Lara Croft: Tomb Raider / The Cradle of Life - Yay for girl power, boo for colonialism
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.
I promise I won't say that Lara Croft is a feminist statement. I promise. The marketing is all about her skintight clothing. They go out of their way to draw attention to her breasts throughout both films. Honestly, I almost sprained my eyeballs from rolling them during the first 20 minutes of Tomb Raider. Look, Lara's being held down on her back in a struggle with a killer robot! Look, Lara's taking a shower! Look, Lara's walking walking around nude while mocking her butler's statement that ladies should be modest!
But if you can get past the "look at me" vibe, Lara has a lot of heroine content going for her.
First, athletic ability. She runs, swims, rides horses, shoots, climbs, does martial arts, parachutes, and generally tears it up. Cradle of Life opens with her showing off her skills with a jet ski. Her male friends on the boat yell in amazement at her antics, not her outfit. (They do appreciate her outfit for a second when she boards, but then it's back to work.)
Her living situation seems somewhat isolated, but she does have genuine friendships. Almost all of them are with men, but she doesn't flirt with her male friends to get their help. Whatever aid they offer seems based on affection and mutual respect.
She's smart, she does for herself, and she has a core set of values that guide her decisions. Though she may be tempted momentarily by love, she is never swayed by money or power, and in the end she always does the right thing.
She is treated so much better than women are usually treated in these films. Lara is never called "bitch" or "that woman" by her enemies. She is called "Croft" or "Lady Croft." They don't strip her and torture her. They don't threaten her with sexualized violence. She's playing on even ground with men, and she gets the same respect and the same threats they would receive.
Does Tomb Raider or Cradle of Life blaze any trails in valuing women who are not Hollywood pretty? Absolutely not.
Would I want my daughter to watch this film and see Lara Croft as an example of a strong woman? Absolutely.
Unfortunately, when you move beyond gender, it goes downhill.
Look at the name of the films: Tomb Raider. Someone who steals the items in tombs, where people were buried a long time ago. People whose descendants probably still live nearby, and who might well be interested in ancient items from their history and culture.
Am I the only one that realizes "Travel the world, meet new people, and take their ancestors' stuff" is NOT an acceptable way to interact with other countries or the people who live there, especially when you're a wealthy white woman from a country with a history of extensive colonization?
Tomb Raider shows Lara using the language of the area she is in and following their customs in a respectful manner while the Bad Guys hire local people to do their work and even walk on their backs. It presents a deliberate contrast between Lara's openness to signs from her environment and the brute force used by her male opponents as they pursue their objectives. Cradle of Life continues this trend, showing Lara interacting respectfully with folks in China and Africa, asking for their help rather than grabbing what she needs.
But none of this means jack. She is framed as someone who steals other people's stuff. This could have been dealt with in the films, but it's not. (If you're the writer for a sequel and you want ideas about this, please ask, I have several.) There's a small hint in Tomb Raider that Lara disapproves of a fellow "tomb raider" for questionable ethics in making a buck, but no alternative model is shown that would make us think she's any different. Heck, in Cradle of Life she's out on a boat off the coast of Greece plundering an ancient temple. I'm pretty sure there are still people living in Greece, it's not a barren wasteland. You could probably ask around and find someone who actually owns this stuff.
And Lara, what are you doing riding a motorcycle on the Great Wall in China? The whole world is your playground?
I love Cradle of Life. Tomb Raider, the first film, is slightly boring in comparison, but I still love the character of Lara. When you love something, do you ignore its flaws? Maybe in your heart, but you also have to be honest about its shortcomings. So I give Tomb Raider and Cradle of Life only 2 stars.
More commentary: Elisabeth Rappe at Cinematical: Re-Raiding the Tomb