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.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain