When children are asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ they could reply with absolutely anything but often the answers are very similar.
While most of my peers responded by saying they dreamed of being actors, singers or even superheroes, my reply was always quite different – I wanted to become an archeologist.
Mainly thanks to Terry Deary, the man behind the Horrible Histories books, history fascinated me growing up and I could think of nothing better than spending my future digging around in dirt for all sorts of historical treasures.
And if I had seen Indiana Jones as a child I would have definitely wanted that hat and whip as, according to Hollywood, you just can’t be a badass archaeologist without them!
In 2001 at the age of seven I became even more inspired to be an archeologist when I found out about Lara Croft, an intelligent, athletic and daring archeologist who would visit ancient tombs and ruins on her adventures.
Strangely I was first introduced to Lara by my favourite band, U2 – don’t judge me – in the music video for their fantastic song Elevation.
With Elevation featuring on the soundtrack for the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the video sees Angelina Jolie’s Lara teaming up with Bono to rescue The Edge from his evil twin brother.
You can check it out here:
Having never heard of Lara Croft, I was intrigued to learn more as she looked like a badass in the music video and I’d never seen a female action hero before.
Although it would be a while until I played a Tomb Raider game, the more I read about the character the more I loved her admiring her bravery, strength and determination.
I wanted to be Lara but sadly the closest I ever got was dressing up as the character one Halloween at university.
Although I am no Angelina Jolie or Alicia Vikander, I think I did quite a good job (before becoming intoxicated of course):
While I became a journalist instead of an archaeologist, throughout my life Lara was one of my heroes and I still look up to her today.
And I know I am not the only one – Lara has inspired millions since the release of the first ever Tomb Raider game in 1996 which turns 22 today.
Over the past two decades Lara has appeared in 12 games, three blockbuster movies, an animated television series, four novels and multiple comics.
She has certainly had enduring appeal. Meagan Marie, the senior community manager for Tomb Raider who also wrote the book 20 Years of Tomb Raider: Digging Up the Past, Defining the Future, told UNILAD this is because Lara is a very special character.
Although there were female protagonists in games before 1996’s Tomb Raider, Lara had quite the impact quickly becoming a significant pop culture figure and an iconic female heroine.
For Meagan, seeing Lara on the cover of the 1996 game was the first time she felt represented in the gaming world:
I have always played video games, especially with my brother growing up and I remember him holding up Tomb Raider saying you will enjoy this one.
It was the first time I had seen a woman on the cover of one of these games and the first time I kind of felt represented even though we didn’t have much in common.
But just seeing her there was very empowering for someone in their young teens. I fell in love with the franchise and was very inspired to be like her in every way possible.
She really stood out being extremely wealthy, able to do anything she wants travelling the world, digging around in the dirt and going on adventures. She kind of threw stereotypes away and was bold, brash, adventurous and independent.
Even though she wasn’t the first female protagonist in video games, she really stood out, achieving mainstream awareness and afterwards there were more female characters trying to capitalise on Lara’s success.
British developer Core Design certainly took a risk when they decided their lead in Tomb Raider should be a strong and fierce woman as opposed to a male character instead.
Wanting to do something different, Lara’s creator Toby Gard encouraged Core Design to take the risk which paid off twofold – not only was the game a success, Lara Croft became iconic.
It took a few design attempts to really nail Lara’s look as you can see from the concept art below:
While Lara Croft certainly increased the representation of women in gaming, the character received criticism for being overly sexualised with her large breasts and skimpy outfit making her a negative role model for women.
Writer and feminist Germaine Greer was certainly not impressed by Lara’s ‘improbable 34D-24-35 body’.
Lara Croft is a sergeant-major with balloons stuffed up his shirt. She’s a distorted, sexually ambiguous, male fantasy. Whatever these characters are, they’re not real women.
Greer certainly wasn’t the only one with many pointing to how Lara became a pin-up model appearing on posters and magazines in slinky low-cut clothes with fans creating websites filled with their images of Lara in the nude.
Lara was and still is a sex symbol, but back in 1996 the vast majority of gamers were young adolescent men who all wanted a cyberbabe to drool over.
Peter Molyneux of the Guildford video game company, Lionhead, argues Lara brought something new to gaming:
Women had never featured prominently in computer games before, but when you think about the audience – predominantly young males – there was one thing missing. Lara Croft introduced sex to computer games.
