The Evolution of Lara Croft: Becoming a Feminist Icon

From 1996 till 2018, Lara Croft has evolved and changed in the various versions of her character. As an archaeologist, each reincarnation features her in a primarily male-dominated field where she always conquers past those who underestimate her skills (Kennedy 2009). However, throughout all of her roles in video games and movies, her image has been questioned with regard to how she is either a feminist icon and role model, or an artificially female figure designed to appeal sexually to the audiences.This paper will firstly explore criticism on Croft as a video game character, with the focus on how she appeals primarily to the male player for her appearance. Secondly, this paper will examine Croft as she appears in the 2001 production of Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie, and how in this version, she is less sexualized than the video game character and is emphasized as a female in a primarily male-dominated field. While lastly, this paper will examine the development from the Angelina Jolie films, into the 2018 production of Tomb Raider starring Alicia Vikander. Through Vikander’s interpretation, there will be a discussion on the realization that this is not the same version created with the male gaze in mind like the previous incarnations, but rather, this Croft focuses more on the action aspect of a female archaeologist, uncovering mysteries and finding her father. Lara Croft as the female archaeologist of both video games and movies is both a good example of a strong feminist role model and an overly sexualized figure designed with the main goal of appealing to the male gaze. She exists as both of these contrasting titles through the progression of her character over time from a video game character with large breasts and a tiny waist to the 2018 action heroine played by Alicia Vikander. 

The video game character of Lara Croft faces a significant amount of criticism as an artificially created female body designed to appeal sexually to a primarily male audience. While the players may not all be male, her overly exaggerated image as a woman is very noticeable and mainly attracts male players. This perspective of Croft is evident in an article written by Maccallum-Stewart where he claims, “Lara is bad; a negative role model played primarily by boys (not men), whose physical appearance outweighs any productive representations or her appropriation by female gamers (MacCallum-Stewart 2014).” In the first edition of Tomb Raider released, the game designers gave large breasts and a tiny waist, giving her the highly popular “hourglass” figure that many women envy. However, the look is unnatural in the sense that it is unachievable to women without plastic surgery or enhancement of some kind. As a result of her “sexualized appearance,” often ignored is Croft for her potential as a role model for women of all ages (MacCallum-Stewart 2014).  Her overall character is problematic because the women who enjoy playing Tomb Raider and admire the female heroine, are also failing to support accurate representations of women (MacCallum-Stewart 2014). This leads them to have a difficult relationship with both Croft and the game itself. Furthermore, the female perspective of the tomb raider is also disrupted through the common trope that the game itself is designed primarily for the male player (MacCallum-Stewart 2014). As a result of the design of Croft’s character being overly sexualized, these female players have the tendency to believe that the game is “not for them (MacCallum-Stewart 2014).” Alternatively, the consideration of Lara as a character could be split into two components. The first part is her physical appearance and the second, her description as a female archaeologist in a primarily male-dominated field.

With more focus on the non-physical aspects of Lara Croft, her overall image alters from less of a sexualized character that appeals mainly to male players, to more of a heroic archaeologist if critics were to look past her appearance. One aspect of her character that is non-physical is her gender as a woman. In an article written by Kennedy, she claims that “the hero is traditionally male with females largely cast in supporting roles (Kennedy 2009).”  While she also clarifies that in order to consider Croft positively, it may be necessary to examine a feminist approach where she says, “One such possible feminist approach might be to welcome the appearance of active female heroines within traditionally male or masculine genres (Kennedy 2009).” While she does fit the trope of a typical archaeologist in the sense that she is wealthy and well-educated, Croft breaks the boundaries as a woman in the field (Sorensen and Diaz-Andreu 1998). As both a woman in archaeology and as a video game heroine, Croft sets an example for the female players of tomb raider. She shows that woman can be successful in these male-dominated fields and can defy the expectations previously set for them. While the game was made with the male player in mind, women can look past Croft’s appearance and discover a role model. Women do not have to be in supporting roles but can instead take on the leading roles. Although the physical image of Lara Croft may appear flawed, her non-physical identity is worth reconsideration as a respectable role model.

The 2001 release of “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” starring Angelina Jolie was the next step for the character of Lara Croft to becoming more of a feminist icon. While in this film, she is not without the overly sexualized image that inhabited her previous incarnation as a video game character, she does move towards being a feminist icon as a female archaeologist. An example of an opinion on her being a positive role model for women is in an article by Mikula who claims, “She doesn’t rely on any male character to lead her around, or to rescue her if she were to break a nail…(Mikula 2009).”  Her capabilities are also shown where Mikula lists her strengths, “As the sole survivor of a plane crash, who used her wilderness skills to stay alive for two weeks as well as being a trained rock climber, expert shooter, motorcyclist and world-famous archaeologist (Mikula 2009).” Angelina Jolie portrays the character as a strong, active and intelligent woman on a mission to solve mysteries and discover the unknown just as any other archaeologist would be doing. Her actions are nothing short of heroic in the way that she does not rely on any male character for protection or guidance (Mikula 2009). Croft is an independent woman who uses her own intellect and various skills to guide her along on her missions as an archaeologist. These skills, as Mikula shows, are numerous and give her further emphasize the strength that this woman has. All the skills are difficult to learn and require physical strength in order to master. In particular, her “wilderness survival” skills help position her in the place of a role model because she possesses not only an internal will to survive, but has the physical strength to complete difficult tasks.

