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.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era