In November 2011, Kristopher S., a fellow gamer, asked me to share my opinions on Lara and the Tomb Raider series for a class project. Unfortunately I don't have a copy of the final paper, but I thought other fans might be interested in our conversation.
Subject: A Couple Questions From a Fan
Message: Hey there. I've been a huge fan of the series for years and you've helped me through numerous (okay countless) challenges. I'm writing a paper on the sexual exploitation of female characters in video games. And I figured it would be good to reference Lara based off of some of the early depictions. I wanted to use you as a source since you are a prominent figure in the Tomb Raider community as well as a female gamer. I have a lot of respect for you and your opinions are of great value. Thank you!
Reply: Hi, Kris. That's a great topic for a paper and one that's near and dear to my heart. I'd be happy to answer your questions to the best of my ability. If you need clarification or questions breed questions, feel free to follow up. I'll just copy your questions here and answer below. I hope that's OK.
February 2001 Next-Gen magazine cover featuring Lara Croft and Duke Nukem
Were you ever bothered by Lara's image? Particularly the early years with her over the top dimensions.
Definitely. But I think it's important to distinguish between Lara's in-game characterization and her depiction in the advertising for the games. You've probably heard the legendary anecdote about how character designer Toby Gard's slip of the mouse accidentally enlarged Lara's breasts in an early version of the first game. It was never his intention to portray Lara as a bombshell, but the marketing people seized on that idea and ran with it. [Links to Wikipedia and IGN articles.]
Lara's character in the game is depicted as strong, resourceful and witty, even sarcastic, but rarely uses her sexuality to gain an advantage. There are a few exceptions—like the portrayal of the simpering young Lara in TR: The Last Revelation—but for the most part Lara lives for adventure and does her job without using her looks or her sexuality to manipulate others. Unfortunately the same can't be said for the games' marketing departments.
I don't know whether or not the games would have been as successful without using sex to sell them. Based on the target audience at the time (primarily heterosexual males in their teens to early 30's), I'd guess not. But for me, the discrepancy between the gameplay an the advertising has been a frequent source of embarrassment. As a female gamer, telling someone you like Tomb Raider almost inevitably requires some sort of elaboration and justification.
As I wrote on my Tomb Raider blog, "I have no problem with the idea of Lara as a sexy, sexual woman, but the character portrayed in the games is clearly not pin-up material. She doesn't have time time for that crap. She's got places to go and things to kill.
"Anyone who bought the games because they thought they'd be seeing a half-naked woman traipsing through the tombs was undoubtedly disappointed. And most of us who bought the games for what they actually were, find this type of marketing completely cringeworthy. I get tired of having to explain to non-gamers that Tomb Raider really isn't like that."
Can you estimate the percentage of the people who follow you that are female? 50%, 25%, 75%?
I couldn't say exactly, since I don't have those kinds of stats for the visitors to my main site, but I get a lot of email from female gamers. And, according to my Facebook Insights, fans of my page there are just about evenly divided by gender (47% female, 52% male, <1% other Pages and undefined). I'm attaching a graphic with the age and gender breakdown.
I suppose it's a bit sexist to say so, but I suspect that a lot of female Tomb Raider fans gravitate toward my site (and social media accounts) because I'm a female webmaster and because I interact with my fellow fans in a way that female gamers tend to appreciate. They know that I don't tolerate sexism and other forms of rudeness and that I try to defuse tense situations with humor and a light hand.
Cosplayer Jenn Croft, featured here in PlayStation Magazine UK, portrays the character as powerful and in charge.
Do they ever complain to you about Lara's image, or do they normally admire her for her strength and ignore the proportions?
Some do complain. Some seem to see it as inevitable, at least in this day and age. They find it hard to imagine a world where sex isn't used to sell everything from clothes to cars to video games, though they also seem to see change coming as the number of female gamers increase and as more women enter the game development industry.
I think it's also worth noting that there are a fair number of women who embrace the sexy depiction of the Lara Croft character. Quite a few are involved in fan activities like cosplay, writing fan fiction and creating fan art. They seem to enjoy exploring their own strength and sexuality through the character, and most try to "own" the character and depict her as an empowered, mature woman.
Lots of "gray" area here, to be sure.
What about Lara draws you to her?
I've always been interested in explorers, adventurers and mystery solvers. Some of my earliest role models were Nancy Drew and Mrs. Peel from the original BBC Avengers. I've also been a big fan of Indiana Jones since the first movie came out. So when Lara appeared on the scene, I saw in her a sort of hybrid of all the types of things I was interested in. Being able to play as a strong female character was great. Being able to explore ancient ruins, discover lost relics and vanquish evil...well, that made it all the more exciting.
For me, the game mechanics, plot and level designs are just as important as the character, if not more so. If everything else about Tomb Raider had been the same but Lara had been a dude, I probably would have enjoyed the games anyway. But if Lara had been a mercenary or a space marine, like Samus Aran, instead of an archaeologist-adventurer, I don't think I'd have been interested.
Toby Gard and the crew at Core Design really pulled off an amazing feat of gaming alchemy. For all their little stumbles, I have to give them massive amounts of credit for striking the perfect balance between adventure, combat, platforming and puzzle solving. To have the guts to top it all off with a female protagonist is the icing on the cake.
Early character sketches by Toby Gard depict Lara as quite the badass.
And one question unrelated to my paper just out of curiosity. Do you have a favorite Tomb Raider?
Well, there are some parts I enjoy and some I dislike in every game. But if I had to choose, I'd say it's a tie between TR1 and Anniversary. The first game is the one that got me hooked, so I'll always have a soft spot for it. Anniversary is like a fancier version of that same story. It's my favorite of the new games. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light isn't technically a TR game, but I like it a lot as well.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk about this. I hope my answers are helpful and that I didn't ramble too much. :)
If you need to interview any other female gamer-webmasters, I'd highly recommend Jaden from Guns and Grapple and Mary from Well-Rendered. They're both quite articulate and will probably have some interesting things to say on this topic. They're also both a bit younger than I am so they may have a fresh perspective.
Best of luck with your research and writing!
Kris's reply: Thank you so much!! This is much more than I expected and is very helpful! :) And thank you for including links to articles, especially the IGN Tomb Raider history article that one was really useful. You really are in a league of your own, very few people would take the time to write all this!