Second coming: how Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft went from trapezoid-boobed pinup to incontrovertible feminist icon

What a legend

She’s the most successful human videogame heroine of all time, gracing more than 1,100 magazine covers, and selling over 58 million videogame units worldwide. And on March 15 2018, Lara Croft returns to the big screen in Tomb Raider, with the Oscar-winning Alicia Vikander in the title role.

The athletic archeologist has been absent from cinemas since the early ‘00s,  and in the meantime, the conversation around women’s equality has changed entirely. FHM, a lads’ mag which once had lycra underwear-clad women compete in a ‘Lara Croft Challenge’, is no longer in circulation. Women are fronting the most popular films at the box office, and #MeToo has finally given women the space to call out systematic sexism and harassment. Lara Croft has caught up too. Her hot pants have been ditched for cargo trousers, and the focus is on her attitude, intelligence and athleticism, rather than her improbable polygon body. Here’s the how Lara Croft became a feminist icon.

1996: Tomb Raider puts a female protagonist front and centre

Lara Croft first tumbled into our lives in 1996, shooting bears, diving over booby traps and swinging between ledges with vines. She was strong, smart and had an amazing job: she was already a role model.

Like many young would-be female gamers of the time, Vikander herself had to beg male friends to play – and was restricted to doing tricks in the game’s ‘manor’ safe-zone. “My dad’s friends’ kids had a [Playstation], and their sons played,” she said in an interview. “I remember it so well, because I had never seen a female protagonist in a videogame. I kind of sat in the back. They didn’t let me play the real game.”

 

1998: Lara Croft becomes a sex symbol

Somewhat inevitably, the polygon boobs caught everyone’s attention. By 1998, The New York Times was reporting that adoring fans across the world were sending marriage proposals to Ms Croft. Creator Toby Gard said that when he designed Lara, he’d wanted to create “a female character who was a heroine – cool, collected, in control,” never intending to make a Page Three pinup. But the marketers behind the franchise knew there was money to be made in exploiting her figure, and had even reportedly encouraged Gard to include a ‘naked mod’ in Lara’s code before she hit shelves. He refused, but computer-literate fans took the liberty of undressing her anyway.

lara croft feminist icon

English glamour model Nell McAndrew as Lara Croft in 1998.

Some feminists criticised the depiction of such a physically and mentally idealised woman, and Germaine Greer called her a “distorted, sexually ambiguous, male fantasy.” Meanwhile, promotional Lara Croft model and Page 3 girl Nell McAndrew was fired after posing nude as the character for Playboy Magazine. Lara’s empowering credentials were getting lost behind the fantasy.

2001: Angelina Jolie takes Lara Croft to the big screen

When Paramount Pictures announced they would be making a Tomb Raider movie, Pamela Anderson, Demi Moore and Denise Richards were all rumoured for the by-then iconic role. It was Angelina Jolie, not a fan of the game, she said at the time, who eventually brought her to life. Players initially criticised the decision to hire Jolie – a tattooed American with a bad girl image – to play the aristocratic Croft. Some even said she wasn’t chesty enough. But Jolie didn’t stand for it. “Lara doesn’t apologise for herself, and for having that, you know, recognisable shape. So I’m not going to apologise for her either,” she said.

By the time the second film rolled around, Jolie insisted on taking on almost all her own stunts: “One of my enemies in the film is about 6’5”, so I’m trying to get my foot through his head,” she said in a behind-the-scenes interview.

2013: Tomb Raider re-launches – with added trousers

The 2013 re-launch game gave Lara a makeover. Hot pants and Barbie physiques were out; cargo trousers and abs were in. Scars, dirt and blood covered her skin, and the gameplay focused more on Croft’s face to reveal a deep and complex emotional background. Finally, Lara actually looked like someone who spent her time raiding caves for ancient artefacts.

But this was more than just an aesthetic overhaul. Camilla Luddington from Grey’s Anatomy both voiced and motion-captured the archaeologist, showing a commitment by creators Crystal Dynamics to fully develop Lara’s character. She was also given a best friend, Samantha Nishimura – meaning she no longer just communicated with her butler and her enemies. This became the best-selling game in the history of the franchise

2018: Alicia Vikander becomes the new Lara Croft 

Sometimes things come full circle. Alicia Vikander was announced as the heroine in 2016 – 20 years after being barred from playing the full game by a group of boys. She gained 12lb of muscle, trained with top Hollywood stuntwomen, and is set to become a linchpin in the new era of female superhero stardom.

“I wanted her to be a strong, physical girl, so I started to gain muscle, gain strength,” she explained. When the first trailer dropped last year, it became clear she was going to do Lara proud with this new re-boot. She leaped through stormy shipwrecks, shot a bow and arrow, and fell from great heights over a waterfall – just like her videogame counterpart. The second trailer cemented the combination of girl power and turn-of-the-century nostalgia with a 2WEI cover of the Destiny’s Child track ‘Survivor’; in the clip, the film’s villain Mathias Vogel recognises Lara’s “lightness”, “intelligence” and “recklessness.”

Following the commercial success of Rey in Star Wars and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, promotion around the upcoming film has focussed relentlessly on the lessons we stand to learn from Lara: her determination, courage and physical ability. Woke Lara is officially ready to raid the box office.