Lara Croft – The problem with the rape scene

So Lara Croft is a rape survivor[1]. Guess what – so is one in every four women in the UK. If you put sexual assault (including rape), domestic violence and stalking together, almost one in two women in the UK[2] has experienced this kind of gender-based violence.

There has been a lot of outrage in the feminist community about this new twist in Lara’s story, and some of the points made are valid. The game developers want players to feel protective of Lara – not something they would ever dream of in a male character. Rape is a cheap way of establishing a female character’s vulnerability. It plays to stereotypes and male fantasies, reinforces the rape culture we live in. Yes, to an extent these are all true. The one that struck me though was the argument that we don’t feel the need to show back stories of tough male characters that portray them as vulnerable and depict their journey to becoming the strong, badass characters we know them as. This is problematic in many ways.

My main bone of contention is that we don’t show men as survivors of sexual violence because, unlike women, the vast majority of them aren’t. When a problem affects nearly half the people of one gender but a much smaller proportion of the other, I don’t think a differentiated portrayal is inherently sexist. How those experiences are depicted and treated by any work of art is a separate question and there the developers behind Lara Croft may well have a case to answer. We haven’t actually seen the new game yet. Does it glorify rape and violence against women? Does it reinforce stereotypes and clich├ęs about the experience and the victims of rape? Does it fail to challenge rape culture? Yes, it probably does some of these things – but right now we don’t know yet.

Another issue I have is that the reaction from the feminist community implies that by making Lara Croft a survivor of sexual violence, her character is somehow diminished. She was strong and badass and now we see this part of her past she is somehow “ruined” for us as a potential role model. To the 45% of us who’ve been through gender-based violence and come out the other side this is, frankly, insulting. Has my experience of sexual abuse changed me and shaped me? Absolutely. Has it diminished me? Hell no! If anything, it has made me stronger, fiercer and more passionate when it comes to fighting violence against women.

Realistic and challenging portrayals of gender-based violence in culture are badly needed. Every time I speak out about being a survivor of sexual abuse I get more and more women coming forward to share their own stories. It’s as if one of us speaking openly about it frees others to do the same. Where previously we felt isolated and ashamed, we gain strength from the knowledge that we are far from alone, that it happened to others too; not just one or two others, but half the women we know.

All the stories I hear are different from one another. What’s more, they’re often radically different from the accepted narrative of rape and gender-based violence portrayed in the media and popular culture. Stranger with a knife jumping out of the bushes? Hardly. Father? Husband? Best friend? Boyfriend? Much more likely. Yet those are not the stories we see, which makes us feel we’re alone, makes us doubt the validity of our own experiences and feelings, makes it much easier to internalise blame, to feel we will never be believed and therefore to let the bastards get away with it.

Rather than jump on creators every time they portray gender-based violence for doing it all, we should be challenging them in subtler, more nuanced ways. Was the attacker a stranger who jumped out of the bushes with a knife? Was the victim beaten black and blue? Was she white and blond? Did she break down crying in court? Yes, all of these things occur in real life, but rarely do they all happen on the same case, except in fiction. To tackle the epidemic of gender-based violence we are facing, we will need much more candid, realistic and varied portrayals of the issues in art and media than we currently have. So by all means, let’s call out Crystal Dynamics, but let’s do it for depicting sexual violence badly, not for doing it at all.

[1] Attempted rape actually, maybe.

[2] 45%, source: the British Crime Survey via the White Ribbon Campaign

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