists of the game itself and figuratively in the sexist brutes who have ruined popular gaming discourse with simple-minded misogyny. Tomb Raider is an exercise in relaying the kind of female uplift found in works like Lady Snowblood or Kill Bill, allowing us to understand the struggle of disadvantaged women but also providing the allure of spectacle and vengeful pleasure. Moreover, it allows us to talk through issues of gender and patriarchy that we seldom examine elsewhere.

Tomb Raider not only depicts, but also examines its own violence in relation to gender politics. Firstly, its gruesome death scenes force visual identification to throw what’s at stake into sharp relief, foregrounding the endless toil and pitfalls of defeat for a character succumbing to the disquieting onslaught of male brutality. Moreover, the violence conducted by Lara Croft herself is wholeheartedly wedded to gender, charging each action as an effort to purge the male antagonists that hold her back in fear. For many female videogame characters and even the real-life women that put work into these games, the insecurities and inequalities that hinder greatness is something to eliminate. Tomb Raider offers a means to do just that.

When Lara Croft sits by the bonfire after countless bloody encounters with enemies, the game opens up room to contemplate the injustices that motivate Lara’s violence and to understand this motivation as something historically built up. Tomb Raider is a coming-of-age story not just for Lara but for the series itself, one that has struggled to come to terms with its own problematic gender politics and is only now discovering the pathway to answers. It’s interesting that Tomb Raider finds violence and aggression as its solution to injustice, teasing these attributes out of a seemingly innocuous, normal young woman. The repressed anger now tears away towards the surface, the character finally refusing to deny the truth of gender inequality that’s before her. The political spirit has risen to conscious thought. The layer of remove is now permeable. A survivor is born.

GameStop, Inc.

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4 comments

  1. Great analysis of the underlying themes behind Tomb Raider. I haven’t played the game yet but, from what I know, I can agree that the game provides a strong female character, much moreso than the past entries. Her struggle in the game does seem to reflect the difficulties faced by real women in the industry, albeit (mostly) without the violence.

    • Hey Sarwech, really appreciate your feedback. Tomb Raider is definitely worth the play; it’s a huge leap from the past iterations of Lara Croft. The character is far more nuanced and well-defined, and the story is pretty excellent to boot.

      • Thank you, Miguel. It’s on PS Plus this month so I’ll definitely check it out!

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