As a cultural phenomenon, Lara Croft has a complicated history when it comes to its impact on women. Croft first splashed into our consciousness in 1996 as every nerd’s wet dream: on PCs, PlayStation and Sega Saturn, you could hang with a beautiful, smart, busty English archaeologist who liked to poke around ruins and sling a machine gun.
It quickly became the video game that landed magazine covers and couldn’t stay on the shelves. Soon, Croft would go on to appear in “Tomb Raider II” (1997), “Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation” (1998), “Tomb Raider Chronicles” (2000) and about a dozen more video games to date.
It was in 2001, though, that we got a live-action Lara Croft, played by Angelina Jolie. And even within the four or so short years into the Tomb Raider legacy, there was already a lot of gendered discourse surrounding the video game that impacted receptions of film.
Succinctly, this: that Video Game Lara Croft really didn’t need to be animated with titties that big. Furthermore, skin-tight tank-tops and booty shorts were impractical for an archaeologist — especially one whose field work often included combat. And any translation of this onto the silver screen was just a blatant perpetuation of sexist representations of women and the male gaze.
The tone of Elvis Mitchell’s 2001 New York Times review of the film says it all: “[Jolie] also gets to arch a sardonic eyebrow and occasionally to squeeze in a little acting as well — a special circumstance for a movie lifted from a video game inspired in equal parts by ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and the men’s magazine Maxim, which explains the form-fitting tank tops and shorts that Lara, and her bleary-eyed legions of fans, enjoy.”
So, why would I — or any woman for that matter — want to be Lara Croft for Halloween?
When the film came out in 2001, keep in mind: I was a smooth 5 years old. For starters, I didn’t have any idea that the act of tomb-raiding was extremely neocolonialist and high-key disrespectful. I also never could have guessed that “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” was as talked-about as it was because adult men were obsessed with desecrating Jolie’s idealized physical form.
When the film came out, I was 5 years old and liked to make my parents mad by doing my own stunts. All I knew was that Lara Croft was a poppin’ ass bitch, this film showcased that greatly and I wanted to be her. So that’s the chief desire I set out to fulfill when picking out my costume for Halloween 2018.
The case for Croft being a feminist role model isn’t super convincing, even diving past the double-D surface. Evidence that’s especially damning? A 1997 Q+A between Toby Gard, the video game’s primary developer, and Tomb Raider fan magazine The Croft Times.
Interviewer: So what’s with the unfeasibly large knockers then?
Gard: Slip of the mouse. I wanted to expand them fifty percent and then — whoops, one-hundred and fifty percent. Darn.
Interviewer: Did they get bigger when marketing became became involved?
Gard: Not really; they were just focused on more. The marketing men just saw them as the easy route to take with their campaign. I reckon they must have thought, “How are we going to market this? Hey, look at her enormous oojahs! I have a cunning plan.” Clever lads.
Even if Gard was just taking the piss, what he said came from a place of incredible privilege. How strange it is that a game and fandom revolving around a woman doesn’t seem to have anyone but heterosexual, cisgender men in mind at all. The interview itself is an echo-chamber of conversation, moderated by people who hold the privilege to speak as they do and boldly, without fear of repercussion. It’s that kind of culture, from the top-down, that made the Tomb Raider fandom what it was.
And yet, where the video games and their culture were easily condemnable, Jolie’s casting as Croft blurred the line between disrespectful and empowering.
Acting chops aside, Jolie was a perfect fit for the role. Obviously, Angelina Jolie had been, was and continues to be seen as one of the most beautiful people who ever graced the planet. Period. She’s also tatted and has been historically open about her sex life. The whole knifeplay affinity narrative around her was a coalescence of her edginess and her sex appeal.
If it wasn’t going to be Denise Richards or Famke Janssen, as OG rumors had it — or even edgy, brown actress like Halle Berry or Rosario Dawson — it was definitely going to be Angelina Jolie.
Watching the film now, I do pick up on the nuances of how Simon West tried to navigate the pre-existing hypersexualization of Croft.
But “nuance” might be giving the man too much credit. At the time, Nathan Rabin of the A.V. Club wrote, “Jolie may be the most entertainingly unhinged sex symbol this side of Anna Nicole Smith, but her Lara Croft is curiously asexual and predictable.” Yes, thank God that Jolie is mostly rocking pants instead of short-shorts. And there’s a wholly unnecessary straight kiss, but it’s better than a wholly unnecessary straight sex scene.
