Is the new Tomb Raider sexist or feminist?

It’s probably not a coincidence that the video games were once primarily a male pursuit and that one the most recognisable characters, Lara Croft, recalled Jessica Rabbit with a gun.

Lara Croft was first introduced in the 1996 game Tomb Raider as something of a hyper-sexualised female Indiana Jones. She did things that men liked (like exploring and shooting) and looked the way men liked (consider that Angelina Jolie had to wear a padded bra in the films to faithfully recreate the bust of her virtual counterpart).

At the time, the video gaming was male-dominated on both the industry and the consumer side. It follows that Lara Croft was character designed by and for men. Accusations of sexism were countered with claims of feminism, pointing to the busty heroine’s breaking of female archetypes. Neither particularly damaged the brand. Since then, Croft’s bust has expanded and contracted across fourteen games and two films.

During this time, female participation in video gaming has grown to 47%. Adult females are now a much larger share of the audience than teenage boys, making them an attractive demographic for game publishers to chase.

This is the market into which the newly-rebooted Tomb Raider was launched last week. Females may not necessarily be the target audience, but fingerprints of added consideration for them are all over the early conversations about the new Croft being “less curvy.”

See for yourself. The breast size is on the smaller side to what we’ve seen before (which is to say, still large, but not to the point of caricature). The short shorts have been replaced by long cargos, there’s no midriff, and she’s slightly more muscular. The front cover even has Croft’s arm stretched across her chest, effectively obscuring her bust.

But looks were only half of the issue. Part of the problem was always the inevitable and inescapable issue of male players literally controlling the female character. Leaving aside questions of agency to media studies, it does highlight a need for the game – and character – to appeal to male players.

On that front, they seem to still be struggling. In the lead up to its realease, Executive Producer Ron Rossenberg said, “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….’”

Not all is lost for Croft’s female fanbase, though. Forbes writer Carol Pinchefky notes that the game passes the Bechdel Test, which requires that: “1) two named female characters have to 2) share a scene together, and 3) discuss something other than a man.” (Criteria that about half of mainstream movies fail to meet).

Both Pinchefky and another female critic Maddy Myers (in a more scathing review) emerge with serious gripes but a more optimistic view of the future than Rossenberg’s comments might suggest. The question is, will it get there?

Dave Bisceglia, Chief Executive of video game developers The Tap Lab, says that “When you build games for a male and female audience, you need men and women working on the games.”

Despite changes in the consumer mix, the industry still 80% male. It seems difficult to imagine the Tomb Raider fully progressing to where Pinchefky and Myers want it to.

At our upcoming All About Women festival, we ask whether men can be feminists. In that vein, it’s reasonably to ask whether men can create a feminist game? Will consumer demand for a more feminist game be enough, or will it need to be made by females for females?

What do you think? Is the new Lara Croft better? Did the old one offend you? Have you or will you play the new game?