As the new film about the infamous tomb raider is released, we recall where Lara Croft came from, and why she continues to be so iconic.
Tomb Raider: Lara Croft, with Alicia Vikander, was released on the big screen at the beginning of this month. With Vikander taking the reigns in this classic re-make, we begin to see a much more human, realistic version of this female icon.
Although there has been a varying critical response to the re-make, I think we can all agree that Lara Croft has become a cult, female character in film, and virtual spheres.
Archaeologist, Sportswoman and Sex Symbol
In 1996, Nintendo released the first Pokémon game for the Gameboy, creating an unwavering desire for digital leisure and interaction. The late 90s and early noughties saw a world obsessed with Britpop, the Spice Girls (who were recording their first single ‘Wannabe’) and Girl Power. It was also this year when British studio, Core Design, presented the new game, Tomb Raider, to the world with an unnaturally sexy, female archaeologist as the main character. Unlike other female characters in games at this time, Lara Croft was a female Indiana Jones in search of adventure, traveling to exotic countries, and looking for artefacts in ancient tombs.
Tomb Raider quickly became one of the most popular games, with Lara Croft becoming one of the most famous characters of mass culture, and a sex symbol. Despite criticism from fans, since 1996 updated versions of the Tomb Raider games have been produced annually for more than ten years, with an aim to earn as much as possible on the franchise.
Simultaneously, in 1997 the virtual Lara Croft appeared on the cover of The Face magazine, becoming a regular heroine across the covers of various publications that were not always game-related. The right to use her image in visual material was first inspired by U2, when their song, ‘Elevation’ was remixed to include a ‘Tomb Raider’ version. A music video was produced that included Tomb Raider-style action sequences and snippets of Lara Croft, played by Angelina Jolie, from the original film. Croft was even featured in an exhibition ‘Lara Goes Art’ in Hamburg. In 1999, Italian singer Eugenio Finardi dedicated the love ballad to the heroine, and in 2001, the first film-version of the game with Angelina Jolie was released. There are not many video game characters in the world that have inspired this type kind of success, making Lara Croft a considerable phenomenon.
Lara Croft and Women in Video Games
Lara Croft was a rather revolutionary character for this era. The developer of Core Design, Heather Gibson, who worked on the game, recalls:
“There was a firm belief that video games are purely male entertainment and female characters would simply not be interesting for this audience”.
Due to this belief, Tomb Raider was considered a risky investment at the time, however it was still released. The success of the game was a huge surprise for the developers, it became globally recognised in a matter of months, with around 7 million copies being bought worldwide. Gender bias is still present in the industry today, however, twenty years ago, women weren’t even considered for such roles. Alicia Vikander, the next actor to take on the role of Croft, revealed at a recent press conference, that when she was a child, boys did not want to play video games with her.
In 1998, according to research, only 44% of popular video games had female characters and, as a rule, gameplay assumed that they needed to be rescued by male characters. Lara Croft became a rare female protagonist who acted independently and was able to save herself, encouraging a larger female audience. According to Eidos Interactive, 40% of the early players were in fact women. The only aspect of her character that became stereotypically feminine, was her hypersexuality, and the attraction this held for a male audience.
Lara Croft and Feminism
Tomb Raider was released a couple of months after ‘Wannabe’, with some even calling Lara Croft the sixth member of the Spice Girls. The British band and Lara Croft became popularisers of the Girl Power phenomenon that took place in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, supporting third-wave feminism. Nevertheless, feminist attitudes towards the female game character seem to be rather negative. Before the relaunch of the franchise in 2013, a hypersexual woman with a huge chest in tight clothes – short shorts and an open T-shirt- was the leading image of the game. Such an image caused criticism by creating inadequate ideas about how women’s bodies should look, encouraging the objectification of women. This all led to the belief that Lara Croft promoted sexism, which was already an inherent issue in the gaming and film industries. Of course, we immediately recall similar contradictions about the Wonder Woman character.
However, the creator of the original Lara Croft, and the designer of the game characters, Tony Gard, told The Independent, that he was initially opposed to the excessive sexualization of Croft for the purposes of strengthening the marketing of the game. This was actually one of the reasons for his departure from the studio. After initial complaints, and changes in the gaming industry, we must pay tribute to the developers who decided to change Croft’s aesthetic. After the relaunch of Tomb Raider in 2013, Lara Croft began to wear more clothes, have a natural female figure and express deeper emotions.
The video game passes the Bekdel test, which usually checks the gender bias of artworks. The Bekdel test suggests that there must be at least two female characters talking to each other about something other than men.
In the original movie, Angelina Jolie played a cold, hard, rich woman, who expressed minimal emotions. However, in the recent release, Vikander turned the character into a woman with a complex personality, and more humanistic emotions. And, of course, she isn’t scantily clad in hot pants and a vest top.
Today, with the development of the feminist movement, there’s a constant search for heroines and authentic female characters in culture who can become the embodiment of feminist ideas. The former popularity of Lara Croft is unlikely to be repeated, making it difficult to call her a complete feminist icon. However, for some women, she is definitely a character that inspires strength, boldness and most importantly, independence. In addition, the popularity of the game also influenced the increase of female characters in video games, although that percentage is still very small in comparison to male-led games.
The new film, starring Alicia Vikander, is no doubt a step forward. However, in its representation of an inspirational female character, we can’t help but wonder whether it’s worse than the original video game.
Text: Irina Gorskaia
Images: Entertainment, Time, Collider