Lara Croft and rape stories: breaking down the bitch

Why is rape seen as a reasonable way to "strengthen" female characters?

A few weeks ago, a viral blog served up a refreshingly compassionate interpretation of privilege for the Portal generation. If life were a video game, the writer John Scalzi explained, "straight white male" would be "the lowest difficulty setting there is".

"This means that the default behaviours for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise," wrote Scalzi.  "The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get."

Keep that in mind, because we’ll be coming back to it. For now, let’s talk about the shit storm broiling over the pre-release material for the next Tomb Raider game, in which the protagonist, Lara Croft, is retconned as a survivor of sexual and physical assault. This experience apparently made her the hypersexualised, mindlessly violent killing machine – sorry, "strong woman" – we know today. 

This is a story, like so many epics, about being, and about becoming. What’s made pay dirt so far for the small horde of pop-gender-crit writers commenting on the topic is the question: why does Lara Croft, like so many female heroes, need to be re-imagined an assault survivor in order to be a strong character? The equivalent tempering experience for male heroes is normally violence done to family members, often female family members – parents, sisters, wives and girlfriends. Rape and sexual assault, however, are the default traumatic-but-ultimately-salutory past experiences grafted on to fictional women when male creatives can’t think of anything else to do with them. 

It’s almost as if sexual assault were understood as an immutable part of human culture, painful but inevitable, rather like a young man’s first experience of heartbreak – unfortunate but ultimately benign and probably a learning experience for everyone. What makes a woman develop as a person? Sexual violence, of course! What makes her a believable, empathetic character? Rape! Women can’t just be born tough and cocksure – that has to be fucked and beaten into them, female violence as a response to and reflection of male violence. 

Rape as a personality implant

In the real world, of course, sexual assault does happen to a great many women but it’s rarely a personally enriching experience. It just hurts. It hurts physically, it hurts emotionally, it causes damage that can last lifetimes in the most quotidian of ways. It adds another difficulty level to doing everyday things like leaving the house. If rape did make women into action heroes, there would be a lot more gun-slinging tomb raiders running around the place in micro-shorts.

This is what happens when women are imagined from the outside, in – a creative process of which Lara Croft is perhaps the modern archetype. At the game's inception 16 years ago, she was not so much two-dimensional as very specifically and enticingly three-dimensional – little more than a pair of pixellated mammaries implausibly failing to ripple during firearm recoil – but as the franchise expanded, Lara Croft received personality implants. Which brings us to today, when it's all too easy to imagine a conference-table full of producers upon whose gender I do not wish to speculate getting together and deciding that what will make this chick interesting is having her sexually assaulted. 

In fact, that’s pretty much how the executive producer Ron Rosenberg described the process in a recent interview. The attempted rape and murder, along with a physical redesign that reduces the character's curves and makes her appear more adolescent, is part of an effort to make the her more vulnerable, to encourage players to want to "protect" her. "The ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the sexualised violence of yesteryear," he says. Hey baby, nice history of sexual trauma you got there. And then, in an offhand exegesis of men’s response to the problem of strong women in and out of stories for generations: "We’re sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again."

Being Lara

"When people play Lara," Rogers is quoted as saying, "they don't really project themselves into the character." By "people", we must assume that he means "men", because women clearly don’t play video games and even more clearly, if any man were to identify for even a second with a female player character he would turn instantly gay. Games writer Adrian Bott comments that:

[It seems] the male player is encouraged to see himself as a sort of benevolent deity separate and apart, a guardian spirit who not only guides Lara's actions for her benefit but protects her from bad guys. If true, [this is] moving in the opposite direction from the one we should be moving in. The game should be doing its utmost, through all the subtle tricks of the games writer's art, to immerse us in Lara's character, because Lara Croft kicks arse. Being Lara Croft should feel as exhilarating as being Batman, or Nathan Drake, or any other character whose skin we really get inside.

Successful games generally involve this sort of identification, and Tomb Raider is a very, very successful game. When you play Tomb Raider, you don’t only want to "protect" Lara Croft, or for that matter, fuck Lara Croft – you ARE Lara Croft. So, what does it mean for a gamer of any gender to play a woman who is a survivor of sexual assault? What might it mean, in particular, for a young man – used to playing the Game of Real Life on the lowest difficulty setting – to encounter a virtual world which he has to negotiate through the eyes of a woman who has been brutalised?  Successful shoot-'em-ups, after all, are about sustaining an atmosphere of constant threat and menace, about maintaining vigilance and looking for potential attackers on every corner – and that at least nudges towards the real-life experience of women who have been, or are taught to expect to be, the victims of sexual violence in public space. 

