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The Two Sides of Lara Croft: Female Empowerment Vs. Object of the Male Gaze

Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

After watching the gritty but joyless reboot of Tomb Raider, I decided it was important to go into my nostalgic bubble and answer the question of “Do the original Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movies hold up?” Short Answer: first one yes, second one is hot garbage, but breaking down the pros and cons of the movies have been done to death, especially in light of the reboot. What was more important to me, upon rewatching, was the fact that the character of Lara Croft is always straddling this place of being an empowering female lead and an object of the male gaze.

I say that she straddles that place because, for me personally, I felt such a sense of wish fulfillment watching Angelina Jolie in the role. Not only was this a movie I saw in theaters as a kid, but it made me a lifelong Jolie fan, and as a grown woman, I felt a sense of delight in watching it. I loved Jolie’s unrealistic gun-fu, the bungee jumping scene, and her braid of truth, justice, and the British way. As just an aesthetic, Jolie makes Lara seem larger than life.

Beyond that, looking at Lara as a character, she’s always in control. She’s smarter than everyone in the room, but also knows when to ask for help, like when she needs Bryce to be her eyes during the shootout at the manor. There’s always a sense that Lara is in control, and that’s pretty much lampshaded when she commands the robot “Simon” to stop during its kill sequence. Lara is never in real danger throughout the movie, but to me, watching a video game movie, that seems like a given. However, what’s more important to me about that scene is that it shows that, just like (don’t @ me) Batman, Lara is always working a few steps ahead, with a backup plan.

And I don’t think the Batman/Lara Croft connection is unfounded. Both are fantastically wealthy, peak physical perfection brunettes with cheeky servants, boy-man sidekicks, and way more prowess than their age would imply they should have.

Despite having an issue with Lara being the only woman in the entire film, what I (and my friend watching it) found so great was that she’s surrounded by these powerful men, a powerful male organization, and even a male colleague with whom she’s been in some sort of relationship, but she is better than all of them. She’s smarter, she’s stronger, and she’s wittier. She singlehandedly beats the shit out of Jorah Mormont and takes down the Illuminati.

That’s awesome, and as a female viewer both at seven and at twenty-five, what I take out of that first Lara Croft movie is that I got to see a heroine who was badass, smart, in control, and better than every dude in the room, without trauma, without pain, without fear of rape or assault, and without a romance. I mean, she kisses Daniel Craig’s character to help him breathe, but other than some flirting, she’s riding solo in terms of romance. The only “pain” she has is dealing with the loss of her father, which is a pretty common, non-gendered type of pain among fictional heroes. It works, and it’s fun. For some, it may feel unearned, but I don’t see why every female heroine has to “earn” her heroism through constant trauma.

Now … the flip side of that is the damn push-up bra. Angelina Jolie has an amazing body, and the fact that someone was like, No, let’s make her breasts more obvious, is a testament to why it’s hard to completely love this movie and her character.

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Lara was designed to appeal to the male gaze from the very start, and considering dudes online like The Amazing Atheist feel the need to make comments on the fact that Alicia Vikander and the new incarnation of Lara Croft don’t look like Jessica Rabbit anymore, it seems like Lara’s boobs have been determining her value for a long time.

Now, as a queer woman who loves boobs, comments like this piss me off, not only because they treat women like objects, but also because these are the reasons we cannot have escapism. We could all enjoy the sex appeal of male and female bodies in film and comics openly if it wasn’t for these sexist and disgusting comments that show how much men devalue female bodies that don’t fit a narrow set of criteria, especially when it comes to breasts.

So while I watched the first Lara Croft movie and loved seeing her be this amazing, confident, kick-ass heroine, every time her boobs came into focus, I was reminded of the leering men calling the shots. Even though there is only one truly fanservice-y shower scene, and we do get an equal opportunity fanservice scene with Daniel Craig, just the very fact that someone saw Angelina Jolie’s body and thought, Not good enough, shows how powerful the male gaze is. That’s a shame because, without that, we’d have a pretty bad-ass Batman.

In the end, Lara will always be a bit of both. Even with Alicia Vikander, she’s still a traditionally beautiful woman, and that’s never gonna change, no matter the size of anyone’s breasts. Lara Croft doesn’t have to be a bad character just because she’s sexy, but her overt sexiness doesn’t have to be played up to the point that it overtakes the film.

But Cradle of Life is just garbage, even if Lara Croft does punch a shark in the face.

(image: Paramount Pictures)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.

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