November 20, 2012 by swrig22
Ever since the release of the original Tomb Raider, its buxom protagonist, Lara Croft, has been many things to many people. For some, she is a fine representation of an empowered female who relies solely on her own wits and skills to escape dangerous situations; for others, she is a “cyber-bimbo,” an overly-sexualized and socially harmful avatar that represents everything wrong with gender portrayals in popular media. (Mikula) However, while this debate continues to rage on in the media sphere, at the time of its inception I was just a naïve seven-year-old playing the game my dad had bought to test out his new gaming PC, which was, of course, Tomb Raider. Naturally, at the time I was too young to know anything about the contemporary debate over Lara’s value as a character, but I do remember finding it odd that I played as a girl instead of the usual big burly man. Not that it really bothered me; back then, I would always imagine the player character as myself anyway. Funnily enough, the only time I noticed anything oddly sexual about the Lara character was when my father made a lewd remark to my grandfather about the size of the player character’s breasts – and even then, it was merely a momentary thought. I went back to shooting bats soon afterward. Looking back, I believe that it was my cultural sphere’s total saturation with idealized female characters that gave me a blind spot to how ridiculous Lara’s body proportions and voice clips were, and it is the realization of this ridiculousness that defined my gameplay experience in a room full of media students more than a decade later. This is why I give such extensive background on my own playing of Tomb Raider as a child; because I because I feel it’s essential to understanding the aforementioned gameplay experience I had.
In class, we had briefly touched upon the topic of Lara Croft as a character and cultural icon a few times, and during those short discussions I was consistently struck by how the issue of whether or not she was an overtly sexualized figure was often simply glossed over. Most everyone familiar with the character seemed to agree that she was, indeed, a sort of crude “cyber-bimbo.” I had no such recollections of Lara, but, then again, it had been over ten years since I played it, so I kept my mouth shut and waited for the gameplay experience to speak for itself. Upon booting up the game and watching the first cut-scene, I was struck by two things: first, how callously Lara treated the people trying to hire her in the intro, and second, how incredibly out-of-proportion her body type was in the cut-scene. Her chest got slightly more believable when we ventured into the gameplay proper, but her waist and hips seemed to almost get worse. As the group I was with each took turns playing the first level, it soon became apparent that the sound designers had a bit too much fun with Lara’s pain and exertion voice clips, as they sound dangerously close to noises one normally associates with sexual intercourse at times. The most damning part of the whole endeavor came when I figured out that one of the shoulder buttons caused Lara to slow her gait to a laughably-dainty walk. In short, it did not look like the walk of a strong, independent woman. I sat there with my mouth agape as I watched Lara saunter across the temple floor, wondering how the heck my younger self had looked at that animation and not thought anything strange of it.
So, how does my incredulity at this gameplay experience connect back to our in-class discussions? Well, I feel that it all goes back to the discussion the class had that week following the presentation on unrealistic portrayal of women in video games. One issue raised in that discussion was that such portrayals of women – “legs for miles,” enormous busts, etc. – have become so standard in the industry that removing them would take serious, systematic effort. I believe that my recent gameplay experience with Tomb Raider combined with my reading of the Mikula article revealed to me that in a twisted way, my blind spot to Lara’s more comical features is a great example of exactly how prevalent these body types and tropes were even back in 1998. In my seven-year-old mind, Lara looked and sounded like that because that was simply the way that girls appeared and sounded like in video games. This realization raises broader questions of how portrayals of race or gender affect younger gamers, but those are definitely out of the range of this essay, so I will put them aside. What’s important is that without the background that the reading and discussion provided me, I wouldn’t have been able to come to this conclusion, and that makes it all the more satisfying.