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***HOW LARA CROFT STEALS HEARTS
Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo?
Does Lara Croft wear fake polygons?
HOW LARA CROFT STEALS HEARTS
By Clive Thompson 02:00 AM Apr, 24, 2006
Games Without Frontiers
Lara Croft's back and she's as bodacious as ever. In the new Tomb Raider: Legend, Eidos has crafted its heroine using its usual blend of Indiana Jones and Victoria's Secret. As she runs through the catacombs, Croft's spectacular chest heaves and her behind wiggles. In quiet moments between action sequences, she stretches up on tiptoes and arches her back, to get the kinks out. Ahem.
She's a piece of cheesecake, all right. And among cultural pundits, this is the prevailing wisdom about why young men so loved Tomb Raider when it debuted in 1996. Teenage boys are horny; teenage boys like to ogle hot women; Tomb Raider allowed them to drool over Croft for hours on end. This dismal equation, as the theory goes, also explains the subsequent explosion of games with hot-chick characters, from Bloodrayne to the undulating mass of Tecmo's Dead or Alive vixens. Once again, the basest urges of young men had coarsened society -- right?
I beg to differ. I think young boy gamers loved Lara for reasons that were considerably stranger. They weren't just ogling her: They were identifying with her. Playing the role of a hot, sexy woman in peril -- surrounded by violence on all sides -- was, unexpectedly, a totally electric experience for young guys.
I am not merely pulling this argument out of my butt. I'm basing it on a famous piece of film theory: the "Final Girl" concept of slasher movies.
But as Clover sat in the theaters, she noticed something curious. Sure, the young men would laugh and cheer as the villain hunted down his female prey. But eventually the movie would whittle down the victims to one last terrified woman -- the Final Girl, as Clover called her. Suddenly, the young men in the audience would switch their allegiance -- and begin cheering just as madly for the Final Girl as she attacked and killed the psycho.
This, Clover argued, was not mere garden-variety sexism. On the contrary, it was a generation of young guys who apparently identified strongly with the situation of a woman who faced agonizing peril yet came out victorious. The slasher dynamic was unprecedented in film history: "The idea of a female who outsmarts, much less outfights -- or outgazes -- her assailant (was) unthinkable," Clover wrote. With this new crop of slasher movies, the young men in the audience essentially became the Final Girl: exhausted, freaked out and ultimately triumphant. They weren't just ogling the sexual violence. They were submitting to it.
The sexuality of young men, Clover concluded, is profoundly weirder than you'd imagine.
I think she's right, and what's more, I think her idea maps perfectly onto the success of Tomb Raider. As with the slasher flicks, there's a Final Girl dynamic: a constantly threatened woman, fighting for her very survival, attacking goons on every side -- and a captive audience of young men. Playing as Croft was an emotionally catalytic experience. Young guys had played tons of male characters before, from Nintendo's Mario to the anonymous marines of Doom. But being Lara was different; it got its hooks into their psyches like no game before.
"I feel like I'm sort of in charge of protecting her -- which is to say, protecting me," as one gamer told me back then. "Both at once. It's really unusual." I've noticed it myself. When I control my avatar in almost any game, I'm pretty engaged. But when I play as Croft, the game is an order of magnitude more intense: I find myself sucking in my breath, involuntarily ducking at virtual obstacles.
I'm not suggesting a good part of Croft's allure is not, in fact, straightforward titillation. (Even more sexually charged than her bouncy pixels is her voice acting: If you're wearing headphones, those soft grunts as she hauls herself onto a ledge practically qualify as phone sex.) And it's also true that being Lara -- or any other impossibly curvy avatar -- is undoubtedly a whole different experience for women gamers.
But the next time you see prepubescent boys playing Legend on the demo machines at Wal-Mart, take a closer look at their glazed expressions of concentration. There's more going on there than meets the eye.