Tomb Raider – A feminist role model?

In October 2016 Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise celebrated their 20th birthday. Since the first video game was released on the 25th October 1996, there have been 17 games released in the main series, as well as spin-offs, mobile games, comics and now 3 movies. The Tomb Raider video games have been incredibly successful, selling over 45 million units worldwide notably being popular for having a strong female protagonist and challenging action-adventure game play. Of course, it’s possible that, especially for the early games, the over-sexualised character model for the titular heroine may have contributed to this, with the game being aimed at a predominantly male audience. Regardless, the franchise’s success has been remarkable, with few franchises’ enjoying such longevity across so many media platforms.

Lara 1996
1996 Lara Croft, complete with pointy breasts

Despite its success, Tomb Raider has certainly had its critics. The original game, whilst lauded for having a strong female heroine, was heavily criticised for the portrayal of Croft, in her tiny shorts and crop tops. It lead many to claim she was sexualised and subsequently objectified. Almost 22 years on, Croft’s film career has been rebooted. The two Angelina Jolie led expeditions of the early 00s have been replaced by a grittier and more realistic take on the Tomb Raider story, with the plot of the most recent film borrowing from the 2013/2015 video games. The new film, entitled Tomb Raider, has been highly divisive with reviews so mixed you might think they’d been blended. I saw the film a few weeks after its release; after having broken my rule of not reading a review until I’d seen the film, I was astounded by how many critics were berating the film, but there was one review in particular that took me by surprise. Not because it had been given a bad review but because the critic in question seemed to have completely missed the point.

The article “Why Lara Croft is no feminist role model” was published on the BBC Culture website (link below), by Nicholas Barber. Now, this title would not have stood out if I was back in 1996 and the first game had just been released. But it’s 2018 and I can think of numerous women in the public sphere that I would argue are less of a feminist role model than Lara Croft, yet Barber, with his critic’s cap, decided that a woman who is known for her self-determination, self-belief and independence is not. I couldn’t believe it. After watching the film, I still wasn’t able to grasp his viewpoint, so I’ve attempted to explain why I feel he’s so badly missed the point, almost like a darts player after one too many beers.

The thing is, Barber starts his piece by criticising Lara for her decision making, and uses a set-piece towards the end of the film in an attempt to show Miss Croft’s ineptitude. The scene is as follows; the films villain Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) is attempting to flee the tomb across a large canyon on a ladder with Lara in hot pursuit. Reaching Vogel, Croft throws herself onto the ladder to fight him, it culminates with both of them on the wrong side of the canyon with the ladder tumbling to the depths below. It’s here Mr Barber criticises Croft for not shaking the ladder, forcing Vogel to fall into the canyon below, which admittedly seems like a sensible option. That is, until you consider that Vogel,nearly 6 foot and well-built, towers over an, albeit toned, 5”6’ Croft. I’d reckon Barber hasn’t had to lift a ladder in such a way as to unbalance someone much heavier than him. I’d suggest it’s pretty difficult. Especially since, once Lara started to attempt to shake the ladder, Vogel would have crossed the ladder quickly and dislodged it himself, stranding Lara in the tomb for the rest of time. We also have to take into consideration that Lara has just been reunited with her long lost father only for him to succumb to the mystery disease that they are attempting to prevent being released upon the world by the mysterious group ”The Order of Trinity”. Barber calls Lara dim-witted for leaping onto the ladder to stop Vogel, but Lara is attempting to stop Vogel at any cost from escaping from the tomb with a sample of the deadly disease, so her own safety is the least of her concerns when the world is at stake.

