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Tomb Raider: Why play up to the Madonna/whore dichotomy?

Tom Mendelsohn

tombraider LRG 300x190 Tomb Raider: Why play up to the Madonna/whore dichotomy?The gaming industry’s legendarily deft touch has hit the news again this afternoon, with the news that Lara Croft is to gain a bit more of a personality in her upcoming game.

Although not a perfect exemplar of feminist principal, she’s one of gaming’s more interesting female characters. She’s an actively kick-ass woman, for instance, rare for the fact that the player gets to control her, with motivations that go beyond the need to be rescued by some bloke or other. This counts as a win, given the historically dude-centric gaming landscape. Nevertheless, the designers of her new adventure want her to have additional emotional texture.

They’re going to do achieve this, of course, by apparently subjecting her to a beating and attempted rape.

This bold step into the unknown is supposedly the designers’ way of getting ‘people [who] play Lara’ to ‘project themselves into the character’, by encouraging them to ‘want to protect her’. The idea is to build her up as a hero, and then break her down just as she gets comfortable. They apparently do not see a problem with this rationale. They are wrong.

I don’t really need to go into every reason why this entire conceit is so problematic, except to point out they’d never attempt to subject a male character to this sort of thing; a beating, sure, but no prurient, chest-heaving sexual humiliation.

This is weak storytelling; women, being people too, can have their personalities and motivations shaped through avenues other than their genitals.

The trouble is, this kind of thinking is endemic across the industry, which collectively has the grasp of sexual subtlety of a teenage boy. With regards to women, it suffers from an absolutely classic Madonna/whore complex, meaning that the vast majority of – if not quite all – female characters are either virginal princess types in urgent need of a good rescuing, or violent be-boobed types who can somehow gain traction for their incessant knockout punches in stiletto heels.

An endless amount of games feature unconscious gendering in their class systems. Front-line fighter types are almost invariably bulging men, while women get to be flimsy, nurturing support types like wizards or healers, or fragile, limber assassins. Remember that trailer for the upcoming game Hitman: Absolution which rustled the internet’s jimmies only last week, in which an octet of sexily lethal nuns got beaten up by a hulking bald feller?

These are just a handful of very recent examples of a very deep, very constant river of videogame sexism. The very fact that Lara Croft, who has enormous breasts and tiny booty shorts in an effort to sell games to teenage masturbators, is considered one of our more, ahem, fleshed out, personages in gaming, is a grim testament to a colossal problem.

What is there to be said? Gaming needs to grow up, fast. They’ve been selling just about everything with hot girls since I started buying games magazines in the 90s, which were kept afloat by ads featuring naked ladies brandishing circuit boards. Trade shows still employ women in bikinis to lure male attendees to pay attention to their products, even though women make up an ever-larger share of the market. It all amounts to a horrible message, telling boys that women are to be ogled and objectified, and telling girls that they’re not people in quite the same way…and that rape is character building.

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  • Alex

    Well thank God they didn’t show her “morning face” without make-up…


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