Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Queer Icon (Part 1)

There actually aren’t that many fictional heroes with full spectrum appeal – a fan following that spans all genders and sexual orientations. Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, arguably the most iconic of female video game characters, is one of these rare cases (despite what the laddish marketing of the franchise in the late 90s would have you believe).

Source: Pedro-Croft

Once we may have stated “Women want to be her, and men want to be with her”, but such an explanation is outdated, simplistic and far too heteronormative. It does nothing to explain the diversity of Lara Croft’s fan base, and why it is that so many queer men and women around the globe hold her in high esteem.

Now, of course, some of the reasons for Lara Croft’s popularity are universal. Ultimately, straight or queer, people are people, and certain characteristics appeal to most in society – like strength of purpose, courage, resilience and independence. Pistol-packing rogue archaeologist Lara Croft embodies all of these qualities, earning the admiration of hetero and non-hetero fans alike.

So yes, there is sure to be a lot of overlap between reasons queer fans like Lara, and why straight fans do.

I would also like to clarify up front that this 4-part post (published Monday through Thursday this week) is not intended to mark queer Tomb Raider fans as different. What motivated its writing was curiosity as to why this one pixelated woman – who outside the movies and Top Cow comic series, appears asexual more than anything else – would acquire such a fervent queer following.

The pivotal question behind this post is “What specifically is Lara Croft’s appeal to queer pop culture consumers?” And in answering that I have turned to fans themselves to put their feelings into words – and hopefully avoid this article becoming a string of unsupported generalisations.

Part 1:
“You become who you’re meant to be.”

A major component of queer existence is turning from the social norm and expectation. For some this is easier done than others. It is an act that requires much bravery – particularly when revealing this new, true, more authentic self to those closest to you. Will you be accepted or rejected by your family and friends? How will you respond to negative reception?

Although it has nothing to do with her sexual identity, Lara Croft’s personal journey from pampered aristocrat to daredevil adventurer draws parallels with a queer coming out experience. Her original backstory – as outlined in the 1996 game manual – is as follows:
After attending finishing school at the age of 21, Lara's marriage into wealth seemed assured, but on her way home from a skiing trip her chartered plane crashed deep in the heart of the Himalayas. The only survivor, Lara learned how to depend on her wits to stay alive in hostile conditions a world away from her sheltered upbringing. 
Two weeks later, when she walked into the village of Tokakeriby, her experience had had a profound effect on her. Unable to stand the claustrophobic suffocating atmosphere of upper-class British society, she realized that she was only truly alive when she was travelling alone. Over the 8 following years she acquired an intimate knowledge of ancient civilizations across the globe. Her family disowned their prodigal daughter, and she turned to writing to fund her trips. Famed for discovering several ancient sites of profound archaeological interest, she made a name for herself by publishing travel books and detailed journals of her exploits.
Lara’s rejection of the life she was born into is not well received. Her disapproving parents turn their back on her. Yet she remains committed to who she is and how she wants to live in order to feel alive and happy. She walks away from everything, and achieves success entirely on her own. Her story is one of identity triumph – making her an inspiration and/or role-model for queer fans who are looking for something to bolster their courage, and provide reassurance as they make the same journey of self.

Fabienne, in Germany, reiterates this point:
Before I really got into Tomb Raider, people could control me. I started to get confused about my sexuality, like "Maybe I'm not a lesbian, maybe I am... nothing..." Many people were like: "It is just a phase" or "You haven't found the right boy yet!" - I was so annoyed by that. Then suddenly I really got into Tomb Raider, and everything changed. Lara is all like: "Haters gonna hate!" She is full of self-confidence in my opinion. She helped me to ignore those dumb comments by other people. That is not quite much, but Lara was and still is helpful!
Now, it’s worth noting that all video game versions of the character (Classic, Legend Lara and 2013 Reboot), are estranged from their living family according to canonical supporting material. And that Classic and Reboot Lara consciously reject the life they are born into. It’s not without struggle but Lara Croft wants to live life, and “make it”, on her own terms. In turn, by choosing to exist outside of convention and comfort, she has become massively self-reliant and resourceful.