Barber goes on and on about how useless Lara is, constantly comparing her with Angelina Jolie’s iteration of the character from the early noughties. We have to remember though; this film is Lara pre-tomb raider, before she has begun her tomb raiding career. Other than going to a gym to kick-box, Lara has no real experience fighting outside a controlled environment. This is highlighted by a particularly brutal struggle Lara has with one of Vogel’s mercenaries, where ultimately she kills the man, with this taking a visible toll on our heroine. It is refreshing to see a main protagonist who isn’t skilled in everything, and makes mistakes, it makes Lara more human, especially in an age of super-hero dominance at the box office. Jolie’s Croft was a fully-fledged Tomb Raider but one can only assume from the way Barber eulogises over her that she was obviously gifted with all the skills needed to tomb raid probably from birth.

A section of the film is set in a Hong Kong harbour, notably a place that does not speak English as a first language, therefore Mr Barber’s point that Lara wandering around the dock “bleating ‘Excuse me, do you speak English?’” is a tad confusing. I can only assume that Jolie Croft would have asked it in perfect Chinese before kicking someone in the face and shooting some barrels that would suddenly explode. It is points like this that made me question whether Barber really got the point of the film, or was so blinded by the 2001 and 2003 films that any further Tomb Raider film not featuring Ms Jolie would just not be up to par. Also, the term bleating I find rather offensive, women do not bleat, sheep do. Lara was asking a question, that’s all.

Another aspect of the film that I found refreshing was that when Lara did something that hurt, she reacted accordingly. She didn’t shrug it off as if it was nothing, you could see it affect her. This is the same for last year’s Atomic Blonde starring Charlize Theron, where every blow took its toll on Theron’s character. Mr Barber however, felt that instead of in his words “screaming and yelping” Lara would have come across better if she responded to any danger with “snappy one-liners”, something I feel should be reserved for James Bond or any character played by Jeff Goldblum. The fact that Vikander’s Croft did get visibly hurt by her ordeals showed a vulnerable side to her, which made her more likeable and easier to get behind throughout the film. This was also helped by Vikander’s portrayal, and highlighted what a good choice she was for the role.

Vikander Croft
Vikander as the “absurdly gorgeous” Lara Croft

Alicia Vikander’s looks are inevitably brought up, with Barber referring to her as “absurdly gorgeous” but claims that her personality is non-existent, like that of a damp sponge. However, I’d argue that Vikander’s Croft is much more likeable than Angelina Jolie’s version. Although, I agree that few relationships were developed throughout the film, but this is not a movie about relationships, it is about the development of Lara Croft into the Tomb Raider, so it’s a bit of a moot point.

I’m not saying that Tomb Raider was perfect. Yes, the plot could have been better and the villain more developed, plus the mysterious “Order of Trinity” would’ve been able to slot into most films about ancient orders or anything mystical so lacked any originality. Also the absence of other female characters stood out and potentially hurt the film, and is a problem raised by Vikander herself, but I think that says more about Hollywood than the franchise. These hitches however can be fixed for any future outings and hopefully, the story regarding the mysterious Order will stay away from the typical plots that plague films and games with these types of shady organisations.

This Tomb Raider reboot is important for a number of reasons. Vikander’s Lara embodies many qualities that are so valuable for the youth of today, and especially for young girls. Lara’s determination and self-belief to succeed show women today that if they want to do something, if they apply themselves and don’t give up they will succeed. Vikander’s Croft is similar in many ways to 2017’s Wonder Woman. Both have their vulnerabilities but their belief in their own abilities is what sees them through any obstacles they find in their way. In today’s world, young girls are brought up knowing that they face an on-going struggle to be seen as equal to their male counterparts. Seeing characters such as a strong, independent Lara Croft or Wonder Woman might just instill them with the belief in themselves to go on, be like these role models and do wonderful things, and why wouldn’t we want that?!?

5 thoughts on “Tomb Raider – A feminist role model?

Add yours

    1. No problem, thanks for reading. I am waiting with bated breath for the new game. I am hopeful they continue to build on the good work of the previous 2 iterations in this modern reboot, and Lara is an even more compelling and strong heroine.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah I’m really excited for the new game – a bit annoyed that they already have seven DLCs planned after the September release date – just seems to be confirming that I need to wait until May 2019 to buy the complete edition.


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