In 1996 what else could you really expect from a female video game character created largely by young men for teenage boys? It was a very different time.
You can’t deny Lara is a figure of objectification but even back in 1996 she was so much more than that being a compelling character with a strong personality who was well on her way to becoming a feminist hero.
Many fans, including Meagan, have only ever seen Lara as a feminist icon despite the critiques:
It is interesting to look at that from the viewpoint of a professional in the video game world but also someone who grew up with and was inspired by Lara.
I never looked at classic Lara, even though sometimes in advertising she was definitely sexualised, as anything other than a feminist icon, even as a 12-year-old I didn’t really know what feminism was.
But she was always so empowering and she was beautiful but I never saw her as being anything but inspirational. I wanted to travel the world, become independent like her.
There are a lot of critiques about the character in both lights but a lot of people, a lot of fans saw her as an inspirational feminist icon.
Over the past two decades Lara has evolved and changed with the times ditching the shorts for more practical cargo trousers and has clearly been spending more time at the gym. Damn 2018 Lara is buff!
While some complained that Alicia Vikander’s breasts weren’t big enough when she took on the role of Lara in the 2018 film Tomb Raider, fans loved Lara’s new look as well as her strength and courage.
Still beautiful, attractive and certainly model material, covered in scars and dirt Lara actually looked like she raided tombs, climbed cliffs and fought off enemies in her spare time.
Undergoing a similar transformation in the games when the rebooted Tomb Raider was released in 2013, fans applauded Lara’s new look but also appreciated she had the same characteristics as classic Lara.
Working on the reboot, Meagan admits it was scary introducing 2013’s Lara Croft to the world but believes she is now both more inspirational and relatable than ever with fans connecting to her as they watched her grow throughout the new trilogy.
Meagan emphasises showing the character as flawed was very key in the reboot to allow gamers to develop an affinity for the character.
Meagan explained how Lara is now more like the ‘every woman’:
Although we don’t regard Lara as a superhero, people want their heroes to be relatable and not perfect and to have that element that they see in themselves so that they know they can overcome their weaknesses and maybe that they are even stronger because of their weaknesses.
We say you can’t have true courage without pushing through. If you are just brave and you aren’t pushing past anything, what does that mean, is that sort of an empty braveness?
In the first game in the trilogy she broke down crying after she had to kill someone in self defence and she said ‘I don’t think I am that kind of Croft, I don’t think I can do this’ and then by the end of Shadow she has found her inner confidence and grown so much.
She’s very much still our unique take on the character, she has so much physical strength and confidence, it is really a great blending of the classic and new timeline.
With Lara now empowering both women and men, Meagan is excited that the character ‘appeals to any gender and any age’.
Long before the #MeToo movement started Lara ignited debates about gender and representation.
Now though she is very much a feminist icon who fits well into the #MeToo movement encouraging women to be headstrong, independent and stand up.
Lara has also importantly changed and improved how women are a part of the gaming world as Meagan argues:
I think when you had less representation in the industry when it comes to female characters, you kind of had to push further to stand out.
Now because we have more of a representation in terms of female characters, the industry is doing a really good job of creating more women that are allowed to be more nuanced.
I appreciate we don’t have to look at this one female character and say she has to be everything to everybody because we have all of these unique characters that people can identify with.
I love that our Lara now has the opportunity because of the changed landscape to go beyond being strong. She is physically strong and capable but is nuanced, she is imperfect. I love that we are finally at this point we can push beyond just the strong female protagonist.
While 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider brought Lara’s journey starting in 2013 to an end, this certainly isn’t the last we have seen of the character.
Lara has never been more relevant than now being a feminist hero, a badass video game character and an inspiring pop culture figure who will have an impact on millions of people.
And so Happy Birthday, Lara! May you long continue to kick ass, raid tombs and be a real hero to look up to.
The latest Lara Croft game, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, is available to buy now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
If you have a story you want to tell, contact UNILAD via [email protected]
Emily Murray is a journalist at UNILAD. She graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA in English Literature and History before studying for a Masters in Journalism at the University of Salford. Emily has previously worked for the BBC, ITV and Trinity Mirror. When Emily isn’t writing about topics including mental health and entertainment, you can find her at the cinema which is her second home.