Still, as Roger Ebert said after watching the film: “‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ elevates goofiness to an art form.” That goofiness extends to the ways West constructs Croft as a heterosexual nerd fantasy. She’s super OK with walking around her butler and her hacker Bryce buck naked. She drives Aston Martins and McLarens, and motorcycles, too — against the flow of traffic on London’s Tower Bridge.
Alex West can’t help but get a hard-on when encountering Croft because she’s so beautiful and dangerous and intellectual, and it’s a whole Moment.
It’s tough because as a feminist and a cinephile, I understand that to this day: it’s hard to find a sexy acting role as a woman without the risk of being reduced to a sexual object. Being a woman or non-binary person who’s comfortable in your sexuality, especially as an artist, can mean opening yourself up to all kinds of sexual unpleasantries.
There’s an interview from the “Tomb Raider” press circuit in which Jolie illuminates all of this, without using all of feminist language. Talking about how she misses set means mentioning that she misses wearing her holsters. This leads into a discussion about Croft’s outfits as a whole.
As it turns out, Jolie was “very involved” in the creative process with costume designer Lindy Hemming. Fun fact: Hemming would go on to design wardrobes for other odes to badassery like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and (other?) feminist films like Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman.” Of the aesthetic concepts, Jolie says, “We worked on it together and we wanted her to be very real — not cartoony. We wanted her boots to be real. I wanted her to be more about shape than colors. So, she’s very solid and monochromatic. Blends into Iceland.”
But of course, there’s an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. “We knew we had to have the shorts at some point. Which was very, very difficult. Big discussions until the last minute about me. The first thing that I said to Simon was that I’d do the movie, but would not get in the shorts,” Jolie explains, laughing. And she goes on to say that in the end, we do get to see her in shorts because legacy won out over her autonomy, essentially.
This in and of itself is confirmation of how women do try to navigate highly sexualized spaces and work in them on their own terms — often, losing something in the process. With a smile on her face, Jolie also adds that the shorts were “very, very uncomfortable,” but that “you feel like her and it’s fun.”
Apart from my lack of understanding of the gendered framework in which “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” was made — and the innocent joy I gleaned from the film — the film has meant a lot to me personally. For as long as I can remember, for my dad and me, action movies and shooter games have always been Our Thing together. Any flick with guns and explosions and intrigue? We’re there. A rinky arcade with greasy plastic machine guns and pixelated graphics? Hand me your quarters.
As someone who is adamantly against real gun violence and marched on Washington for our lives, I, too, am struck by the dissonance. But “Lara Croft,” like other early 90s / early 2000s faves like “The Matrix” and the “Shaft” remake and “Rush Hour” and “Bad Boys” and the Jason Bourne series, fit well into my formative years of my relationship with my dad. I think he was just relieved that having a girl as his first-born didn’t mean he couldn’t be indulged in the corny, masculine things that excited him.
I don’t remember consciously making the decision to be Lara Croft this Halloween. It wasn’t so much the 2018 remake of “Tomb Raider” with Alicia Vikander — my stance on remakes and loyalties to original actors is a different essay entirely — as it was Nicki Minaj’s assertion in “Chun-Li” (“Ayo, I been north; Lara been Croft!”) that planted the seed.
But I have always admired the idea of a literary or cinematic Halloween costume. 2015 transformed me into a black Mia Wallace (from “Pulp Fiction”) and 2016 made space for a black Harley Quinn (a la “Suicide Squad”).
After careful analysis of my 2018 shortlist, Croft seemed the most feasible. And like most of my short list, she struck the “right” balance between thoughtful and saucy.
I don’t actually put much stock in periodical horoscopes — as opposed to the general pop psychology of zodiac signs — but a recent @astropoets x W Magazine horoscope did advise Libras to conjure up a costume paying “homage or small reference to an important woman in [our] life.” It was the blessing I needed to proceed on my thoughtful and saucy route.
Because I always cite pieces like “Just a Girl” by Gwen Stefani or Minaj’s discography as my first foray into feminist texts, but “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” actually empowered me first.
As you can imagine, growing up and and revisiting the hype around “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” has been disheartening. Forget Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy: finding out that your feminist hero is actually a scam propped up by misogyny and the bottomless, boring lust of cisgender heterosexual men will put you through changes. But I think there’s value in the act of reclaiming something one-dimensional and sordid in order to reconcile the positive, subversive associations you’ve built around it.