On Tomb Raider and Torture

The second Tomb Raider trailer is out with the recent wave of videos from E3, and while reactions and speculation diverge, everyone agrees it looks pretty brutal.  Rich heiress Lara Croft finds herself shipwrecked on an island with dangerous men, wounded, without supplies, and struggling to survive in a rebooted origin that brings Green Arrow to mind.  The old Lara would dispatch a gigantic lizard in an underground lake and top it off with a dry action hero quip, the sort of moment that Sean Connery’s Bond might take to straighten his tie.  In sharp contrast, the reboot has her stabbed, broken, blown up, and sexually assaulted as she fights for survival tooth and nail in a jungle against impossible odds.  But does it cross a line into torture porn?

As far as the ways in which portrayals of violence can become sexualized, there are plenty of people who can speak with more perspective and authority than I.  For example, Scott Eric Kaufman has some great breakdowns of the visual rhetoric of Kick-Ass that you should check out.  If you’re not familiar with the concept of “male gaze,” that’s a baseline for most of these discussions as well.  I’m a novice when it comes to film crit, but it’s pretty straightforward to connect the notion of the camera following the viewpoint of a heterosexual male director and this screenshot:

Whatever you think of feminist film theory, the connection in that image is pretty obvious.  There’s plenty of ways that particular shot could have been framed; for instance, from Lara’s perspective as her attacker’s visage is all that’s visible. But what we see is a shot where the attacker is nearly faceless, his back to the camera.  Lara’s body is fully visible. She’s not at all obscured by the man’s back, even though it takes up fully half the frame.  The camera’s perspective is pretty high, so despite the fact that the image isn’t very tall, more of her body is visible.  The exact center of the frame is the man’s giant hand; Lara is an object being acted upon.  Now, this is just a trailer, and the whole sequence is more complex than this: the camera follows his hand as he traces it down her body in what appears to be a gratuitous shot, but it stops centered on their crotches… so that her knee to his groin is right in the middle of the frame.  This is exactly in line with the sorts of things they’re saying they want to do, to show Lara in a horrific situation, and her escaping it.  None of this changes the fact that it’s essentially a twist ending to a lot of imagery that displays the heroine as an object and a victim.

The Bitmob article brings up this fact, and I agree with that part, but it also contends that we do not subject male heroes to the same level of victimization and punishment, which I do not think is true.  The interviews with the Crystal Dynamics staff refer to some well-known action movies, two of them reboots, that they’re using as inspiration: Batman Begins, Casino Royale, and Die Hard.  Batman Begins’s Bruce Wayne starts the movie by getting the stuffing beaten out of him in a Bhutanese prison before he climbs a mountain so ninja master Liam Neeson can beat the stuffing out of him for being such a whiner.  Casino Royale’s more physical Bond crashes through walls, slams into steel girders and, in one scene, struggles to attach a defibrillator as he’s dying from Digitalis poisoning.  And Die Hard, one of the most enduring action movies of all time, has the hero on the verge of tears as he pulls shards broken glass out of his feet.

And that’s just for movies.  Uncharted 2 at starts off with Nathan Drake bleeding out from a gut wound as his train car dangles off a Himalayan cliff.  The bitmob article itself brings up MGS4, a game that features Old Snake crawling through a microwave tunnel as he is slowly cooked alive.  The previous game in that series featured Snake getting his elbow dislocated and eye shot out, among other things.  The things we subject our heroes to are not just because we value extraordinary feats of strength, but because we also admire comparable feats of endurance, especially when that is coupled with a vulnerability and fragility that makes them relatable.  I think we do subject our male heroes to a pretty harsh level of abuse, but that’s really beside the point.  Even if Tomb Raider’s reboot is simply long-overdue gender equality, it’s the perception and interpretation of the imagery that matters, not just the intent.  Even given a wealth of film and game context to put this violence in, there is still a media context of violence and women that can’t be ignored.

If all of this sounds a little bit familiar, it’s because the discourse about video games has been here before.  Resident Evil 5 had a trailer whose imagery called up some unpleasant racial connotations.  N’gai Croal’s take on the matter was pretty astute, and I don’t think I can sum the issue up better than he did, so go read it if you haven’t.  The issue isn’t intent: Capcom didn’t set out to make a racist trailer, they set out to make a scary trailer.  The problem was that in doing so, their imagery coincided with a lot of racist imagery that historically has depicted Africa and Africans in a certain way.  With their Tomb Raider reboot, Crystal Dynamics has stated their intent to put their young hero through the crucible, have her overcome adversity, and grow stronger as a result.  But we should also recognize the ways in which this coincides with a long-standing trend in portrayals of violence and women in media.  Gamers often want the solutions to these problems to be cut and dry, for one side to be right and the other to be wrong.  But ultimately, in both RE5 and Tomb Raider’s trailers, we need to accept that two vastly different interpretations of an issue can simultaneously be correct.