Why Is She So Feminine?

I’m only a few hours into the new Tomb Raider, so I don’t have a complete handle on the game quite yet. But, of course, it has been images and video of the first several hours of the game that has been the catalyst for discussions about the new presentation of Lara Croft, the possibility of exploitative imagery dominating the new game, and other concerns. Indeed, I’ve pondered questions about these issues myself from varying perspectives based on the initial images that I saw (see, for example, portions of my article “Boys Get Naked Better Than Girls” followed by a slightly different viewpoint in ”Defending Lara” ).

Thus far in actually playing these first few hours myself, I have become pretty clear on the game’s main theme, as the cutscenes, voiceovers, and gameplay itself have pretty much beaten me over the head with the idea that this younger version of Lara Croft is on a quest to learn to endure. The ship that Lara and crew will soon see wrecked in the Devil’s Triangle is named the Endurance, of course, and there is a lot of internal monologue originating from Croft herself about the need to “move on,” always keep “moving forward” and the like. Gotcha, perseverance is what it is all about, man.

This makes some sense given the heavy emphasis on simulating survival in the gameplay, as Croft has to hunt for food, find shelter, scavenge salvage to improvise weapons, and the like on the island that she has found herself shipwrecked on. Indeed, I have yet to raid a tomb at all in these early hours of the game. I have mostly just tried to “keep on keeping on” and little else.

Croft clearly is made vulnerable in this mode of play, a vulnerability anyone familiar with the Tomb Raider series and this character specifically is definitely going to find unusual. There is an interesting early cinematic that occurs during the ship going down, though, that does indicate, perhaps, what some of this vulnerability might suggest and that it isn’t necessarily a clear diminishing of the original character.

While the ship is going down and cracking apart, Croft does find herself staring across a gap in the ship between herself and a male crew member (the captain of the ship, I believe). Leaping across gaps is completely in the repetoire of the Croft that I have known for years, but this Lara looks across the gap with fear in her eyes, before the captain extends a hand that she leaps towards. He catches her, then he loses his grip, and Lara plunges into the ocean below.

For a moment, Croft looked like she was to serve as a damsel in distress, ready to be saved by the outstretched hand of a man — again, an idea clearly alien to anyone who knows the character at all. However, he is insufficient to the task, leaving Croft to grapple with the dangers of the ocean and safely reaching shore to the woman herself. Just keep on keeping on, Lara.

Having played through these opening moments and getting in some practice hunting the island wildlife and having put together a makeshift axe and locating a bow for Croft to use, I had pretty much settled into the “survivalist” game when the game began teaching me a few new moves for Croft. The island is populated by some sort of dangerous cult, and I found myself sneaking through an area while the game indicated how I could go about pulling off some stealth kills to remain undetected by some of the cult’s bloodthirsty membership.

It was at this point that my 13-year-old daughter (an individual who is a bit of an aficionado of the stealth kill, as I have documented before — see “Daddy’s Little Gamer, Daddy’s Little Murderer”) wandered by and began to watch what I was doing. What I was doing was pulling off a few clean stealth kills before failing really hard when taking a more aggressive stance against my opponents. Shortly, after a couple of kills, I whipped out a bow and attempted to shatter some lanterns to smoke some additional opposition out of hiding. She watched me try and fail at this a couple of times, as the bad guys tossed molotov cocktails at Lara and I, and we quickly found ourselves perishing in flames.

“Why is she so feminine?” my daughter semi-snorted at me.

“What do you mean?,” I asked.

“She’s all, ‘ah,’ ‘eek,’ ‘oooh’ all the time,” she said, referring to the noises Croft makes while being burned or struck by enemy arrows. “Lara Croft is supposed to be tough.”

Probably dying for the fourth or fifth time, I said, while glancing over at her, “This is supposed to be her origin. What she was like before she became the Lara Croft.

She looked at Lara on the screen, listened to her screaming again, and shrugged. Then, she nodded and said, “Okay, that makes sense. She needs to learn to be tough” before wandering off again (looking to find a more adept assassin to spectate for, no doubt).

And that was it.

I’m not quite sure what this means entirely about the handling of Croft thus far in the game, but it was about as visceral (and innocent of the larger discussion that has gone on about these early hours of the game) a reaction as I have heard.

There are clearly some connections that my daughter wants to make between femininity and a lack of femininity and toughness and a lack thereof informing her own gut level response to what she was seeing and hearing, but she also rather quickly recognized the relationship between an origin story, vulnerability, and character progression and change.

I myself still need to see how Croft progresses as a character in the game in this context. However, I still want to reserve final judgment about what this means for the character in the future until I can see the full scope of the revision, not just these few glimpses and fragments of that larger tale.

Context matters, right?

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