And so we find Crystal Dynamics have released a preview of their latest Tomb Raider game, and I'm getting more and more frustrated and bothered by their direction for the games. I'll say that there are elements of this picture I like: I love that Lara actually looks like she's been mucking about in some godforsaken corner of the world, rather than being pristine and clean. She also has a few scrapes and bruises, also very appreciated. I also like her determined expression, very strong and defiant. I don't see why it was necessary to change her trademark khakis for trousers, but I'm not too bothered, since it looks reasonable enough. Overall, the image portrays a woman who's gone through an awful lot in a very short space of time, but come out alive. Pretty powerful image, if I do say so.
That said, I have issues with it that are part of a much bigger problem.
It isn't enough that they've stripped Lara of her independence and the wonderful sense of isolation and mystery by including two infuriating chatterboxes constantly, endlessly, commenting on the situation over her bluetooth, with their grating, banal, moronic squeaking like that damn buzzing fly you can't track down but it seems to make a point of flying right past your ear just to drive you insane... Sorry, I just really can't stand Zip and Alister. And it isn't enough that they change Lara's character from the stoic, brusque, capable mercenary adventurer into a generic action chick embroiled in a bog-standard Quest To Find Out What Happened To Her Parents. No, now Crystal Dynamics have to give us their version of Lara Croft's origin story. Apparently Tomb Raider: Legend wasn't enough for them.
This post isn't about their handling of the Tomb Raider story, however: that's a whole other kettle of fish. This is about the absurd correlation between Lara's physique and the attempts at characterisation and humanizing going hand-in-hand in a way I find painfully unsubtle and incredibly insulting. Now, since this is an "origin" story, it might explain why she isn't as voluptuous as normal, due to simply being younger: however, it's still indicative of a bothersome trend. I had initially written this post a while back, but there wasn't a good time to post it: with the above image's release, I figure now's as good a time as any. As such, it might not have a lot to do with the above image, but is more of a comment on the state of the Tomb Raider franchise in general.
Western Culture and sexuality have never really gotten along. Considering the influence of America with its roots in Puritanism, it's perhaps inevitable that it's far more prudish about sexuality, particularly female sexuality, than in mainland Europe. The female chest in particular is taboo in a way that is markedly different, even between America and Britain. In the early days of cinema, Britain was perfectly comfortable with cleavage, but found undue exposure of ankles and calves to be excessive. In America, cleavage was off-limits.
This led to the curious case of Nell Gwyn, a 1934 film made in Britain about two women in their vie for the affection of King Charles II. Even for the time, it was rather mildly bawdy and suggestive, the sort of thing you get in kid's shows nowadays. However, the US Hays office of America condemned the film, not only for the failure to condemn "immorality", but for the exposure of Anna Neagle's tracts of land. It seems rather hilarious in hindsight that "stuffy, uptight Britain" was more relaxed than America, but history is a funny thing.
Anna Neagle in the title role of Nell Gwyn, in what can only be called scandalous and licentious attire with no sense of decency, decorum or modesty, apparently.
Even in the seventy years since Nell Gwyn, the female chest has remained far more the object of sexuality than it is in Britain. Breasts are, by their nature, secondary sexual characteristics, along with hip structure, a greater waist/hip ratio, thigh musculature, and other details. Generally, they are no less "sexual" than those others. Yet in America, there's a still a weird (to this Scot, at least) aversion to prominent depictions of breasts outside of overtly sexualised situations.
An example of this is what is colloquially referred to as "Hartman Hips," inspired by writer/animator Butch Hartman's drawing style. In many cartoons from the middle of the century, femininity was depicted not by the presence of a matronly bosom, but by exaggerated hips. This is clearly evident in Hanna-Barbera cartoons like The Flinstones and The Jetsons. Even Disney films, ostensibly the most sexless of kid's animation, has a few notorious examples. The hypocrisy of exaggerating one feminine sexual characteristic in place of another generally appears to be lost: why is it someone with an outrageous waist-hip ratio, something men generally find just as sexually exciting as a full bust, is not treated with nearly the same level of derision than a pencil-figured woman with two balloons strapped to her torso? Why is one deemed to be objectification, and one not, despite both attributes being comically exaggerated for stylistic purposes?
Tinkerbell might not be as buxom as Jessica Rabbit, but she has the redhead trounced in the hips division.
