I'm trying to get through this interesting yet flawed essay on Lara Croft and it's prompting so many distracting thoughts that I can't focus on it, which means it's time to do #IanLivetweetsHisResearch.
(No, this does not mean I'm abandoning the other thread on The Reactionary Mind, I'm just doing a lot of research in tandem these days. Normally I wouldn't start a new thread before completing the current one, but I'll never get through this essay if I don't.)
The essay is Lara's Lethal and Loaded Mission: Transposing Reproduction and Destruction, by Claudia Herbst, and it's the first chapter in the collection Action Chicks, edited by Sherrie A. Inness.
The essay starts off by talking about video games' relationship to the military, which is the first distraction. Not only is it written by someone who CLEARLY doesn't play games, it's exactly the kind of argument that will raise the hackles of way too many gamers.
This is disappointing, because Herbst is at least dancing AROUND some interesting subject matter, even as she makes her argument weakly and with a lot of context missing.
Like, she talks about how the first game was Spacewar, and how early games were often built and played on military computers, and how Atari often hired programmers from defense companies like Lockheed Martin.
And, you know what? She's not exactly wrong. The relationship of video games to the military, and to violence in general, is stronger than in pretty much any other popular medium, and I'm sure those military origins play a part in that.
Violence, especially explicitly gory violence, is more extreme and pervasive in games than other visual media, and that's worth commenting on.

It's exactly what will make gamers plug their ears, but it's a thing that should be discussed.
But arguing the military origins of games are a basis for why games are so violent is... a reach.

If she's citing Atari, I suspect she's not aware of the video game crash in '83.
Because Atari BOMBED so hard that games almost disappeared, to be remember as a brief fad. And when they came back, it was thanks to Nintendo, which was most definitely NOT military.

They were a toy company.
The modern history of video games has been shaped far more by that toy company than those early military programmers. And the current console kings are all tech, electronics, and software companies.
This is not to say the military isn't still deeply tied to games! It's just complicated.

Like, the military *produces its own games* as recruitment tools, and many games are super jingoistic, so the link still exists.
But, while I would say the link is *stronger* in games than in other media, it's not by a TON.

Read up on how many movies are partially funded by the military in exchange for script approval on how the military is portrayed.
I love when capitalists talk about how great it is that, unlike communist countries, our filmmakers aren't required to make propaganda.

Yeah, here in the US, we make jingoistic war movies bankrolled by the military because we CHOOSE to!
So the militarism and violence of video games is strong enough to be noteworthy, but it's not unique, and it's only SOMEWHAT more pronounced than in other hugely popular media.
Anyway, next she starts talking about Lara herself, and Lara's origins are... complicated. Herbst says (unsourced) that the first Tomb Raider's designer described Lara as his idea of a dream woman.

Highly lethal and highly erotic.
This leads to the other place where my mind went on a tangent that distracted from the reading: Herbst is building an argument about Lara being the clash of two drives: masculine violence and feminine reproduction.
As in: from a male perspective, violence is a thing men do, and women are what men have sex with in order to procreate.

Deeply sexualized Lara is both violent and sexy, destruction and creation, eros and thanatos.
Equating female sexiness to the drive to procreate is... uhhhh...

Well, let's be frank: it's gender essentialist in a gross way.
THAT BEING SAID: as is often the case with a lot of gender studies, if you read it less as "this is how men relate to women" and more as "this is how culture codifies masculinity and femininity," we can kind of get somewhere.
Womanness does not equate with the ability to bear children.

But the dominant narrative about womannness doesn't acknowledge this.

It's unclear whether Herbst is going to acknowledge this. Don't know how to feel about that yet.
And, like, there's more misunderstandings of how games work.

She comments that the majority of people designing the Tomb Raider series are "men in their teens and twenties."

I promise you, the number of men on the dev team in their teens was functionally zero.
But Lara as a mashup of the two greatest spectacles - sex and death - skewed through the lens of heterosexual boys? Yeah, that's interesting. And she's got some solid points on that front.
Like, Lara was marketed with pinup posters. She was designed as a sex symbol. Eidos RELEASED HER MEASUREMENTS.

Weird fact I didn't know: in early games it was known that Lara did charity work with children and had a degree in needlework?! This was retconned out in later entries.
But then Herbst starts talking about how players relate to Lara, and it's off-base, but not, but definitely, but... look, games are COMPLICATED!
She describes playing Tomb Raider as, with the push of a button, conjuring a sexy woman into existence who is utterly, completely under the player's control.

(There's a moment where she says the player is sometimes called "the user," which, oh, my sweet little noob.)
But this utterly misunderstands how player identification works! Controlling an avatar in a video game is actually one of THE MOST EMPATHETIC connections you can have to a character!
If the game is working the way it's supposed to, the player never feels that they are "manipulating" the character, they feel they ARE the character.

With decent feedback, the character feels like an extension of the player's own body.
You see this in how we describe playing games to other people.

