Lara Croft is one of the original action heroines. Fifteen years after her first film debut, there’s talk that we’re going to meet her again — so how does she stand against the female protagonists of today?
Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft is coming to the big screen again, with Daisy Ridley in talks to play the titular role. Unlike Angelina Jolie’s iteration, this Lara will be based off of the 2013 Crystal Dynamics reboot, which reimagined the confident and buxom archaeologist as someone much younger, less battle-hardened, and all around more human.
Lara Croft’s cultural impact is hard to ignore: she’s considered to have paved the way for more female characters in video games, and she is largely viewed as the archetype for subsequent character creations. “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” is still the highest grossing video game adaptation film, and when it was first released, it was the largest opening ever for a movie headlined by a woman.
But Lara has also always been a contentious topic in terms of positive representation. On top of being unbelievably good at everything, Lara is also extremely sexually objectified. Esther MacCallum-Stewart’s research paper “Take That, B!” grapples with Lara’s positioning as a sex symbol (arguably the first U.S. mainstream video game sex symbol ever) and whether it undermines her as an empowering and well-rounded female character.
This ambivalence is not unfounded, as in 1998, Lara’s programmers said her large breasts were a result of a “coding error,” and yet subsequent games and films continued to play to the male gaze. An example found in a 2008 game cover where you couldn’t see her face but her cleavage, stomach, and thighs were on full display. When Angelina Jolie took on the role in 2001 she expressed concern over the message that Lara’s exaggerated proportions sent to girls.
Lara Croft is, then, a bit of a paradox. While she’s an icon and a trailblazer in one sense, she can also be seen as the prototype for the one-dimensional, faux-empowered warrior women that came after her in films such as “Ultraviolet,” “Aeon Flux,” “Underworld,” “Elektra,” “Catwoman,” and “Sucker Punch” — films where the female protagonist’s most important trait was that she knew how to fight and looked good doing it. (A less flattering, but still accurate description of this trope is called the FFT.)
For years the FFT was the norm for action heroines. But would Jolie’s Lara hold up today? Maybe not. She might feel like a caricature if placed next to someone like Katniss Everdeen — a character who is not defined by her sex appeal and is not at all put together. Katniss experiences failures and is allowed to be messy, short-sighted, reluctant, and sometimes weak.
And Katniss is not an outlier — in the past five years alone we’ve seen a variety of well-written action heroines who defy the FFT trope, and who range from selfish to vengeful to suffering from acute PTSD. Characters like Furiosa, Mako Mori, Korra, Rey, Jessica Jones, Elektra on Netflix’s “Daredevil,” and the various women of “The Walking Dead” are all warrior women like Lara in their own right. But, they also encompass the full human condition, and are at times impulsive, arrogant, broken, miserable, lost, and yes, occasionally sexy. Above all, these women are not beautiful, perfect battle bots. They are relatable and human, and they stand in direct contrast to the latex wearing, gun-toting women who came before them.
It’s fitting then, that the iconic Lara Croft is being revived and reimagined to fit the present day. Instead of sexy and suave, Lara is now scrappy, resourceful, proportionally sized, and painfully human. In the reboot, Lara is a young twenty-something marooned on an island. She’s terrified, lost, and downtrodden. She cries and begs for the rest of the crew to rescue her, and only reluctantly ventures inland and starts accumulating weapons when she realizes that’s the only way to survive. She attempts to hide from the bad guys, and sobs when she’s forced to kill a man in self defense. But, Lara struggles and claws her way to the top, and by the end of it the villains are hiding from her.
Sounds like this new Lara will fit in just fine.