Content Note: Rape, Objectification of Women, Fetishization of Helplessness
So there’s a new article on that new Tomb Raider game out—one that seems to confirm what some thought of the latest game in the series.
In the past, Lara Croft didn’t need protecting. She was a fearless daredevil, a crack shot in short shorts with enough attitude to scare off a pack of bloodthirsty gorillas.
But in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot, things will be different. She hasn’t become that woman yet. And executive producer Ron Rosenberg says you’ll want to keep her safe.
“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character,” Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.
“They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'”
“She’s definitely the hero but— you’re kind of like her helper,” he said. “When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.”
I’ve never played any of the Tomb Raider games; everything I know about the series has been filtered through third parties, each with their own biases. Still, I understand that the first couple of games were actually quite good, which helped buffer up her sudden status as the PS1 era’s leading lady (if only by default), but that once the quality of her games dropped, it became harder to claim that she wasn’t a sex object first and a character second. So when it was announced that Lara would undergo through an extensive makeover for her latest incarnation, reducing her proportions to ones that did not imply tough times finding comfortable bras and which bring to mind the movie version of Katniss Everdeen, people who felt embarrassed for enjoying her games breathed a sigh of relief.
So why do I feel like I’d rather have the old Lara back? Why does she continue to feel objectified? And why does “humanizing” feel like a synonym for “grafting an entirely new character into an existing one”?
In this latest reboot of the concept, we meet Lara again for the first time before she gained all her mad tomb raiding skills, as she is shipwrecked on an island with tons of dangers, of both the person vs. nature and the person vs. person type. Instead of the gun-toting, competent badass embodied by Angelina Jolie, she is instead someone who is terrified at finding herself in way over her head. According to developers, this change was made in an attempt to humanize the character and making her easier to relate to.
Ron Rosenberg’s comments on his aim for this game bring to mind the Japanese concept of moe, which is perhaps best described as the desire to protect and comfort that comes over someone when something cute—usually young girls or women who look like young girls–is being threatened and or made to suffer. It comes attached with its own aesthetic—huge eyes, round face, soft voice–and personality—bubbly, cheerful, and unassertive. When Haruhi Suzumiya wants to induce feelings of moe, she dresses up a classmate in costumes against her will and begins sexually assaulting her. And while people will debate the implications of the concept until the end of time, my personal opinion is that it’s basically a fetishization of helplessness, which in turn is what I think of when I watch the trailers for the new game. “Stand in amazement as Lara trembles and moans and whimpers as she is put in impossible situation after impossible situation!”, they seem to say. Isn’t she oh-so-attractive caked in all that mud and injured in such a way that doesn’t stop her from being conventionally pretty?
Comparisons have been made between this game and the much-maligned Metroid: Other M, which became infamous for taking Samus Aran and taking away everything that made her awesome in the name of humanizing her. Suddenly, the character who could take on entire planets without breaking a sweat—or who could even infiltrate an enemy ship without her trademark armor like a boss—was losing her shit in situations that wouldn’t have fazed her before. Apparently, being human and being tough as nails were not compatible—at least, not if that human is also a woman.
Here, at least, the reasoning is that this is Lara’s first adventure. She’s never done this before, so she’s justifiably scared out of her mind at the idea of being on a island filled with people who have no problem with sexually assaulting her, creators argue. Which is fair enough, as far as that goes. And yet, why do I get the feeling that Solid Snake’s first outing wouldn’t be designed to make people want to protect him? Or that if you were to exchange Lara Croft for Oliver Queen—who has this exact same origin story–you’d get a drastically different approach? Why do we need to feel as if she needs protecting?
Now, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with showing that a strong character can also be vulnerable and human. Katniss does it continuously through The Hunger Games, as did Buffy Summers through her series. And if we want to get specific to vidcons, there’s always April Ryan in Dreamfall, or Jade in Beyond Good and Evil, or Celes in Final Fantasy VI. But all of those had something in common: their vulnerability was not meant to place their competence in question, and both aspects of themselves could coexist together. But this isn’t what they’re doing here. They’re suggesting that Lara can’t be vulnerable and competent, and that a vulnerable Lara is one that, left to her own devices, would be dead meat. She needs the player—presumably a guy—in order to remain safe. It brings about a weird disparity—Lara from the cutscenes feels like a completely different person from the one you play as, as if she is literally being possessed whenever she needs to do something besides standing around. Empowering!
As much as the old “she’s a strong female character and totally feminist” argument seemed disingenuous, coming from creators who seemed intent in making Lara’s breasts ever larger with each passing game, the truth was that there was in fact a kernel of truth in that. In an medium where leading women are still way outnumbered by leading men, it was a good thing to have another character who could kick ass and take names, and who could carry a popular series on her own. Sure, she was objectified to hell and back, but that wasn’t the character’s fault, and in spite of that, she was still someone you could pin a power fantasy on. Now, however, it seems like the developers deliberately attempting to shut out women as a target audience for the game. Sure, women a not a monolith—there are undoubtedly some that will head right in and feel all protective of the new, moe Lara as the developers intended. But now, with her being a character you protect, not inhabit, where does that leave women who liked being invincible Lara, and inhabit a world in which they could take on anything and not have to worry about things like rape*?
Which isn’t to say there isn’t a space for characters who are out of their depth, and powerless. If somebody were to commit to the concept, I bet it could very well find an audience. But that game doesn’t have to be Tomb Raider, and the character doesn’t have to be Lara. And she doesn’t have to become a moe object. Dreamfall, for example, did a very good job of making Zoë feel powerless. There is no moment in the game where one doesn’t feel that she isn’t way in over her head, and that the wrong move could result in her death. Yet, one never feels that she is lacking in agency, or that one is supposed to feel warm and fuzzy over her weakness. And if you want something more in tune with Tomb Raider‘s genre, there’s always Resident Evil.
More weird disconnects: whether intentionally or not, the exec interviewed in the article implies that if Lara had remained her old, voluptuous self, she wouldn’t have worked as the scared version seen here—that one change came about because of the other, and that they’re a package deal–which is…intensely problematic. Boobs aren’t magic shields against sexual assault. One could very well have made a terrified, vulnerable, large-breasted Lara. So why connect both things? What’s more, there’s also the implication that large breasts are inherently sexual, and that it’s inevitable to have a character without big breasts without sexualizing or objectifying her. And that’s bullshit. If you don’t want to sexualize large breasts, here’s a simple tip…don’t. The problem isn’t breasts, it’s the person who depicts them. In short, it feels like they’re not desexualizing Lara because objectifying women is sexist, but because moe aesthetic demands that she seem as childlike as possible**.
There are several things that the people behind Lara Croft could have done in order to make the series respectable again. Making it fun to play, for one. Changing her body did not have to be one, although I’m willing to count that as a net positive if it results in a character that is indeed less objectified by her developers. Replacing all the problems with a set of worse ones does not seem like it solves anything. We’ll see if it works—I’ve got my desk cleared for maximum head-banging, just in case.
* There are a lot of things I could say about how rape appears to be treated in the game. However, since I have no confidence in my ability to express it in a way more coherent than bloop bloop bleep bloop, I link, instead, to this, awesome person Ana Mardoll’s thoughts on the subject.
** Yes, I am aware that there are plenty of large-breasted characters who are still seen to embody moe. Still, they are aesthetically drawn in a way that Tomb Raider can’t replicate without making Lara look like a Lovecraftian monstrosity.