When we play Goldeneye, we say "then I climbed out of the vent," not "then James climbed out of the vent" or even "then I had James climb out of the vent."
This is basically narrative proprioception, and it's super interesting, but you have to have a relationship to games to understand that. The character isn't a person you're controlling, you ARE the character.
This is why feminist critics talk about how important it is that men play games with female player characters, and why it's a problem that that's so rare.

Because it creates identification, and it means something that we don't ask men to identify with female protagonists.
But Tomb Raider's always been kind of at war with that.

For gameplay purposes, you need Lara to be the person the player is looking THROUGH.

For marketing purposes, you need Lara to be the person the player is looking AT.
Lara's position as a sex symbol complicates her relationship to the player, and compels the player to basically dip in and out of first person with her.
There was a great thread forever ago on MetaFilter where someone described how pronouns would shift within a single sentence . One second it's "I jumped over the pit" and then it's "Lara is so hot" and then "fuckin' Lara didn't jump when I pushed the button!"
And the way Lara was sold accentuated this tension. Herbst mentions a German ad for Tomb Raider II where Lara says "You can move me into 2000 different positions. Try THAT with your girlfriend!"
So, like, Herbst isn't WRONG that Lara is a sexual object under the player's control, but she misunderstands how games usually work and thus can't comment on how Lara is actually a weird edge case, which is infinitely more interesting.
Also, that when Lara is under the player's control is when she is LEAST objectified. It's when she's not properly responding to controls, or when players leave her still so they can swivel the camera around to look at her chest, that she's an object.
Also, per the "Lara winks into existence when you turn the console on," Indiana Jones winks into existence when you pop the DVD in.

Yes, there's a difference, but, again, it's not enormous.
Herbst makes an interesting comparison to fame, quoting John Belten, who said (I'm paraphrasing) that stars become stars when they lose control of their images.

A video game character is a star from the outset, because she never controls her image.
She also describes Lara and similar characters as a kind of hyperreality. Her breasts, lips, and guns are abnormally large, her waist abnormally small.

She has the body Victorian women needed a corset to achieve.
The violence is similarly absurd, as is the norm for video games. Why shoot one pistol when you can shoot two?

She's not just a mashup of the sex and death drives, she is each cranked up to 11.
Herbst makes some comparisons to Lara as a dominatrix, which seems to mix up what iconography is domme and what iconography is sub. (The domme isn't usually the one wearing restraints, if you're wondering.)
It is true that "dominatrix" is one of the shorthands men use when constructing an action heroine, because it's one of the few recognized images of a women being violent, but I'm not seeing it very strongly here.
Oh, Herbst referenced that Tomb Raider has a 3rd-person camera, so get ready for another big ol' tangent from meeee!
A while back I asked Twitter if they could think of many first-person action games with female protagonists. We came up with Perfect Dark, Mirror's Edge, and (though most people don't realize it) Unreal. There were a couple others.
But I can think of plenty of 3rd person action games with female leads. Tomb Raider, Wet, Oni, Bayonetta, Heavenly Sword, Alice, etc.

Couldn't help but think that, if devs are gonna make a woman protagonist, they usually want to let you look at her.
So that tension between being an avatar OF the player and something for the player to LOOK AT seems like a common one in games.
Herbst thinks of the 3rd person camera as presenting as though Lara is "leading" the player through the game world, allowing the fantasy of her being in control while actually being control by the player.

Pretty sure I disagree.
3rd person is more about spacial awareness of your player's position as related to multiple enemies, and about platforming.

It does, however, say something that that's the kind of gameplay devs prefer for female protagonists.
Platforming also, often enough, means acrobatics, which are another common image of female excellent (gymnastics) and some justification for skin-tight and/or revealing clothing.

She doesn't wear armor because she needs to leap around.
There's more talk about Lara "following the player's orders" and linking this to fascist ideals. I feel like this is, again, misunderstanding how video games work, and would basically imply that controlling a player character is just inherently fascist.
Tries to extend this link by saying that Lara's blocky PS1 shape and many weapons link her to the fascist ideal of "hardness," which... it's not NOT there, but, again, kind of a reach.
But she points out that Lara is lacking one of the supreme elements of supposed desirability in a woman: she's not coded as any kind of caretaker.
If you look beyond this idea that player control = fascism, the NARRATIVE of Tomb Raider codifies Lara as quite the opposite of a fascist drone: she's fiercely independent, to the point of being aloof and unsociable.
But whether you read her as a fascist drone or a hard-headed rogue, neither is a caretaker.
"Reproductive potential IS, however, part of women's biological identity..."

Yeah, Herbst's gender essentialism is sincere. Ew.
Uh... she's trying to make an argument that Lara represent sex but not reproduction; her waist is too small to bear children, and she keeps her guns on a leg garter right by her reproductive organs, as if to imply violence has replaced reproduction.
And, I'm sorry... but isn't the usual place for a gun on your belt? You know, a gun belt? Or in your waistband?

Isn't a gun on your leg FARTHER from your reproductive organs than normal?
The point she's making is that Lara being violent is less threatening to men's monopoly on violence because she is coded as non-reproductive.

