February 9, 2013 by pitak22
Helen W. Kennedy presents a complex argument mapping out the confines of defining Lara Croft as either a feminist icon or a “cyberbimbo” in her essay titled, “Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo?:On the Limits of Textual Analysis.” While exploring how the gunslinging heroine challenges conventionally masculine environments within and beyond the game, Kennedy also delves into and analyzes the protagonist’s fetishized characteristics. In fact, the range of proponent and critical theories woven together, balancing and counteracting each other, form a frustrating standstill of a resolution. Nevertheless, Kennedy brings forth thought-provoking interpretations of the Lara Croft interface and its revolutionary and problematic features.
First, Kennedy recognizes that the character of Lara Croft does challenge the traditional framework of high-testosterone fueled adventure/action games. Instead of a man, a female adventurer armed with two pistols, sets off on dangerous quests through “masculinized landscape[s]” such as a desert, caves, and tombs, in an effort to recover priceless artifacts. She is a physically capable heroine, not a damsel in distress or love interest of a male hero. the lack of “romantic or sexual intrigue with the game narrative” leaves her sexuality open to players’ interpretation. Thus, enabling players a deeper immersion within the game and the protagonist.
However, in order to neutralize the threat Lara presents to the “masculine order,” her body is objectified, eroticized, and fetishized. It is important to keep in mind that even though the producers of Lara market her as “potentially appealing to women,” the typical target audience of video games is male. Kennedy claims some of Lara’s design elements–her “glasses,…guns, …holster/garter belts, [and] long swinging hair–” are “fetishistic signifiers.” But stepping back from Kennedy’s perspective, what exactly differentiates these seemingly mundane items between being fetishistic and stylistic? If Lara was a Lawrence, the idea of glasses, guns, holster belts, and long hair being eroticized would probably not come up in the discussion, or at least not in the negative context of Kennedy’s argument. The only difference between Lawrence and Lara is that Lawrence is a man and Lara is a woman. Therefore, the problem does not lie in the items but in the viewer’s perception of her gender.
To further emphasize the possibility of Lara’s objectification, Kennedy references Mike Wards analysis of Lara concerning her “voyeuristic appeal.” Note that Ward’s critique is aimed at the “relationship between the male player and Lara,” and as a result closes out the option of exploring female players’ enjoyment or exploitation of the voyeuristic aspects of the game. The portion of his analysis that Kennedy includes in her essay focuses on a photo ad, an external element of the Tomb Raider game franchise, and gameplay. Concerning the ad,Ward remarks that he is ”disturbed” by Lara looking “directly out at the viewer” because it signifies Lara’s awareness of herself as “the object of the gaze.” And even within the game, Lara presents a blockade to the player’s full control over her through a “terse, slightly impatient, ‘no’” if he attempts an impossible move. Unfortunately, Kennedy (or Wade) is unclear in her transition between describing Lara’s resistance to objectification . Kennedy skips to Ward describing the “scopophilic pleasures” of playing as Lara and how the character acts as an avatar for lethally navigating the “internal spaces of game worlds…[that] stand in for the mysterious and unknowable interior of the female body.” Once again, females are completely displaced from the gaming realm. Their bodies are used as a metaphor for virtual domination, that is if one buys into the idea that gaming is inherently misogynistic.
However, choosing to not perceive every adventure video game as virtual eviscerations of the female body, Kennedy diverges from Ward’s sadistic male, heteronormative viewpoint by delving into the theory that a male playing as Lara proffers the opportunity of a transgendering experience. To further support her argument, Kennedy states that the “queer identity potentially subverts stable distinctions between identification and and desire and also by extension the secure…polarities of feminine and masculine subjectivity.” Yet, this sentiment is counteracted by the argument that Lara is not a “feminine subject in a real sense” since her feminine attributes are nullified by “phallic signifiers.” A more important and articulate point Kennedy makes is that the impact of the transgendering is very minimal within the gaming community. For example, almost as if to make up for the prospect of playing as a female character, male players create hypersexual fan art that exploits Lara’s body.
There is a common theme that runs throughout the theories Kennedy presents on how to interpret Lara Croft; whether positive or negative, the basis of the interpretations solely relies on the players’ biases. Yes, Lara is busty and has a small waist, but that does not and should not negate from the fact that she is a fully capable heroine. The problem is rooted in the preconceptions players (mostly male) bring to the game. Most of the issues concerning Lara Croft take place outside the realm of gameplay. So, in a sense, the digestion of Lara, not the consumption, is the root of a majority of the gender issues surrounding the game . It is unfortunate that Kennedy concludes her essay pushing the importance of creating more female heroines with varying characteristics that will better represent the female gaming community. Though the sentiment is valid, it does not fit with the rest of her essay. In fact, option of even categorizing Lara as cyberbimbo rings of slut-shaming within the context of the article. The only factors that could possibly have to do with how players manipulate the game’s visual and ludological elements to fit their sexual desires.