Monday, November 5, 2012

PCG Media To Gamers: Stop Projecting Rape Onto Lara Croft

Today I found an interesting, if wrongheaded, take on the "Lara Croft attempted rape" controversy from a few months back. I wrote a blog post about it then, so I figured it was worth checking in.

Here's the link:

And here's the trailer that got everyone worked up (the grope happens at about the 2:18 mark):

The author's overall point seems to be that if you saw anything rape-y in that trailer or the comments by the executive producer at E3 then YOU are a rape-obsessed sicko. Which is facile and ridiculous. I'm all for bashing Kotaku now and then but they weren't the only people covering the story. I found it initially through Digital Spy and Eurogamer, which eschewed the rape innuendo for some generally creepy quotes about the character from the executive producer. (I see what he was trying to say but, man... gah! He sounds like a mouth-breather.)

My gripe with the scene has always been the utter laziness of using a sexual assault against a woman as a cheap shortcut to building character. For one thing, it's the kind of trope that would ONLY be used on a female character. Rape as a trope in fiction is entirely fair game, it's just not for beginners. How many times have you seen a movie or read a book where a woman overcomes sexual assault to become a stronger person? Now how many times have you seen a male character overcome molestation or sexual assault the same way? There's no comparison. It's a giant, neon-lit double standard: women in fiction can only be strong because of men.

The only instance in a video game they can bring up involving dudes is the attempted prison rape in Mafia II, which you can see here (and try not to laugh when you see a bunch of guys in a prison showering in their boxers):

I understand that some outlets saw a headline and leaped at the Tomb Raider story. ("Lara Croft In Island Rape Hell" is kind of a funny title.) I even understand people being genuinely angry. I'm just annoyed that people still haven't learned how to tell a story with a strong female character. I find this comparable to the annoyance I felt at Metriod: Other M for utterly neutering a strong character like Samus by making her dependent on a male character she had a crush on. It utterly and completely misses the point.

The "torture porn" label, while not entirely accurate, does kind of fit. Seeing a woman get shot, stabbed, beaten, bloodied, cut, groped, tortured, and fall from great heights has an inherently different context then a guy. Especially if she's being portrayed as a young, naive girl going in. Unfortunately, there is a dance to writing a strong female character you have to do. It's not a matter of right and wrong, it's reality. Christ, in America we still can't decide if a woman should legally have control of her own body. Jumping straight to "felt up by a creepy dude in a video game" is just a fundamentally bad idea.

Writing a strong female character can be done without pandering. It's actually not that hard and it doesn't have to be entirely the work of female writers. Comic writer and novelist Greg Rucka is pretty great at it. My rule of thumb about writing strong female characters in video games still stands: when in doubt, look at Naughty Dog. Uncharted is still the high water mark for strong female characters in video games. They aren't the lead, but they are strong through their words and actions, not because of their proximity to a guy.

I understand the argument that this is her origin story and you need to build her up but there's ways to do that which don't involve torturing the living hell out of her. It can be done with something as simple as a look... instead of, y'know, throwing her off a great fucking cliff or stabbing her with big stick in the torso or something.

The bottom line is: female characters, particularly in games, are coming from a weak position. There's not many of them and most developers don't want to take the chance on them for fear of losing their young, male audience. They are still very much the princess who needs to be rescued or the girlfriend/wife/mother/child you are avenging. With more and more women joining the gaming community, more emphasis is put on the few remaining heroines we have to give them some sense that they are being represented. Female protagonists don't need to be broken down and built back up again, they just need to be built up. That means a lighter, smarter touch... and Crystal Dynamics haven't exactly given us reason to believe that they are the people for the job.

This is all a shame because Tomb Raider looks, in a visual sense, like a really good game. The idea of a female Nathan Drake has amazing potential. It's just that, from a storytelling standpoint, everything I've seen about the game makes it look like it was plotted by a hyperactive twelve year old boy. In the trailer, she actually says "I hate tombs." Which was maybe intended as an Indiana Jones "I hate snakes" moment if the line delivery sounded like it had a sense of irony about it. Instead, it just sounds obvious and groan-worthy and forehead-slappingly inane. And it's that impression that makes me leery of dropping sixty bucks on it.

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