Upon reading of the topic for this month’s Monthly Musing I thought, “Awesome, I love dissecting characters into more meaning than they probably have in the first place!” So I figured I would do Mario. I mean seriously, what character has had more of an impact on everything and everyone who has ever picked up a game even if it wasn’t an emotional or physical one. Wait, this sounds familiar. Oh, whoops, I’ve already written this blog as part of my What is a Hero series. Link, Sonic, Solid Snake, Samus and Master Chief? Done, done, done, done and done. Well crap, I’m out of ideas.
Just kidding, there were a ton of other heroes I wanted to tackle with this, and this month’s Monthly Musing is the perfect excuse to start it back up again or at least do one more. One of the characters I really wanted to talk about, before I got side tracked by life, was Lara Croft because she is such a walking contradiction that the lessons she teaches us about heroism are at incredible odds. As always, please go back and read the introduction to this series (linked above) so you know what I’m trying to get at here and why I’m even discussing this. I tackled many of the contradictions that female heroes in gaming raise with my Samus post but I think Lara brings them to the forefront even more powerfully because she is even more sexualized and has far more character development. Let’s jump in.
For the first time with this series, I ran into a problem with the character’s introductory paragraph. Lara has two timelines, the one under the Core developed titles and the newer one under the Crystal Dynamic developed titles. Which do we choose to look at? Both have strong back stories, but I guess since Core was the originator and is up by four titles at the moment we should go with them. Luckily the character of Lara has many similarities between the two continuities anyway so we should be able to discuss both.
Lara Croft is an archeologist much in the same way that Indiana Jones is an archeologist – over romanticized and cram full of exciting action that never actually occurs in the field of archeology. Both her parents are dead no matter which continuity you follow and their deaths affected Lara deeply and her heritage allows for her wealth though she seems to be earning money herself just fine too. Her main goal in life now seems to be to collect ancient artifacts from highly dangerous tombs full of deadly puzzles, wild beasts, evil magical creatures and Lara’s adventures often pit her against evil people corrupt with power. She’s proficient in a large variety of weapons (though dual wielding pistols is her go to), in ridiculously good shape and highly acrobatic to boot. This makes her not only quite deadly but also drop-dead gorgeous with physical proportions that even Barbie would die for. Though it must be pointed out that in the more recent games, her impossibly sized breasts and waist have been tailored back for a more natural look. What Does She Teach Us About Heroism
Let’s just get the obvious part out of the way first because there are other aspects of heroism that we learn from Lara that have nothing to do with the fact that she has more x chromosomes than y. This is a fact, though, and with the limited number of female heroines in games, it’s an incredibly important one. Lara being possibly the most famous videogame female, with two major motion pictures to her name, what she teaches us about heroic women most likely represents what most people believe the videogame industry as a whole teaches us about them.
So what do we learn about heroism from Lara? Well, she being a woman, we obviously learn that women can be heroes and that they can be just as tough as men in any situation and tougher if they need to be. Lara has taken out her fare share of men in her time and her attitude in her games shows us all that it doesn’t matter what sex you and that you can save the world. Heroes are strong, passionate and capable of taking care of themselves and these are not traits that are reserved for men. In fact, in the case of what Lara is doing, a quicker more agile body might be better.
But the fact is that most (all five of them) female heroes in games teach these lessons and the real problem we run into with Lara is that she was designed to be appealing to men. Lara’s physical attributes really can’t be ignored when discussing what we learn from her. I chose that image above because it shows off how overly sexualized Lara Croft is. All those strong characteristics I was discussing before seem to get thrown out the window when you realize that she’s been designed to be looked at. I’m not arguing here that her beauty is the problem, it isn’t. The problem is that her body is one of the main characteristics of her character. Who goes to the Alps in booty shorts? Scuba diving in a partially unzipped wet suit? It isn’t like Lara in a sexy get up is an every so often occurrence either, it is one of her most predominant characteristics.
