23 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (1996- )

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: A Complex Exploration of Misrepresentation of an “Empowered” Female Protagonist

by Grace Wilder


In the captivating world of film and media, a yearning for authentic, empowered female representation has emerged as a driving force. It’s a yearning that seeks to celebrate the multifaceted qualities and strengths that women inherently possess, transcending the confines of traditional stereotypes. Within this context, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider emerges as a significant touchstone—a franchise that both excites and challenges audiences, beckoning them to explore the nexus of empowerment, misrepresentation, and discrimination. The franchise’s central thesis revolves around the interplay between the character’s undeniable strengths and the overshadowing influence of her sexualized portrayal. In an article in the Journal of Media and Cultural Studies a question is asked, “Is Lara a feminist icon or a sexual fantasy?” (Mikula, 2003). As we journey through the narrative, the stark contrast between intelligence, charisma, and capability that define Lara Croft’s character come sharply into focus in the lens through which her representation has been filtered.


Lara Croft, a formidable archeologist, embarks on a journey that shifts the paradigm of adventure protagonists. Breaking free from the decades-long dominance of male figures like Indiana Jones and James Bond, Lara seizes the spotlight as a beacon of female empowerment. Her adventures unfold against a backdrop that should have celebrated her intelligence and prowess—traits that are integral to her character’s identity. However, a disheartening paradox surfaces—the very qualities that should set her apart are undercut by an intentional portrayal that leans heavily into sexualization. This strategic misstep effectively diminishes her genuine agency, leaving her trapped in the confines of a sexualized fantasy. This form of discrimination against women, veiled under the guise of entertainment, perpetuates the notion that a woman’s intellect is only relevant when accompanied by a heightened measure of physical attractiveness. By succumbing to this insidious narrative, the creators of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider inadvertently propagate the idea that genuine intelligence cannot stand alone, thereby rendering complex characters like Lara Croft devoid of their inherent meaning and potential impact.


Lara Croft: Tomb Raider Video Games

The epic saga of the Tomb Raider series traces the captivating exploits of Lara Croft, a tenacious archaeologist whose boundless spirit of adventure leads her to traverse ancient catacombs and unveil enigmas scattered across the globe. It all began with the groundbreaking release of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 1996, a pivotal moment that sparked the inception of the iconic franchise. In this inaugural video game, the spirited Lara Croft embarks on a relentless quest in pursuit of an ancient artifact.


Throughout the game, players are thrust into intricate landscapes, fraught with challenges that require shrewd puzzle-solving and fierce combat prowess to conquer adversaries. Yet, amidst this immersive gaming experience, a notable facet often emerges—Lara’s portrayal as a vivid, albeit pixelated, embodiment of the so-called “ideal” physical woman. One cannot help but observe a vivid disparity between the meticulously contoured body structure and shadowing techniques adorning Lara’s figure and the conspicuous absence of comparable shadowing on her facial features. This interplay between detailing on her physique and the relatively untouched countenance raises intriguing questions about the intention and implications of such artistic decisions. These very pointed decisions about her physical form became an overshadowing element of the character, taking an otherwise intelligent protagonist and degrading her to nothing more than a sexual object.


Meme from ifunny.com showing a grown man gazing at Lara Croft's breasts
Meme from ifunny.com


While the Tomb Raider franchise garnered substantial acclaim for its engrossing gameplay and exploration, it didn’t emerge unscathed from the realm of controversy, particularly concerning its portrayal of women. Within the tapestry of its success, there existed threads that wove together both the enjoyment drawn from the video game realm and the disconcerting elements of gender insensitivity. In a notable instance within the 2013 reboot, an unsettling and distressing scene came forth that stirred considerable debate. This poignant scene stood out in this narrative shift, a moment that reflected on gender dynamics and violence. In this particular sequence, Lara Croft is confronted with a grave threat, a chilling attempted rape. The scene is a crucible where the themes of gendered violence intertwine with the essence of Lara’s character arc. According to Kenzie Gordon, a reviewer for SFRA, “Tomb Raider in many ways is a supernatural rape-revenge story, with Lara’s first kill—her would-be assailant—setting into motion the events of this game and recontextualizing Lara Croft’s character as one hardened by the threat of gendered violence.” (Gordon, 2022). The act of thwarting her would-be attacker resonates as an event that not only propels the game’s unfolding events but also redefines Lara Croft’s very identity, molding her into an individual steeled against the specter of gender-based violence.


Screensnips from Tomb Raider Video Game (2013) 
Screensnips from Tomb Raider Video Game (2013)


Tomb Raider Comic Books

In the early comic book adaptations, Lara Croft embodied the archetype of the hypersexualized action heroine. Her character design emphasized exaggerated physical features, such as a pronounced bust and a slim waist, while her iconic attire consisted of revealing outfits that could be seen as catering to traditional male fantasies. Lara’s interactions with the environment highlighted her physicality in ways that are objectifying, while certain animations drew attention to her body in a manner that seems designed for titillation rather than for enhancing the storyline. This portrayal overshadows her actual skills and accomplishments as an intelligent archaeologist and adventurer. This not only detracted from the core narrative but also served to objectify Lara as a sexual object rather than a three-dimensional character. By presenting Lara in this manner, the creators encoded a sexual agenda within the pages of the comics and implicitly catered to an audience that might be drawn to a character based on their sexual appeal rather than their skills, intelligence, or character depth.


Tomb Raider “Witchblade” cover arts for 1st comic book appearance (1997).
Tomb Raider “Witchblade” cover arts for 1st comic book appearance (1997).