If they were going for stricter accuracy, of course, the game designers might have the first few levels of Croft’s post-assault game-play involve our heroine having to negotiate obstacles like leaving the house,  reporting her attackers to the authorities and gradually learning to trust any man ever again. Level three could be a courtroom scene where Croft gets points for overcoming such hurdles as a staggeringly low conviction rate and juries and prosecutors raised to believe that any woman who goes out wearing tiny little shorts and a blue tank top that barely covers her breasts was probably asking for it. To keep it fun and bloody, she can always crack out the heavy weapons if due legal process goes awry. 

Breaking down and fighting back

The stories we tell about violence are pickled in gender and sex stereotypes. As well as asking why Lara Croft needs to be made weak – "cut down" - before she can be made "strong", we should perhaps also be asking why any POV character with a penchant for human bloodsports is assumed to be "strong"? As well as asking why the violence of female characters needs a traumatic and specifically sexualised explanation, shouldn't we also be asking why the far more routine violence of male characters so rarely does?

Male characters, you see, don't generally have to have an emotionally consistent reason to kill. Male characters in films and video games who suddenly break into jags of bloodily efficient murder aren't assumed to need a major personality disorder or trauma-induced psychosis to turn them into slick killing machines – revenge, honour or money are sufficient motives. Ultra-violence often isn’t presented as pathological in any way as long as a male character is the one meting it out. Female action-heroes, however – and there are a fair few for us to point to, from Croft to Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo and O-Ren Ishi to, with some caveats, The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen – hurt other humans because they are fundamentally broken, because they were hurt themselves, because there’s no other way for them to survive, or all three. 

Rape and sexual violence is the preferred flavor of complicating trauma – remember that scene when Beatrix Kiddo wakes up from her coma to find the hospital warder selling her sleeping body to a drooling John and handing him a tub of Vaseline? One suspects that this is because sexual violence against women remains the sort of viewing of which uncomfortable erections are made. By contrast, the number of notable male personal-journey stories that feature rape survival can be counted on one hand – Sleepers, The Shawshank Redemption, American History X – all of them prison rape, the type of male-on-male rape that is also assumed to be an intransigent feature of contemporary social violence, something that just happens, a hook for cheeky jokes about showers and soap dropping. 

Of the multiply traumatised female killers we just looked at, Katniss Everdeen is by far the most developed. Not insignificantly, she's a point-of-view character created by a woman in a book and film series aimed at young women and girls; she isn’t raped, possibly because Suzanne Collins understands that there are other ways for young women to grow as people. Katniss's violence is not sexualised, she takes no pleasure in it and it’s a skill she’s learned as a physical and emotional survival strategy over the course of a dangerous and deprived childhood that has left her damaged in a manner the books spend some time exploring. All of which does indeed make her more believable both as a character and as a killer. 

In the real world, that’s more or less how we respond to stories of terrible violence. When humans kill each other, we that assume they must be disturbed and broken on some fundamental level. When someone walks into a school, or a workplace, or a series of family homes in Afghanistan and proceeds to shoot the hell out of  two or five or 15 innocent victims and bystanders we want to know what trauma made them pull the trigger. When the bodies turn up, we want to know why, unless of course police or military operatives were responsible for the violence, in which case we are reticent to ask why, perhaps because we suspect we already know.

So there are a host of interesting aspects to this re-imagining of the Lara Croft legend but what’s most important is that it is a re-imagining, a reworking of a story whose ending we already know. It’s the story of how Lara Croft became Lara Croft, rather like the recent reboot of the James Bond franchise, which, significantly, also offers us a semi-plausible map of how 007 became the slick-suited misogynist killing machine we’ve known for generations – including, yknow, that scene with the horrific genital beating, which is definitely phrased as part of Bond's emotional license to kill. Significantly, the character redesign assumes that the large-breasted, bare-midriffed Lara of previous Tomb Raider incarnations came into being only after after this younger, small-breasted, more-modestly dressed Lara was sexually assaulted by scavengers, forced to fight for her life "like an animal". The attempted gang rape, in other words, was what turned her into that aggressively sexual being. Those angry bedroom hard-ons in the 1990s were not in vain.

This isn’t a story that was dreamed up out of nowhere. It’s a response to a familiar industry dilemma (how to rescue an ailing franchise?) with an equally familiar solution (hurt a beloved character). So what does all this mean for the many prospective players who will already have played or watched Lara Croft do her deadly thing in tiny hotpants? 

Well, for one thing, it makes her suddenly vulnerable. For all the players who ever stroked themselves into a frenzy over this unattainable pixellated fighting fuck-toy, it’s an opportunity to see sexual violence done to her. It makes her weak, explaining away a ritualised savagery that needed no explanation before; it makes her an object of pity as well as lust and envy, someone who needs your "protection". Industry mandarins seem to have assumed that gamers, by which they mean male gamers, can only carry on loving cold, powerful, beautiful Lara Croft if someone "break[s] her down".  And that is frankly offensive to men everywhere.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: the character has been rebooted for a post-Hunger Games audience.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Getty
Show Hide image

Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism