Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life came on TV the other night, and because it was Friday, and TV sucks on Friday, my parents and I watched it. It doesn’t hurt that it’s awesomely entertaining. The first Lara Croft movie came out in 2001 when I was 10 years old and I LOVED it. I have always been drawn to the action genre and Lara drew in my 10 year old self. She was a girl who bossed around every man on screen and she kicked ass.
I was 12 when the sequel came out, and loved it too. Not just because Gerard Butler was in it. And not just because when his character was introduced he was doing uber manly pull-ups while holding himself upside down on a grated ceiling. Gerard Butler aside, this movie didn’t have quite the same resonance with my present-day self.
I’ll skip the physical focus because that’s a different post entirely and not my major problem with the movies. Offhand I will mention that you can tell these movies were geared towards a male audience not only because of the flash of guns, cool tech toys, and adventures, but because Lara is the “ideal” action woman. She’s thin, strong, gorgeous, has long hair that never seems to get in her way, and she has very large breasts –even Angelina Jolie thought that last part was ridiculous, she hated wearing the prosthetics the directors made her wear.
Those unrealistic beauty standards aside, I’ve discovered I have a real problem with Lara’s characterization. Yes, she’s incredibly capable with all kinds of weapons and fighting techniques, she has seduction skills Mata Hari would kill for, she takes names and gets even, she’s loyal –she’s all around awesome. With a whopping side of conflicting virginal symbolism.
Hear me out. In Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, two conflicting scenes spring to mind. There’s the one where Lara’s house is broken into near the beginning of the movie and she manages to kill all of the intruders with her gymnastic routine without ruining her dark-grey pajamas. This is Lara’s strong female persona, the one usually dressed in black to match her black weapon holders. Contrast this with closing scene at the end of the film where Lara walks demurely out of her house dressed in a white dress and a wide-brimmed hat to shield her skin from the sun. This is her virginal mistress of the manor persona. And it’s not lost on me that she puts on this role when she goes to visit the grave of her father.
In Cradle of Life, we’re presented with a lot of the same imagery. Lara nearly seduces Terry in order to find out if he’s betrayed her –she’s wearing nothing but a white towel while doing so. In fact, in many of the shots with Lara and Terry as a pair she’s wearing a rather large piece of white clothing. Yet when she’s alone, or with the other men in the story, she’s wearing her trademark black. We even learn that the two had a physical relationship for 5 months before Terry ended up in prison; one Lara will not rekindle despite his best efforts.
I find it exceedingly problematic that Lara turns her sexuality on and off when it’s convenient only because that’s what the male gaze wants. Not her. She’s eye candy from start to finish but she’s not allowed to have sex. Her sexuality is a tool. Her body is a well-oiled machine that can perform many incredible feats. Really, she can control her body in every which way but one. I don’t like that.
Furthermore, attempts to make her seem sympathetic are half-assed. Going on crusades to follow in daddy’s foot steps are all well and good, but does Lara have any other reason for doing or being what she is? I could be misremembering, but did she ever have a dream for herself? Or was she convinced this was her dream/destiny from infancy?
Then there’s her supporting cast: Bryce and Hillary. Considering Lara’s intellect and capabilities I don’t really know why these two men are that relevant in her life. Still, the movies make it painstakingly clear that she cannot function without them. I want to say it’s a positive that it takes two men to balance her out even with the male lead acting as her foil, but I can’t give the movies that much credit.
What I’m trying to boil this all down to is this: I want my female characters to be as strong and capable in their respective careers as Lara, and I want them to make mistakes like she does. However, I want my women to be multidimensional and seen as more than fetish objects. I want them to have their own dreams and aspirations, for themselves, for an end goal they’ve envisioned. I want them to be free to do what they want with their bodies. I don’t want them to be the sexy vixen/virginal goddess that Lara Croft’s narrative frame turned her into. They deserve more, and frankly, so does Lara.
I think it’s ironic that Daniel Craig is in the first movie and then he goes on to take up the James Bond persona in the newest installments. Why? Because both Bond and Croft are bodies, not people. Yeah, Lara has more back-story and is presented as a real person but she’s just a fantasy. What I don’t think is ironic is that James gets to have sex with every breathing female who crosses his path whereas Lara is expected to look the other way from any man she isn’t trying to gun down.
As much as I love the action genre, it is 100% geared towards the male gaze. Parts have always unsettled me, and as I become a more informed consumer I’m able to figure out why. As an artist, I only hope to never, ever make these mistakes.
PS. Kate showed me an awesome twitter rant by Gail Simone about how men should be insulted by female characters like Lara – I paraphrased the Lara part, fyi! I urge you to go find it.
PPS. Going through Google images of Lara Croft was fascinating, and proved my points as far as I’m concerned.