Tomb Raider Movies

The cinematic adaptation of the iconic video game character Lara Croft, portrayed by Angelina Jolie, ushers audiences into a world of pulse-pounding adventure, ancient mysteries, and high-stakes action. The films envelop viewers in the heart-pounding journeys of an archaeologist who fearlessly embarks on quests that traverse time, space, and the supernatural. Yet, as the narrative unfolds with thrilling

twists and turns, a thought-provoking undercurrent of gender representation and discrimination surges beneath the surface, unveiling the complex layers that shape the depiction of this iconic heroine. On the surface, the films present Lara Croft as a resolute adventurer, charging headfirst into danger and unraveling enigmas with an unwavering resolve. Her fearless nature and unrelenting pursuit of artifacts grant her a commanding presence, and her escapades become a testament to her tenacity and intelligence. However, a closer examination of the narrative reveals that these qualities are interwoven with subtler shades of gender representation, some of which lean into conventional norms rather than shattering them. In a film review by Doris Tourmarkine she argues, “In true exploitation tradition, Jolie wears holsters where garters would be and shows off a figure to die for and a pout that breaks the mold.” (Tourmarkine, 2001). This design choice becomes emblematic of the film’s intention to engage the viewer through visual stimulation, a hallmark of the exploitation tradition that thrives on captivating aesthetics.


Screensnip from Tomb Raider film (2001)
Screensnip from Tomb Raider film (2001)


The movies’ portrayal of Lara Croft often revolves around objectification and stereotyping. A representation of this objectification can be seen in a particular scene in the 2001 film that acts as a snapshot of how gender representation and subtle discrimination intertwine within the Lara Croft character. In this sequence, Lara finds herself in a seemingly gravity-defying flight, her chosen form of relaxation, accompanied by the strains of classical music. The scene’s visual impact is augmented by a specific costuming decision: Lara is dressed in full-body silk pajamas, buttoned up but for a single button that barely contains her top. As she floats through the air with her midriff and cleavage prominently displayed, the contrast between her vulnerability and the impending danger becomes stark. At this very moment, dozens of assassins converge on her house, turning her sanctuary into a battleground. Lara’s response to this dire situation is a masterclass in effortless prowess. She evades bullets and adversaries with a grace that belies the imminent danger, effectively neutralizing the threat without so much as a bead of sweat on her brow. The camera’s lingering focus on her physique during action scenes and interactions with male characters objectifies her and emphasizes the male gaze.


In sharp contrast, Lara Croft, as a character, exudes independence and strength. However, it’s intriguing to observe how her character arc sometimes veers towards aligning with conventional gender norms. This deliberate choice of character development, while not inherently negative, seems to reflect a certain level of conformity. By softening certain edges of her persona and introducing elements that resonate with more traditional expectations, the films might aim to make her character more relatable and acceptable to a broader audience. This paradox introduces a tension between the fierce independence Lara embodies and the subtle push towards alignment with established gender norms. The appearance of a child ghost as a guide for Lara to find an ancient artifact adds another layer of complexity to the gender dynamics at play. While Lara’s independence is a hallmark of her character, the introduction of a child-like figure guiding her towards an artifact seems to draw upon stereotypical associations between women and children. It is as if the films inadvertently imply that even a fiercely capable character like Lara still needs a nurturing presence, reinforcing the conventional link between women and caregiving.


In navigating the captivating world of “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” a nuanced exploration of empowerment, misrepresentation, and discrimination unfolds. The franchise stands as a compelling microcosm of the broader challenges surrounding authentic female representation in media. While its core intent was to introduce an empowered female protagonist, the intricacies of this portrayal unveil a complex web of dynamics that intertwine intelligence, strength, and sexuality. The films, video games, and comics all spotlight Lara Croft as a symbol of empowerment, a woman unafraid to venture into uncharted territories, both physical and metaphorical. However, within this narrative, insidious misrepresentations are woven. Her image, whether meticulously pixelated, illustrated, or portrayed on the silver screen, becomes a battleground where her undeniable capabilities are often overshadowed by objectification. This reduction diminishes her genuine agency, relegating her to a space where physical allure is perceived as an irreplaceable companion to intellect.


The journey through Lara Croft: Tomb Raider transcends mere entertainment; it is a reflection of societal constructs and biases. By dissecting its components, we illuminate the deeper layers that both empower and constrain. The franchise grapples with a pivotal question: Can a woman be portrayed as multifaceted without falling into the trap of reductive gender norms? As audiences, we must critically engage with media narratives, advocating for portrayals that amplify the full spectrum of feminine identity. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider continues to evolve, embodying the paradox of our time—an aspiration for equality met with remnants of past portrayals. As we stand at the crossroads of empowerment and misrepresentation, this franchise beckons us to demand media that refuses to succumb to stereotypes, that reshapes the narrative beyond the limitations of conventional expectations. In this endeavor, we not only reshape the storylines on screen but also challenge the very foundation of societal norms, inching closer to an era where empowerment transcends the confines of gender.



Gordon, Kenzie. ““Fight Back or Die”: Rape, Revenge, and the Supernatural in Tomb Raider.” SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3, 2022.


Mikula, Maja, “Gender and Videogames: The Political Valency of Lara Croft,” Continuum, 17:1, 79-87, DOI: 10.1080/1030431022000049038, 2010.


Toumarkine, Doris. “LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER (PG-13).” Film Journal International, vol. 104, no. 8, Aug. 2001, p. 76. Gale Business: Insights, https://go-gale-com.ezproxy.libweb.linnbenton.edu/ps/i.do?p=GBIB&u=lbcc&id=G ALE|A77756245&v=2.1&it=r&sid=ebsco. Accessed 26 Aug. 2023.




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Difference, Power, and Discrimination in Film and Media: Student Essays Copyright © by Students at Linn-Benton Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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