While I don’t DISAGREE that women in media are forced to be hurt before they’re “allowed” to become heroes, it’s not fair that Leigh Alexander’s Gamasutra piece uses Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot as a launching point to talk about this.
I was a VERY vocal objector to the Tomb Raider…
I’m loath to dismiss Leigh Alexander’s points, because it’s an accurate assessment of female character types in a lot of media, not just video games. However, lumping Tomb Raider in there does feel like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Like Emma, Tomb Raider left me feeling very positive. This was especially surprising given the abysmal marketing and promotion, some of the most tone-deaf stuff I’ve seen out of PR ever. The game itself really sticks the character, even if the minute-to-minute writing is pretty hit or miss (more often, miss). Tomb Raider’s an interesting case where the scenario can succeed even though the dialogue is pretty blah.
My reading of the new game’s trailer was a patronizing—or patriarchal—psychiatrist talking down to someone who’d already surpassed him. In the first game, Lara’s gotten rebar-stuck, dunked in blood puddles, and survived Big Trouble in Little China’s Hell of the Upside-Down Bodies. She’s over this shit. She doesn’t need to be told “that’s how we find who we already are,” because she already has. I read that trailer as “look as this smarmy, glasses-wearing fuck who just doesn’t get it.”
That being said, you can’t divorce something like that from history, or from Amazon’s instant video suggestions, which pops up things like this when you’re looking for a fun Korean horror movie to watch. That something absolutely tragic has to happen to a woman before the story starts is so natural it often doesn’t even bear noticing. When Liam Neeson or a Billy/Jimmy Lee is involved, the tragedy happens to their daughter or girlfriend. When it’s Lara Croft, the tragedy happens to her, because there’s no one else to displace the suffering onto.
In early drafts of my Tomb Raider thing I had long sections about rape-revenge as a plot device, with focus on exploitation movies of the 70s, movies whose female protagonists have very little characterization or motivation until they are raped, and then suddenly they have a mission… that is, if they survive; often the “revenge” arc is foisted off onto the parents of a now-dead girl.
I can see, in light of movies like that, in light of whole slews of media like that, why Tomb Raider reads as frustrating. “Oh, here’s another thing where stuff happens to women.” More frustrating: here’s another thing where stuff happens to women, and then men get to talk about it. You can read that trailer as Lara’s pain being completely displaced, existing in the air, for an old guy to pontificate on. Yeah, I totally get how that could frustrate you. I totally get how that fits into a rubric of “women’s bodies exist solely for character development.”
I have hope for Tomb Raider; I’ve seen what they did with the first one. I’m willing to approach it positively, and assume they’re acting in good faith, but when media proves time and time again that they really don’t give a shit, I understand why a person would throw their hands up and say “fuck it, change everything right now or I’m out,” even just as a momentary, frustrated lapse, and not as an on-going personal ethos. Alexander acknowledges the place for trauma in games, and cites an interesting essay from a woman who reacted very strongly, but ultimately positively, to the first Tomb Raider.
The fact is, regardless of Lara’s effectiveness, she exists in what is practically the primary mode we let female characters operate, the loss leader—“suffer a bit here, you’ll come out better for it [or your aggrieved widower will].” If men were more regularly allowed to evince trauma, and if women were more regularly allowed to show confidence in the absence of trauma, then there’d be less to talk about. This would be less of a problem if the playing field was equal.
There should probably be more trauma in games, not less, but it should be handled effectively. A protagonist that’s stoic and unmoving is difficult to relate to. This is why we laugh at the end of Gears of War 3 when Marcus Fenix takes off his bandana on the beach and has a sit-down sad. What I found compelling about Lara Croft was not the person who put her climbing axe into someone’s leg—though that was cool—it was the person who broke down at times, even hyperventilated, under the pressure. She didn’t pick up a gun in the opening cutscene and start capping headshots for experience. It only took her an hour, maybe, to start doing that, but that’s an hour more than most games give us.
I understand balancing a protagonist’s hypercompetence in gameplay against their apparent vulnerability in cutscenes is hard. Often, when we a game where you shoot guns, we want the gunshooter to be cool and tough and say smart and funny things and walk away with their back to the explosion and not even flinch. We don’t want the character to look weak in the cutscenes, because what does that say about her proficiency outside of them? And what does that say about the person playing it?
I wrote this book-thing about a person who is not strong—who doesn’t consider herself such, anyway. In a sense, it was really hard, because you have to sit there asking yourself “who wants to read a book about someone who thinks of herself as an irredeemable coward, who hyperventilates, who is self-centered and doesn’t even realize it? But the answer is: me, because I am a person who’s done and thought all those things, and I want to engage with characters who reflect not only the best of me but also the worst of me.
But I want to to feel real, not forced. I want it to be sensitive, not a crass play for sympathy. Over the course of writing and rewriting the first really violent scene in the book I had to sit there and think “is this a sexual assault? is this assault, sexual or not, used as the sole force that makes the character ‘strong?’ is there enough context given that the reader can understand her mindset before, during, and immediately after?” Whether or not the creators of Tomb Raider thought those exact questions, it’s clear Tomb Raider is not the story of a woman who was without value or interesting characteristics before an assault and is now “strong” because she’s survived one. Tomb Raider shares visual similarities with those exposition films of the 70s, but it ditches much of their baggage.
It may be impossible to divorce Lara Croft from the context of the characters that precede her (including herself), and that’s okay. But 2013’s Lara Croft was much more than the rebar that pierced her side, or her mid-game sexual assault. When I look at her character growth in that game, it has very little to do with I Spit On Your Grave or anything of the sort. Busting the gates wide open on stereotypes and tropes is one way to make progress. Another is to let things give a little around the edges, and to accept that things can present in a framework we regard as problematic (see: True Detective) as a way of confronting what is problematic about that framework. Maybe that’s giving Tomb Raider: Rise of the Tomb Raider: Raider Rising too much credit, but in this instance, I’d rather give too much credit than not enough.