Who does the Tomb Raider represent?

A ruling by the US Supreme Court has legalised marriage equality in all fifty states. Hooray for the gays! Well, hooray for the entire LGBTQI community, but that doesn’t rhyme as well. Glad to hear it. Hopefully it won’t be long before the same thing finally happens in Australia. Canada’s had marriage equality for years and they seem to be doing alright. Ireland certainly hasn’t been struck down by heavenly fire since its recent referendum, and you’ve got a pro-marriage equality PM in charge of the Conservatives in the UK. Life is getting better for non-hetero-normatives around the world. Now (as I’ve heard mentioned a few times already) begins the battle to remind people that LGBTQI discrimination and homophobia won’t just disappear because one bloke can marry another bloke, the same way that racism didn’t end in America with the end of segregation. But hey, one battle at a time and right now is a time to celebrate.

On another end of the news spectrum E3 has passed us by with much ado (depending on your perspective, quite possibly about nothing). I’m pretty stoked about Mass Effect: Andromeda, Star Wars: Battlefront 3 and X-com 2, am interested in Horizon Zero Dawn, was glad to finally see Evie Fry get her own trailer for Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and (unlike so much of the gaming population) don’t really give all that many fucks about Fallout 4, the remake of Final Fantasy VII or Shenmue III. Wish I gave more fucks about Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. Each to their own, right? One of the games on display that I’m really looking forward to is Rise of the Tomb Raider, sequel to the 2013 reboot of the franchise. I was a bit fan of the 2013 game, finding its visuals stunning, its gameplay exciting and a younger Lara Croft’s genuine character development deeply engaging. If the new game is more of the same, I’ll happily buy it.

And I really hope that Lara Croft is still gay.

Well, that likely requires a little bit of explanation. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that I hope we can continue to assume that Lara Croft is, at the very least, not a cut-and-dry heterosexual.

For me, like so many others who played and enjoyed the game, this came from what we perceived about Lara’s relationship with her friend Sam (short for Samantha), who spends most of the game as a damsel-in-distress for Lara to rescue. While Lara obviously cares about the other friends who survived the shipwreck (and her own survival and rescue are important motivating factors), it is Sam for whom she literally scales mountains, butchers her way through armies and faces down (spoiler alert) an undead weather witch to save. And while the relationship we see is never anything more than platonic, well, you get the feeling that Lara probably wished for a little more.

Lara at Bar gray edited 14:7:15
“Surprised you didn’t say ‘put me in a tomb.'” “Seriously, don’t tempt me.”

This likely shows my own pop-culture conditioning more than anything else. If nearly two and a half decades on this earth watching and absorbing fiction have taught me anything it’s that you only risk life or limb doing that kind of shit for a person if they’re a blood relative or you wanna do the horizontal polka with them (trying to be a bit more poetic today). But there are those sideways glances, the concern, the way Lara relaxes in Sam’s presence, the way you can cut the sexual tension with a knife and everyone seems to notice except Sam and goddamnit Sam can’t you see that she wasn’t interested in meeting those cute boys she was interested in being with you because she loves you and why can’t you love her back! Why Sam? Why can’t you love her?

I’m joking. Mostly.

As I said, I’ve spent a lot of years being told that romantic love or simply reckoning that s/he would be a good root (not too poetic) is the primary motivator for grand quests of courage and daring do. So when I see (or am playing as) a character going out to rescue the princess locked in the tower I tend to make assumptions about the hero’s motivations. Reckon I’m not the only one. This is shifting as those creating that which we consume experiment with broader relationships. It can also be argued that in trying to make game protagonists the kind of blank slates upon which the player can project themselves we’re also seeing a natural decline in the old trope (this is something I’d like to go into substantially more in the future and will a little more in one or two paragraphs).

Now, is Lara Croft in love with Sam? Maybe. At least want to get into her knickers? I suppose that’s possible. Just because I think I see that subtext doesn’t mean it’s there in either the writing or the animation. It would also be possible for Lara to be gay and not want to bonk Sam. Despite the juvenile stereotypes film, television, books and games have hammered home for years it is possible to be friends with unattached members of the gender you’re attracted to without wanting to fuck them. And if Lara is sexually attracted to Sam she obviously respects her friend’s sexual preferences and is happy simply being best mates (and hell, if she’s willing to murder her way up a mountain to protect this relationship, I’m sure she’d be willing to take a few cold showers as well). But all of this focuses on a big ‘if’ that is never answered one way or another.

I’d like to direct you towards this great post from the blog Pfangirl Through the Looking Glass which, despite the title, weighs up the evidence for or against Lara being romantically inclined towards Sam with a focus on comments made by Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett, rather than which team Lara bats for. The post concludes that no, they’re just very good friends and Lara has fought so hard because she is protecting her surrogate family in a way that she never could for her biological parents, while being fairly and appropriately ambivalent about what Lara’s sexual orientation is (since it doesn’t matter in the context of the relationships we see and can possibly apply to in the game). Lara’s just protecting her best mate and there doesn’t need to be any more to it.

But I still reckon she’s into girls and hope that I can continue thinking so in the next game. This is a matter of projecting my own biases onto the character, assuming that language, subtext and motivation implies certain emotions. It shows how much we care about the characters that we wish to relate to them on a deeper level, and it is a credit to the writing that we can. It allows us to take the story and characters and see a narrative that is smaller, more personal, and sometimes far grander. Allows us to apply the plot and character development to our own lives and experiences. The story of Lara Croft in the 2013 reboot is very much a coming of age story. I can’t help but imagine there must have been some out there who saw their own adolescences mirrored by Lara’s struggle and transformation from privileged (if already physically tough) academic to ruthless survivor. Perhaps saw their own fear of losing their close friends and family as they “become who we’re meant to be” in Lara’s fear of losing her friends and family as she starts her own journey to do the same. Ultimately she is able to keep many of her friends, albeit at a cost, and is stronger because of it.

Maybe I’m just pulling this all out of my arse. I have a habit of doing that. But I don’t reckon it’s too unreasonable a suspicion.

So, is the rebooted Tomb Raider gay? Maybe. I think so. Others might see her as straight, asexual, bisexual, or decide it simply doesn’t matter. And in a large way it doesn’t. It doesn’t effect the gameplay, plot or (arguably) the character herself. In another way it most certainly does. Lara Croft is the first lady of gaming. She holds a special place amongst such less inspiring characters as Ms Pacman and Princess Peach as being one of a very small handful of female game characters that has managed to earn a presence outside of video gaming community within the wider pop cultural awareness. What happens to Lara, the way she acts and who she is, is important because she represents by default so much of the past, present and future of the gaming population. There’s a reason so many people were upset at the treatment of Lara in the comments by the designers  before its release and in the gameplay itself. The graphic death scenes, the attempted rape, the remarks by a developer that they hoped players would “want to protect her” as she is continually beaten down, all seemed to be an attempt to de-power and diminish a character who for so long was one of the few female-starring power fantasies. I think she’s still a powerful character (and it is hard to argue that she wasn’t, at least by the end of the game, pretty fearless and very bloody deadly).

I’m a straight white male. I am fucking overrepresented in all aspects of western popular culture. What happens with a character like the Tomb Raider is important because awareness of who and what she is reaches beyond the video game community. They don’t have to outright call her gay, straight, bi, ace or any other colour of the rainbow. They just need to allow the room for players to apply their own emotions, assumptions and biases to the character. To see their own story reflected in hers. To represent them.

Honestly, it makes for a more interesting protagonist anyway.

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