Lara Croft is a lifelong fighter for how she wants – needs – to live, which many queer fans are likely to identify with.

Andrew, in Scotland, certainly does:
I wouldn't say she impacted on my sexuality, but she did help me out in the sense of making me feel brave enough to be comfortable with who I am.
Crystal, in South Africa, makes a similar point:
Through marvelling at her strength and story I have come to marvel at my own, and this has helped me to love myself more and grow.
At the same time, Lara Croft has the strength of character to ignore her critics. She is indifferent to their judgement. Classic Lara – in her late 20s to mid 30s – is especially ice cool and confident (though never too cocky, as Alex in Canada notes). We meet her for the first time fully fledged in her confidence. She knows who she is and what she wants – “I only play for sport” – and she goes after it. She is immune to doubt or guilt.

The much younger Reboot Lara, meanwhile, is still in the process of learning to ignore her detractors. Considered the more emotionally relatable and “real” of the Laras, the player/reader shares in the 21 year old’s growing belief in her decisions and capabilities, after being underestimated and dismissed as “just a girl” for so long. With the second game set in the Reboot universe mere months from release, we are witnessing first hand Lara’s discovery of her true self, with all the pain and exhilaration that accompanies this messy, emotional roller coaster of a process.

As Jason, in the UK, says:
I feel like I can relate to Reboot Lara more because she is younger, but also because we see her struggle. She's not perfect in the reboot, which is inspiring to me, as it shows that even the bravest of Tomb Raiders don't start off by raiding the Pyramids. :)
It’s worth noting that Reboot Lara is a somewhat different kind of survivor and fighter to her Classic counterpart. Having lost her parents, mentor and many friends, her story – to date – is more about loss than sacrifice (this is explicitly pointed out to her in the 2013 game), yet she endures. Her inspirational role lies in her proactive response to the lousy hand life has dealt her. She takes a hit, and yet she always gets up again and continues.

Heidi, in Canada, explains:
I love the rebooted version of Lara as she is in her genesis; young, inexperienced, lacking in confidence, frightened, vulnerable, in short, she is someone we can all identify with. She is not the untouchable Teflon Amazon of previous TR generations but instead feels very real: she can be hurt, both physically and emotionally. She experiences profound loss. And yet, she still carries on regardless, something which I do intensely admire. Her incredible resilience in the game is breathtaking to witness…
Of course, whether queer or straight, who wouldn’t admire Lara’s fortitude in the face of adversity; her self-assurance and strong sense of self-worth? These are things that few people in real life manage consistently. So in addition to simply respecting Lara, by playing as the eccentric British countess – controlling her actions and accompanying her on her adventures – we get to feel like we have her staunchly fearless, take-no-prisoners attitude as well. We cast aside our own insecurities for a few hours and get to be just as tough as she is, literally conquering mountains at times. Whether we live with an "outsider" label or not, it doesn't matter. We are triumphant with Lara.

For the record, not many fans interviewed for this post felt able to explicitly link their sexuality with Lara Croft; in other words what influence she has had on their sexual (and gender) identities. This said, Lara is repeatedly mentioned as a figure of admiration; a role model. The typical story of respondents is that they encountered Lara in their childhood or teens, and were instantly captivated by her. Over and over again, they spoke of wanting to be more like her. Very often they described their behaviours and interests as being influenced by her.

Lodair, in Brazil, sums it up nicely:
I don't think Lara has had much of an impact on my sexuality per se, but she clearly has influenced me as a person. Since I got to know her, Lara has become a sort of role model to me. Her badass attitude, the fact she is totally independent, never relying on anyone but herself, is powerful and really successful in what she does and on top of all that travels around the world, visiting really cool places, always struck me as sort of qualities about her that I have since then admired and tried to have them myself… I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t be the same person if it wasn’t for Lara. She was there for me during the good times and the bad times, when I felt lonely and needed to take myself out of this world or when I just wanted to have some fun. I do owe a lot to her.
Next up: Lara’s specific appeal for queer women


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