The (Rise and) Rape of Lara Croft

[Trigger Warning: Rape, sexual violence]

[Spoiler Alert for Mass Effect 2; only hinting at spoilers for Tomb Raider]

 Is it too late to chime in on the “Tomb Raider rape controversy”?  I’ll readily admit that I haven’t played a single minute of any game in the series, but as a feminist gamer interested in gender roles, of course I’ve followed Lara’s story from a distance. I’ve watched a good amount of gameplay videos of the reboot (until the cremation of ********, not to spoil anything vital) and read a fair share of articles and blog posts and interviews and whatnot about it. But anyway … it is never too late to talk about rape and rape culture. I agree with many commenters that the “suggested rape attempt scene” has been a publicity stunt. I think that, apart from that scene, Lara has to endure pain and violent acts that IMO are over the top. Also: The constant moaning and groaning, COME ON! You’d NEVER subject a male character to all this! As explained by the game’s executive producer Ron Rosenberg, this all happens for a very specific reason:

“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'”

(That would also never happen to a male character.) I also agree with Mary Hamilton in her Guardian article that

the use of rape “is a lazy shorthand that allows a writer to paint a bad guy as particularly bad, and a woman as particularly vulnerable (the genders are rarely reversed), without dealing with the consequences or meaning of such an act for any of the parties involved.”

There are just so many aspects of this affair that make me so angry I don’t even care whether it’s actually a good game. Let’s assume games are an art form and we want to discuss all sorts of topics from our daily lives in this medium. So let’s face it: rape, sexual assault and molestation are part of the daily lives of countless women and girls on this planet. And I do think that we have got to try to deal with this topic in video games. If it’s supposed to be a mature medium for grown-ups, we gotta figure out how.

Let’s start with the how not to:

  • Don’t make fun of it and don’t let anyone make fun of it.
  • Don’t touch the subject if you know you’ll wriggle out of the ensuing discussion.
  • Don’t use rape as shorthand for “Men are evil, women are weak.”
  • Don’t glorify sexual violence.
  • Don’t use rape only to instill sympathy or a protective instinct in the player.
  • Don’t put a suggested rape scene into for your video game unless you try to work out the consequences for the character and are willing to deal with them.
  • IF the genders are reversed, don’t turn it into a joke or parody. A man being raped isn’t the slightest bit more funny than a woman being raped.

Let’s also discuss what’s “suggested” about the “suggested rape attempt”:

I’ve read dozens of opinion pieces, comments, tweets along the lines of “See, nothing happened!?!” I’ll argue two points here: First: Compared to how the other opponents try to shoot you from afar, being touched in the side, having words that you don’t understand whispered into your ear and being choked (to death, if you fail the quicktime event) is not only by itself a multiple violation of personal boundaries, but also (that’s the second point): If you’re in that position, do you know where and when your attacker would stop? What his intentions really are? Try to think outside the clear rules of a game like Tomb Raider: Does he want to kill you, rape you, or problably “only” rob you? Especially if you have been assaulted before, you might jump to conclusions because “that’s what happened the last time”, even if may “only” be a light touch.

Lara assaulted in Tomb Raider

You have to assess the situation within seconds and react appropriately – and unfortunately (?), in reality, there’s no quicktime event, no reload, and killing someone is generally looked down upon. Also, in most instances, unlike Lara, you don’t just wipe off the dirt and get on with the killing your life. Depending on what exactly happened, you will need time to heal, physically but especially emotionally. You have to re-establish your boundaries, your self-confidence, your trust in other human beings. This may take therapy, or many hour-long talks with friends and family, or just lots of time. Speaking up against the offender or reporting him may help you deal with what happened, too. In the game, we never learn what Lara thinks about the incident – whether she felt threatened sexually, or not. But, either way, the only choice she gets is to kill the offender (if you win the quicktime event) or be choked (if you fail the QTE). As for “dealing with what happened”, this is it. There are a few instances in the game where we see an attempt of showing us how Lara deals with certain events (don’t want to spoil any details), but even that falls short in my opinion. And why does it fall short? The game promised to show how Lara became the heroine we know – and I’m sorry, but that’s not what’s we see in the game. What IS happening TO US never makes us a better, stronger person (emotionally; not talking athletics here). It may do the opposite – cause mistrust, depression, survivor’s guilt, self-harm, suicide, you name it. What CAN make us a better person is HOW WE DEAL WITH IT.  (Another good read on that, including statements from an expert on sexual violence: Penny Arcade Report)

So, regardless of whether Lara faces an attempted rape or “only” attempted murder (Did I just write that? Outside video games, it seems very, very wrong), she doesn’t get the slightest chance of dealing with it. It very much reminds me of how Shepard is resurrected from the dead in Mass Effect, with practically no explanation of how she (or he) deals with that. Shepard’s death and rebirth become as trivial as Lara carrying out her first kill when she shoots her offender in the face. Of course, unlike in Mass Effect, the story in Tomb Raider doesn’t allow for any prompt extensive processing of what happened, but if that is so, please don’t go around telling everyone how you are explaining Lara’s development. Just keep her suffering, moaning, groaning, getting impaled, choked, and burnt for the sake of our entertainment until she somehow turns into a killing machine. In other words: Don’t use rape in your stories if you can’t deal with it. Lara Croft meets her former self


[Note: Of course, I don’t yet know the ending, so take this article as the analysis of something incomplete and probably inaccurate.]

Some more recommendations on the matter that didn’t quite fit into the text above: Dan Whiteheads Saturday Soapbox, Ashelias article on how for her, Tomb Raider did help with coming to terms with her own history.


6 thoughts on “The (Rise and) Rape of Lara Croft”

  1. Great! You defined exactly the terms, i’ve been thinking about the last days. I’m working on a Review of the new TR, with a fokus on Lara as a Character. I’ll refer to you if it’s ok.

  2. not to be rude but Lara has severe ptsd from her time on the island, ect. (including the killing) and she does need time to heal after she escapes.

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