January 24, 2009 8:00 AM | Simon Carless
[Eidos has revealed its intentions to make iconic Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft more "female-friendly", but is that really what the franchise needs? In this opinion column, Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander tackles the issue -- and why Lara's much-critiqued sexuality is largely a straw man.]
By now you've probably heard somewhere or another that Eidos would like to make the Tomb Raider franchise and its heroine more "female-friendly."
"Female-friendly" is a well-intentioned but faintly gruesome marketing phrase that's come to be perceived as shorthand for "let's make everything pink so women will buy it."
It's almost inherently offensive -- so in order to treat this concept of a female-friendly Tomb Raider fairly, the phrase first asks us to get some words out of the way.
As a female journalist in a majority male industry, perhaps I'm owed a deck in the face from Gloria Steinem when I confess that, whenever we as a society discuss gender issues and "what women want," I get a pang of concern for the men.
I'm probably spoiled having grown up in this era instead of in a previous one, but I don't like that we're allowed to discuss what's "female-friendly" -- and yet, generally feel comfortable already assuming what's "male-friendly" (guns! explosions! boobs!), permitting girls' club attitudes while boys' clubs are conceptually frowned upon.
The "female-friendly" idea also assumes that all women are interested in the same ideals. But, semantics aside, I think it's clear what Eidos is trying to do here.
Longstanding, iconic heroine Lara Croft has a reputation as a bombshell -- okay, okay, sex object.
She's perhaps the game biz's most famous piece of eye-candy, and somehow over the years she's become iconic of the concept that 18-year-old boys drool over pixelated boobs. It's easy to see how this has made some women feel as if Tomb Raider games are not "for them."
But when it comes to why women don't feel comfortable with this or that video game, it becomes necessarily a far bigger issue than just one character's physique.
Lara could receive an extreme makeover and appear triumphantly on the set of Oprah, and yet it'd still unlikely be some magical cure for female perception of the brand -- and it might even alienate existing fans, which won't help their ends.
Eidos is forced to re-evaluate the franchise's appeal because Tomb Raider: Underworld posted disappointing sales. It may also be that Eidos would like to clean lingering skeletons -- such as this poster girl for teenage gamer boy fantasies -- out of its closet in order to pretty up for a strong buyer, but that's only speculation.
Releasing a title in a franchise that's felt if not a bit checkered, perhaps staid, for years during a packed, starkly hit-driven recession holiday would suggest that weakened sales are to be expected no matter how great this installment is.
That Tomb Raider is in need of an update may indeed be an idea with some merit behind it. But the go-to idea that making this larger-than-life heroine look mundane and conservative will make her appealing to more women is probably more than a bit flawed.
People often point out the implausibility of Lara wearing hot shorts in the snow, or having bare legs when she plans to be climbing stalagmites or obelisks or something.
Well, game characters have worn implausible clothes for ages -- none of the FFVII crew bundled up in the North Crater, and Solid Snake didn't mind lying belly-down in the snow at Shadow Moses.
Indeed, many a shirtless muscleman has braved monsters and elements for over a decade, facing nothing more than a chuckle and "that's video games for you." The argument that "we don't want to desexualize Lara, we just want her to be realistic" doesn't hold water.
Most women are smart enough to know that Lara is a video game character and not a real person. Maybe her body proportions are unrealistic -- but, uh, the fact that she leaps across chasms in the Amazon, balances on hairline ledges and discovers mysterious artifacts with ancient powers is acceptably grounded in reality?
Lara's physicality was palpable in Underworld. It had much less to do with how her body looked, and much more about how she used it, with sound design and character modeling that captured the precariousness, the breathlessness, of her acrobatic feats.
Personally, not once did I sit there feeling bad because I don't look like her, and I don't like the idea that women are so fragile that sexy fantasy women should never be allowed in video games -- especially when we allow sexy fantasy men.
Perception And Judgment
I don't believe that women have a problem with Lara, other than that we've been conditioned to blame her. I think it's Lara's social context -- Lara's perceived audience that makes them feel unwelcome.
And once again, this comes down to the longer-term history of the video game industry, which marketed itself for years as a toy for teenage boys, and now will probably take years more to get rid of that stigma.
You can even say it's the fault of society, fond of judging which kinds of things are "for girls" and which kinds of things are "for boys", that makes women feel like they ought not to try something like Tomb Raider.
Maybe it even makes women feel like they are "supposed to be" insulted by Lara, even without having taken a look at their own feelings around the issue.
I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that when it comes to the relationship between women and games, much broader things need to change than the long-established aesthetic of Lara Croft.
A Real Reinvention?
"We need to look at everything, as we develop the next game," Eidos CFO Robert Brent said in a report in the Times Online. "Look at how Batman changed successfully, from the rather sad character of the Michael Keaton era to the noir style of The Dark Knight."
Such comments are actually heartening; many early comic book superheroes were vague, justice-oriented concepts at their inception and then gained greater complexity and wider appeal through repeated reinvention.
So sure, media coverage around this Lara Issue has focused heavily on her body and what the desires of a female audience might be.
But it's clear that Eidos will only refresh the franchise successfully when they focus less on guesses about what appeals to women and more on what could make Lara more than superficially appealing -- period.