So we have this strong, independent, intelligent woman, but her entire persona is based around attracting men. What does that teach us about heroism? That a woman can’t be a hero unless wanted by men? Sexual attractiveness certainly seems to be a predominant feature in most of the female heroes in our culture. Is Lara just reestablishing that norm? I’d have to argue yes. Despite her other characteristics, the over sexualization of Lara Croft instantly demeans the other heroic aspects of her. Characters like Samus or Jade have many of the same sexually attractive characteristics but their sexuality does not overwhelm them and become part of their character. They show that heroes are more about their actions and beliefs than their looks, and I just can’t say that about Lara.
This doesn’t mean we don’t learn great things about heroism from Lara though. I mentioned before that she is incredibly intelligent and though many games have intelligent leads, I find that Lara seems to emphasize this intelligence more. This is because such a large portion of her games are based around puzzle solving and history (even if it is made up). Knowing the facts and being able to figure your way out of things is something that Lara constantly does. She’s really smart. I would even say that if she wasn’t such a sex symbol her brains might be her most important aspect. In the early games, she rarely killed other humans and when she did draw her gun it wasn’t as important as when she had them holstered. It was all about figuring things out.
Though that aspect in Lara has changed a bit. she does constantly teach us that heroes are just as much about thought as they are action. There are a myriad of other lessons like this that Lara teaches us but discussing them all here would be impossible as it is with any character, but I think her intelligence is a unique enough aspect of her character that it needed some discussion. What other game does an obvious history buff take such a predominant role? Aren’t scholars usually regulated to secondary characters? Not in the case of Lara and it’s a very good lesson in an aspect of heroism that is often shoved to the side in favor of strength.
Lara is actually one of the best illustrators of a stereotype of heroism that shows up disappointingly often in our heroes: money. Stop proving my point about over sexualization and rip your eyes away from Karima Adebibe’s breasts for a moment to notice the insane amount of junk that hangs off of Lara’s belt and the expensive looking pistols she’s holding. Also remember that Lara flies all over the world, lives in an insanely large mansion and has access to things that people on a normal sized budget do not have. She is loaded and her heroism would not be possible without it.
In our culture’s modern myths (comic books, movies, pop novels) we assign powers to our heroes. When a power is lacking we assign money. Batman and Iron Man pop instantly to mind. Rarely is the everyday man given a nod as a true hero. Indeed it seems money is almost required to be a hero since it brings power and without a power one is powerless. Seems logical right? Without a shadow of a doubt Lara reinforces this idea, especially because she is such a fantasy woman. Lara would literally be nowhere without her money and it sadly teaches players that that is what is required in order to be a hero. Yes, all her other positive attributes are great but where would she be without that private jet that lets her act on all those attributes?
Are you a little surprised about how long I can ramble on about a character many would pass off as a sex symbol and little more? Well you shouldn’t be. For one I can ramble on about anything, trust me, but she also might be one of the deepest characters out there if you’ve actually followed her back story. Lara speaks to a whole host of strong ideals, both good and bad, about heroism that I could expand upon, but at the risk of being far too verbose I won’t. I will rattle off a few quick ones here though. Her family background and loyalty to friends teaches a strong lesson about heroes not being loners, but people who rely on others. Her athleticism and strength teach that heroes must be in great physical shape or they won’t be able to do what they set out to do. Her cocky attitude show that heroes are always sure of themselves and is especially important since it makes her an incredibly strong woman. She shows love, hatred, remorse and passion in spades throughout her adventures, teaching us that heroes are not emotionless slabs of stone.
She really is a deep character, which is why it upsets me so much that all of that is contradicted by the fact that she was and still is designed around being a sex symbol and not around those attributes. You may think that I’m coming down a bit harsh on poor Lara, after all at least she is a lead female hero and we all know how lacking the gaming world is in that department. That isn’t an excuse though, and it shouldn’t be. I’m not championing a complete revamp of Lara Croft here and I in fact love the Crystal Dynamics games. I just hope that somewhere down the line I turn on one of the games and instead of seeing an attractive body and see an actual woman who just happens to be very attractive.