From a contrary perspective on the more visual aspects of Angelina Jolie’s incarnation of Lara Croft, it is evident that her physical appearance gives her the same-sex appeal as the video game character. This results in not only conflicting interpretations of the video game character but also of the movie character. This criticism is evident in various articles on the female heroine, further providing proof that there are two ways of interpreting the character of Croft. In one review of her impact, a writer known as Sherryl Vint claims, “…Lara is the perfect embodiment of male fantasies of woman (Vint 2010).” While she also claims, “…for anyone who has seen the chesty heroine or read of Angelina Jolie’s need to wear a padded bra in order to play her (Vint 2010).” Through these statements, Vint reveals a less feminist side of Croft’s character and exposes that she has not completely removed herself from the legacy of the original video game character. The fact that Jolie was encouraged to wear a “padded bra” for her role, shows that this version of Tomb Raider still has the male perspective in mind (Vint 2010). The movie creators wish to appeal to the male viewers who had previously enjoyed the video game, therefore transferring their interest to make more money. However, in this incarnation of the female archaeologist, she still moves further towards becoming feminist icon than her predecessor, the video game Croft. The next development of her character with Alicia Vikander progresses this even further in a very little sexualized version of Croft that focuses more the mystery and action side of the archaeologist rather than the visual appearance.

The 2018 release of “Tomb Raider” brought to light another new perspective on Croft. A more positive perspective on her as a woman and archaeologist that deserves re-evaluation of her character as a role model and feminist icon for women across the globe. Alicia Vikander plays croft as a strong, intelligent, capable and sometimes vulnerable woman who is simply trying to find her father (Uthaug 2018). She becomes even more of an icon than what her Jolie had been as reviewer Peggy Ahwesh said about Jolie, “a role model of empowerment as the female hero with big guns (Vint 2010).” Regardless of her previous incarnations and their physical appearance, this new representation of Croft leads towards a new generation of admirers for the hero. Female viewers, in particular, will feel less uncomfortable supporting her character because she is a highly relatable protagonist (Uthaug 2018). Throughout this film, she wears hoodies and has messy hair which gives her the image of a down-to-earth woman in today’s society (Uthaug 2018). She makes characters feel as though they have the capacity for greatness just as this regular woman does, and that quality makes her candidate for a feminist icon of the twenty-first century. She surpasses Jolie’s representation because of Alicia Vikander’s presence as a relatable woman. While she comes from a wealthy family, this representation of Croft does not reveal her financial status at the beginning of her film and instead is struggling to come by money to even pay off her gym membership (Uthaug 2018). This makes her different from the stereotypical trope of the archaeologist as being wealthy and well-educated. She hadn’t even gone to university in this film to learn of archaeology, what she had learned came from her father, who was the main reason for her travelling and solving the mystery he had been looking for. As a result, this film indirectly focuses on the field of archaeology through the search of a mystery revolving around ancient remains.

Lara Croft as an overall character reflects both the image of an overly sexualized woman designed to appeal to a male audience, and a feminist icon for her intellect, strength, and independence. Through the various incarnations of her character, with each new representation, she becomes more of a positive role model than the last. Just as through time there have been more female archaeologists, Croft’s character has developed with less consideration of the male viewer and more for the overall improvement of the character of a female archaeologist. While also, the creators of her films have moved more towards the development of realistic representations of a woman. Firstly, this essay explored Croft as both a positive and negative figure through her image as a video game character designed to appeal mainly to a male audience. This made it difficult for critics to look at her in a positive way because they worried that woman who supported her would be at risk of betraying their female identity by supporting a flawed image of femininity. Secondly, this paper examined Angelina Jolie’s representation of Croft as an independent and highly skilled woman in a field that is mainly inhabited by men as positive through her non-physical aspects. While alternatively, she was then looked at for her visual appearance that happened to be sexualized in a similar way to the video game character with accentuation of her breasts and body image. Lastly, the character of Lara Croft was analyzed in her latest 2018 representation by Alicia Vikander where she moves strongly away from the sexualized image conducted by Jolie and guides the audience towards interpreting her as a relatable and more realistic female heroine. In each new representation, particularly in films, Croft becomes more of an icon for young women than an overly sexualized, unrealistic expectation for women.

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