In such a climate, it's to be expected that strange and silly stereotypes are made about women with full chests. Usually this is derogatory: that they are highly sexual, that they are less intelligent or hard-working than other women because they rely on their appearance to get through life, that they are vain or shallow. It's gotten so severe that women even get breast reduction surgery because their chests are too "distracting", or because they get too much male attention, or even because of negative social reaction - to the point where rather than being an asset, they're a detriment to progression in career and livelihood.
If a woman has large breasts in a game, film or television, they're rarely allowed to be intelligent, or knowledgeable, or anything that doesn't fit the stereotype, not only because there's apparently some nonsensical correlation between bust size and brain capacity that currently eludes scientists, but because audiences wouldn't accept it. It's bad enough for a female scientist, technician or doctor to be beautiful, but to be buxom as well is just too outrageous for an audience to swallow, and any woman who is intelligent, attractive and full-figured is derided as being unrealistic in the extreme. (Of course, "scientists" who are in the story strictly as eye-candy and not forwarding any indication of intellect or insight, such as Raquel Welch's Cora Peterson in Fantastic Voyage, do not count.) While I'm as great a critic of the pathological culture of beauty in Hollywood, stereotypes are stereotypes, and the idea that attractive women simply aren't allowed to be intelligent is as offensive as the idea that intelligent women aren't allowed to be attractive. This question becomes pertinent in the case of Lara Croft.
The First Action Heroine of the 3-D Era*
Because unrealistic legs, lips, eyes and waist proportions are fine for "serious characters," but generous brassiere measurements are not, and only reserved for Puerile Adolescent Fantasies.
In the first Tomb Raider, Lara's figure was of rather cartoonish proportions: she had very long legs, disproportionately large lips and eyes, and of course had a large chest. Computer technology being what it was, this was par for the course, as the days of near-photorealism were over a decade away. Nonetheless, even with the obvious caricaturing of Lara, she was still more "realistic" than the likes of superdeformed cartoons like Mario, Sonic and Pikachu, and so held to a different standard from those icons.
The creator of Lara, Toby Gard, originally envisioned the character as a South American heroine, Laura Cruz: the name and nationality was changed to something a little more British, and Lara Croft was born. Gard often makes a point of wishing to counteract the sexualisation of women in games (an argument I'll be discussing at some point in the future), with Lara going through multiple redesigns, before finally settling on something rather similar to the original Laura Cruz. Gard eventually left during the development of Tomb Raider II because of the "oversexualisation" of the character, and watching certain cutscenes, it isn't difficult to suppose what scenes he had issues with.
For me, it was all downhill from Tomb Raider. In the original, Lara was undeniably sexy, but in a less overt manner than in the sequels. Her intelligence, knowledge, skill and personality were allowed to shine through. When it was released, much was made of her very ample bosom, to the point where discussion of her chest almost overtook discussion of the gameplay and narrative. Yet in the game itself, her appearance was barely even mentioned: no obnoxious camera zooms, no gratuitous cutscenes, no comments from characters. As such, the sexualisation of Lara began in Tomb Raider II, getting more and more ridiculous until the deserved flop of Angel of Darkness, a foolish attempt to cash in on the success of The Matrix. Eventually, Core handed over the IP to Crystal Dynamics. However, despite claims to the contrary, Crystal Dynamics would not desexualise Lara: they would just start fresh, with whole new ways to exaggerate her femininity.
When is Sexualisation Not Sexualisation?
For Tomb Raider: Legend, Lara underwent a minor redesign: her breasts shrank, her features were more defined, and she was given a new outfit. Critics applauded the decision to make her appearance more "realistic", and to take her back to her roots as an action heroine, instead of a sex symbol. I don't buy it.
For one thing, although Lara's bust has been deflated, she is still undeniably cartoonish. Her legs are practically longer than the rest of her body. Her lips and eyes are huge. Her joints, shoulders and calves are nothing like what a real humans' joints look like. Indeed, apart from her cup size and increased level of detail, there is almost no difference in Lara's proportions between the first and most recent Tomb Raider games. For Lara to look truly realistic (as in, more like an actual human), her proportions would be more reminiscent of former live-action models like Rhona Mitra, Karima Adebibe, or current model Alison Carroll. The model for the games resembles none of them.
