The Fantasy and Feminism of Lara Croft

The legendary video game heroine might have originated as a male fantasy, but she's also a bona fide action hero.

Tomb Raider - Lara Croft

The legendary video game heroine might have originated as a male fantasy, but she’s also a bona fide action hero.

Throughout the 22 years since the release of the original Tomb Raider game, Lara Croft’s feminist credentials – or lack thereof – have remained the subject of hotly contested debate.

In a 2001 article anticipating her big-screen debut in Simon West’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, journalist Mary Spicuzza hailed Angelina Jolie’s Lara as part of a new generation of “butt-kicking babes” who got to be both sexy and strong, while a 2002 essay by the media scholar Helen W. Kennedy wondered whether the impossible body of her video game incarnation made her a “feminist icon or cyberbimbo.”

The recent release of Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider, a rebooted origin story that passes the twin pistols to Alicia Vikander, has naturally generated another vaguely exhausting, increasingly clickbaity wave of “Is It Woke or Not?”-style takes – for example, male BBC reviewer Nicholas Barber leads his unimpressed review by unequivocally declaring “Why Lara Croft is no feminist role model.” A TIME feature by Eliana Dockterman reportedly chronicles “The Evolution of Lara Croft From Video Game Vixen to Empowered Movie Heroine,” a headline whose implication of Lara’s simple linear progress into a now-complete state of “empowerment” (and assumption that the two categories are inherently mutually exclusive) does a disservice to the piece’s actual nuance.

A new video from ScreenPrism is a thoughtful, welcome addition to this critical conversation. Its analysis is most tightly focused on the 2001 Jolie-led Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – a film that objectifies Lara not only by giving her skimpy outfits and coy one-liners but through the way the camera itself frames her. As the video observes, Lara is filmed with the same third-person point of view as the video games, and that perspective subtly trains the audience to view her as a spectacle rather than identify with her humanity. A shower scene is shot to emphasize the sensual appearance of what Lara looks like while bathing rather than her actual experience of the shower. Moreover, setpieces like the opening robot battle and the Cambodian tomb puzzle are staged with blatantly obvious sexual euphemism. In the former, the fight is literally seen through the robot’s eyes instead of Lara’s, placing her flat on her back in a transparently eroticized position as she struggles to fight back, and the latter is solved by a literal act of penetration as it’s revealed that “the log must pierce the urn.”

Yet for all the film’s frustrating accommodation of the male gaze, it’s also acknowledged that Lara was still a trailblazer as a female action hero in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. Its 2003 sequel, Jan de Bont’s awkwardly-titled Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life, was praised for improving on Lara’s character development and emotional depth, despite being a relative box office disappointment. Our broad cultural perception of her as a smart, self-possessed, and unquestionably kickass female explorer has continued, despite the wide variation in how she’s been portrayed across mediums – making her more similar to virtually immortal pop culture icons like James Bond and Batman. In light of the character’s constant state of retconned and rebooted transformations, it seems reductive to ask whether Lara Croft is “feminist or not,” as if she were one real-life individual who developed her own politics – rather, we should keep examining why and how she has continued to be such an enduring female character.

Watch the video below for a more detailed analysis of Lara Croft’s legacy onscreen.

Aline is a writer and student. She is very passionate about campy period dramas, female-driven horror films, and obscure Star Wars lore.