She can't fulfill the normal role for women so it's OK for her to fulfill one for men.
I don't think I can get on board with this argument since I don't buy that she's symbolically infertile.

I think the game codes her lack of children, relationships, and motherly instinct as a choice, a privileging of adventure over maternity.
We can call those masculinizing traits, which I think is, to an extent, fair, and is tied to the "career woman" trope that implies women can't have families and pursue their own goals at the same time, but that's not the point Herbst is making.
But maybe a softer version of Herbst' argument is fair: Lara is, for whatever reason, not going to be a mother, so it's less threatening to see her as a warrior.

But I think this being Lara's choice is a significant difference.
Hoo, the reaches are getting reachier.

So, here's the crux (or one crux) of Herbst's argument:
Women have, historically, been valued by men for their reproductive abilities. They don't belong on the battlefield because they need to be preserved as babymakers.
Herbst argues that women in our modern, technological society are more acceptable as action stars because technology has divorced reproduction from womanhood.

Because cloning is possible.
Like, she's making a larger point about the various ways that technology is now involved in reproduction, from ultrasounds to artificial insemination, but the only way she mentions that women are no longer the site of reproduction itself is... cloning.
I'm a little speechless.
Claudia Herbst to Lara Croft:
Oooookay, so now the argument is that, since babymaking is no longer the sole province of women, the battlefield is no longer the sole province of men.

Herbst is arguing that men are okay with female characters on the battlefield.
You know nothing of gamers, Claudia Herbst.
oh dear god, now she's arguing that men are ok with violent women because, if they're not babymakers, they're expendable

she's arguing female characters only just became expendable in violent media since cloning became possible

has she ever SEEN an action movie?!?!
does she not know how many women get killed off in action movies, in comic books, in video games? perfectly fertile women? in fact, fridging a women WHO IS PREGNANT is one of the favorite moves for a male writer to pull?
this is spiraling out of control
Lara being the protagonist means she is FAR, FAR LESS EXPENDABLE than the woman codified as EXTREMELY FERTILE who get killed off in other stories!

If you beat the game, Lara is legit THE ONLY PERSON you know for a fact will be alive!
How... how does someone not understand these things?
"War affects women differently than men."

a) Demonstrate this, you gender essentialist weirdo.
b) It's "differently FROM men."
So another argument is that violence against women is deemed more acceptable once women are viewed as combatants.

If she's a soldier, than it's obviously OK to shoot her in combat.
This, again, is based on the assumption that male gamers accept female combatants.

Anyone who knows what happens when you put a woman on the cover of a wargame knows that's a ridiculous claim.
She's also weirdly fixated on brutality against Lara? Lara doles out a lot more violence than she receives in the early games, and this was written well before the snuff film executions of the new Tomb Raider.
She seems to be interpreting the fact that Lara *can* be harmed in the game as "violence against women," and is interpreting the action heroine through that lens.

The strong feminine body is one that can be brutalized.
When the primary pleasure of violent games is ENACTING violence, and receiving it is designed to be an unpleasant failure.

Getting your rocks off on seeing Lara brutalized was still a long way off.
And the implications of women, who are codified as not only extremely violent but extremely durable in the face of violence, as "violence against women" are unsettling.

I mean, that essentially means there's no way for women to exist in a violent movie, right?
If any proximity to violence is violence against women, then the war movies that have no female characters are the most feminist, right?

That's baffling nonsense.
Oh god, now she's just flatly said that violent images on screen promote violent behavior because people reenact what they see, which is everything people accuse feminists of saying about video games and movies, and I just cant.

I can't.
I am getting HIGHLY SKEPTICAL of this book if this is the essay they put first.
Jesus, now the claim that real life women are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it because they are "physically weaker," and not, you know, because of a sick culture of violence against women?!
And - get this - by showing women as strong you are inviting men to enact sexual violence against them because you're implying they can take it.

There are a lot of fucked up ways that many action games and movies reinforce rape culture but that is not one of them.
She also argues that Lara does not exist in a world of structural equality because the game world is anarchic.
Her ability to survive is constantly challenged by dangers, she has no real options, she acts out of desperation.

...does she not know that Lara is a wealthy heiress who goes into these combat situations for sport?
Or is the argument that the narrative doesn't matter, the game is anarchic regardless of the framing?

Or is the argument that, once you're in a combat zone, you ain't heiress of shit?

I have no idea, because she doesn't acknowledge the narrative at all.
"The current transformations in gender and power definitions originate in the military and the sciences, the male cornerstones of computer technology."

Well, that's the end of that essay.
Herbst brings up a few points worth thinking about, e.g. it's hard to think of Lara as any sort of positive figure for women when she is designed by men and clearly for men.

But she cannot take these conversations anywhere interesting.
I'm serious, there was some doolally I didn't even share because I didn't want to repeat it. Gross shit about how women are defined by the womb.

As a friend of mine was fond of saying: I am too third wave for this shit.
I have misgivings about the rest of this book. It's weird to be one essay in and already know that I can't recommend it to others.

Anyway, thanks for joining on... whatever that was. #IanLivetweetsHisResearch
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