A second factor is her clothing. Lara in Tomb Raider wore clothes that wouldn't look too out of place if a man was wearing them: khaki shorts, a green tank top, ankle-high hiking boots, black cut gloves. Admittedly Lara's green top might be a bit incongruous on a male adventurer, but replace with a muscle shirt and the effect is the same. Her chest is completely covered, and though her legs and arms are exposed, the jungle environs she travels in make that acceptable. It's the same sort of attire I've seen real archaeologists, palaeontologists and other such excavators and adventurers wear.
Fast forward to Tomb Raider Legend. Here, Lara's midriff and cleavage are revealed, and if anything her shorts are shorter than in the first game. The only area she has more coverage is on her shoulders, as her top has short sleeves. A man wearing such getup would look ridiculous. Why, then, is this considered less sexual than the original costume? Indeed, considering America's history of problems with cleavage and (to a lesser extent) midriffs, I'd argue that Lara's costume is actually more sexualised in Tomb Raider Legend than the original. Apparently, a completely covered generous bosom is more inherently sexual than one that strategically covers and exposes certain parts of the torso to heighten its sexual impact. It's the difference between, say, Kat Dennings in a demure black dress and Kate Moss in lingerie: Dennings has a much fuller and more feminine figure - closer to Lara's own - than boyish Moss, but I would certainly consider the woman in the lingerie to be the most sexualised of the two.
I'm still more drawn to Kat, though. Can't wait for Thor.
Bust size alone does not a sex symbol make, it's the exploitation of the feminine physique which makes a sex symbol. If Lara still retained her ample bosom and figure but covered it up under jumpers and jackets and covering her legs up, would people still say she's a sex symbol, any more than Samus of Metroid is a sex symbol in her armour? Her physique should have nothing to do with it.
Something often ignored by focusing on pure appearance, is the change in Lara's behaviour. In Tomb Raider, Lara is largely silent, and the most innuendo that occurs is barely PG rated. She's disarmingly affable in conversation with a penchant for understatement, but she's also ruthless and fearless. In contrast, Tomb Raider 2 has Lara moaning with every tumble or climb, and engages in more innuendo. You'd think the groaning and innuendo would be reduced for the more PC Tomb Raider: Legend, but it really isn't. There are more fundamental alterations to Lara than this, though, including alterations to her personality and family history, but that's best left for another article.
What's the big deal anyway?
They're just globs of fatty tissue used as a secondary sexual characteristic of female humans. Does it really matter what Lara's cup size is, in the end, when it's the gameplay, narrative and personality that is engaging? I say no, it does not matter - which is why changing it is such anathema to me.
The final thing that bothers me about the breast reduction of Lara Croft is that it's cowardly. It speaks of the marketing focus group, to design a character based on demographics and surveys, not the intellectual design of a personality. While this was the case in the second Tomb Raider, her metamorphosis in recent games is no less offensive to me than the gradual breast enhancement of Ivy Valentine of Soul Calibur fame: cynical, soulless and worthless. At least Ivy was always intended to be a hypersexual character, and one could say that age played a part in her metamorphosis.
Lara Croft has a reputation for overt sexuality, but compared to some of the stuff that's come over the years, she's practically tame. I defy anyone to present to me anything in the Tomb Raider games that could remotely compare to Dead or Alive's "age" slider, the ridiculousness of BMX XXX, the Sixaxis control for Ayane in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, or... well, the entirety of Bayonetta. Being an excitable adolescent myself once, I can't remember being particularly distracted by Tomb Raider, and being more than a bit baffled at what the fuss was all about, considering comtemporaneous games like Tekken 2 were much more risque in regards to their female characters. I blame the ad department: considering they blitzed the world with naked pinups of Lara in provocative poses, it's little wonder people equate her so readily as an example of exploitation in video games - it's just the games themselves have little to do with it. The infamous myth of the Nude Code undoubtedly had something to do with it too.
It's just a shame that an interesting character like Lara is so overshadowed by the debate about a part of her appearance that should be of minor debate. This is as much Eidos/CD's fault as the game audience. Although I really hate CD's revisioning of the series stories, the actual gameplay is a vast improvement. I just wish they had taken Lara into the 21st Century without resorting to obsequious political correctness, where only certain types of women are allowed to be intelligent action heroines.
*Samus Aran of Metroid being the first female action heroine of the 2D era, and therefore the first action heroine of gaming. Thanks to Kike for giving me a slap upside the head for that!