“That girl is kicking our asses!”: Tomb Raider’s (Lack of) Gendered Power Plays

The firefights in Tomb Raider are intense and brutal. There are many scenes where Lara is pinned down behind a splintered barrel or crate, shooting and ducking and shooting again at upwards of ten armed enemies, half of whom are charging with drawn swords, knives and axes. There wasn’t much time to think of anything other than lining up headshots. But even so, there was always a part of me that tensed up when the enemies started talking. “Here it comes,” I thought. “Here come the insults.”

But they didn’t come. When the bad guys talk about Lara, they say things like “That girl is kicking our asses!” Not “That girl is kicking our asses!” It’s a huge difference. These dudes are horrified that someone is killing their buddies and ruining their freaky plans. The fact that it’s a woman doing the killing and plan-ruining doesn’t seem to be their main concern, nor even any sort of blow to their masculinity or pride.

I never once heard Lara called a bitch, or a chick, or any other derogatory term related to sexuality or gender. Not once.

And you know what? I’m glad.

Would it perhaps be more realistic to have the crazed, isolated, murderous men spewing sexist profanities at the young woman shooting arrows through their heads? Sure. Would I have hated the game if they had? No. But did I want to hear that?

No, I really kind of didn’t.

Why do I feel this strongly? Is it perhaps one less thing for Lara to go through? One less thing for me to go through?

The journey of the hero always involves deep personal suffering. But it’s usually only the female heroes whose trials include sexualized violence. And just about all female heroes undergo it.

I’m so glad Lara was allowed to become a hero without being subjected to this aged and frustrating trope.

Sure, there are aspects of the game that are sexualized. The first hour’s almost voyeuristic violence. The “save the girl” plot—though the girl in question is Lara’s best friend Sam and decidedly not Lara herself. Then there’s the fact that the main conflict within the game centers around an all-male cult who sacrifice women to the ancient “Sun Queen” keeping them imprisoned on the island.

But within the social narrative of the characters, Lara isn’t a girl. She’s never told to be quiet, or to let someone else take care of the ass-kicking for her. She’s never told that she can’t do something.

The tenderness with which Roth and Grimm talk to Lara is perhaps to a greater degree than you’d see if their protegee was a young man. And you could read Alex’s attempt to play hero and recover Reyes’ tools without Lara’s help as an attempt to reassert his masculinity because he feels threatened by Lara’s competence. But you know what? I don’t want to make that argument. There’s no evidence from within the game itself to suggest that Alex has a problem with being saved by a woman. His actions were motivated by a desire to help his friends in a horrific situation, a little bit of vanity, and a crush. The societal pressure to be the breadwinner, to protect womenfolk, that exists in our world, is not addressed in the world of Tomb Raider, and therefore we are allowed to dismiss or ignore it. We’re invited to participate in a world without those types of gendered roles.

Lara’s triumph, then, is the triumph of a woman over a man’s world only in the most literal sense: that she is, in fact, a woman, and her opponents happen to be men. Tomb Raider doesn’t tackle the gendered implications of Lara’s predicament. The closest the narrative comes is when, early in the game, Lara attempts to escape her captors. One of them catches her, corners her alone, and with a predatory smirk on his face runs his hand down her side. There’s a quick-time event here which has Lara lashing out and breaking free of his fondling grip. This scene was featured prominently in Tomb Raider’s advance trailers, which made it look like the game featured rape. But if the player misses the timing, the man kills Lara. If the player accomplishes the quick-time event, the man becomes Lara’s first kill.

In one of The Border House’s articles on Dishonored, Cuppycake writes about how the game designers very intentionally created a world interlaced with sexism, racism and prejudice, and they used these deliberately constructed inequalities to tell its story. That doesn’t make the game itself sexist, and Cuppycake argues that Dishonored is still a really good game, but we have to look at the number of games that incorporate misogynist crap but disallow the player to do anything about it. Making a statement about misogyny is one thing, but videogames are about participatory action, and to create misogyny in a game without granting the player any agency against it is is problematic to say the least.

Tomb Raider is the opposite: the developers tried to create a world without sexism (perhaps in response to the stigma associated with the series). That comes with problems of its own. But in doing so they also created a game that places agency in a woman’s hands. And despite the fact that, within the game world, sexism is a negligible factor, as a narrative that exists within our world Tomb Raider becomes a means of taking agency against the sexism that we as players perceive. As Kotaku’s Evan Narcisse says in his review, the game gives players “a way to weaponize all that angst.”

Lara’s not supposed to be enjoying her time on the island of Yamatai. But I did. To have Lara experience sexism would have been more realistic, certainly, but I found the game’s approach to be entirely valid in and of itself, particularly in a story whose supernatural elements have already left strict realism behind.

Because when playing the game, I’m not a ‘woman’ in the sense that that identity so often means in the real world. In Tomb Raider, I’m Lara Croft the person, whose body is female and who becomes a hero.


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7 Responses to “That girl is kicking our asses!”: Tomb Raider’s (Lack of) Gendered Power Plays

  1. Great article, I really am drawn to your argument: just because something exists in the real world does not mean we have to include it and endorse it in our art forms. Art is a medium for progressive thought and actions, and video games are not exempt from this. So to construct a world where the typical sexist attitudes doesn’t exist is potentially achieving far more than having Lara hampered by realistic travesties. Why not show that, ultimately, sexist frameworks do not need to exist — that there are other ways of having a female character be feminist, without overtly screaming these politics at the top of their lungs. There’s always a place for that, for sure, but sometimes the more subtle approach can achieve just as much.

  2. Laurentius says:

    If only writing and story wasn’t that bad. Are these types of narrative not for me anymore ? Most probably, i’m too old for this game. ( though enormous amout of violence is almost suggesting otherwise ). Every plot twist is telegraphed from like miles away. I knew who will die and when and how. It’s also irritiating how gameplay contradicts storyline.

    • Oh yeah, I agree that as a whole this game wasn’t great. I don’t think you’re too old for the game–I think the game is too old for you, in the sense that it’s still using cutscenes and cliches like it’s 2001. The only point I wanted to make with this article is that I’m really glad they didn’t utilize gendered insults and violence.

      And maybe I’m a naive goober, but I totally didn’t see that last death coming. I was so upset! :p Going back to camp after that was the worst.

      • Laurentius says:

        I think you are really onto something regarding Tomb Raider, there is some serious disparity between Lara in gameplay, when we often see bad guys terrfied of her and even Lara shouting back at them and her in cutscens. It’s rooted deep inside of a core of a game. Like I played on normal and I very rarly died, mostly due to terrible QTE nad a couple of time due to machingun to the face. Almost never due missed jump etc. as Lara is such a acomplished jumper, climber, but when game is taking control out of me, wow Lara is always falling, hiting ground, smacking through things.

  3. Kit says:

    Thanks. This was a wonderful and powerful read.

  4. Thank you, Jillian. This is one of the best things I’ve read about Tomb Raider (and a lot of virtual ink has already been spilled on the subject). For all the alarm bells that went off as they marketed this game, I was surprised with how well done it was. Story cliches aside, I thought issues of gender were handled well. That is to say, they didn’t go out of their way to call attention to her gender. There were subtle, believable hints like the tenderness with which her mentors speak to her (as you mention in your article). But they also didn’t say, “HEY! WE HAVE A FEMALE PROTAGONIST! LOOK!”

    I really think they did an admirable job and I hope other developers can take notice.

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