By Cara Ellison on December 19th, 2012 at 9:00 pm.
June 2003: a remote jungle clearing outside Moshi, Tanzania. I am seventeen. It is sometime after midnight.
My skin is sticky with pesticide and sweat. In the treacle dark, my friend Rachael’s face presses hot against my shoulder. The hiss of the jungle soars into the sky in a cacophonous, unbearable symphony.
I need to pee.
Unzipping the tent door, I reach for my boots outside and hesitate, before upending them and shaking them vigorously. This lesson has been learned in machetes. Satisfied, I pull the boots on, grab a torch, and bind an emergency strip of toilet paper around my wrist. I press out through the long grass.
Wet air kisses bare skin. The remains of my once plain rice dinner is pitted with grass bugs: with no lid to prevent them jumping towards the heat, we had eaten the rice black and crunchy. I grimace at the thought of the swallowed bugs and stride through the grass into the murk. I can hear the insects screech, jump against my ankles. Fuck the jungle, I think. Everything here is trying to kill me. I think about machetes, hallucinate one in my hand. But I had left it behind with the Maasai.
A scream from above punctures my eardrum. I freeze. To my seventeen-year-old ears it sounds like the scream of a Velociraptor. I switch off the torch. Steven Spielberg told me there would be days like this.
Three more terrifying screams; I stand in the grass with the cold strands touching my exposed legs, exposed, exposed. They’re in the trees, I think. And I am here. And they can see me.
Freeze-framed by fear, my mind escapes to another place, an unreal place whose dangers nevertheless felt no less real…
That malfunctioning ATI card kicks me straight into that first desolate corridor. No cutscene. I am twelve, terrified. The computer screen looms over me. The soundloop kicks in – hollow noises like huge footsteps boom in the background: creaks, low moans. I’m aware the woman on screen is wearing very little. You can see too much flesh on her – she is miles away from help, shut in this cave. She can see wolf tracks, hear whispers… But she is on her own.
What is the worst that can happen to her? I glance at the manual. I draw Lara’s guns. I walk into the claustrophobic darkness.
At seventeen, standing in that grass alone in the jungle, I wonder if I am doing Lara Croft a disservice. I imagine that some small girl is watching me through the lens of a computer screen and I see everything map out before me. I think, if I don’t get over myself, that small girl watching will never do anything impressive like go exploring in a Tanzanian jungle; she will never block blows in a budoukan in Okinawa or climb temples and tree roots at Ta Prohm Kapok. She will never have the guts to do anything by herself. Get over yourself, I thought, just then. Lara got over herself.
I breathe the close air. I control my own body, where once I controlled Lara’s. I have developed the curves that denote adulthood. I no longer look like a tomboy girl: I am a grown woman. Women deal with things. They are in control. They are calm at all times. They are together.
Adulthood swells into my lungs: I am that composed woman; I can walk into that forest and deal with what happens just as she killed wolves and jumped into bear pits.
Lara: the impractical figure, the idealized sex object. Surely there’s no way she could offer anything but detriment to the way that young women look at themselves? Many regard Lara Croft as nothing more than a tool for male voyeurism. And while I didn’t notice the extent to which Croft was sexualised when I was twelve, I certainly notice now. That original game presented Lara’s figure at its worst, its most implausible. The painful outrageousness of her waistline; her breasts, so engorged they might carry more water than her measly backpack.
But what was more important to my young eyes was Lara’s frailty. She looked thin and incapable, those narrow gun-toting wrists like stems of a flower. Climbing seemed a labour. She stumbled on things, bumped into things with a dramatic ‘oof!’ Every animation blend glitch evidence to me that she was panicking, breaking. She was at the mercy of her environment. The fact that she had few supplies, little clothing, and nobody to help her: these made her task even more daunting. But that was what was amazing about her. All my life I’d thought only men put themselves in these dangerous, isolated positions. It didn’t matter to me that men might look at her. She is the doer now, and not the helper. She is the hero. For twelve-year-old me, Lara had chosen to take a risk for the sake of thrills. I admired that.
Women are routinely advised to be safe. You’re going out late at night? By yourself? In that? That’s dangerous. In London there is a campaign to ensure women only hire officially endorsed taxis, because minicab drivers have been known to sexually assault women on back roads. Take safer taxis, women. Don’t go alone – anywhere. Don’t go alone.
Men, by contrast, are encouraged to do foolish, dangerous things. People thought it was funny when Steve Irwin poked a crocodile with a stick; if a woman did it for a laugh she’d be putting herself in danger. Which is stupid and might never be entertainment, right? Even with that charismatic grin. And certainly, if the female Steve Irwin had died doing what she loved (poking crocodiles with sticks) it wouldn’t be considered heroic. It would have been, “Well. We told her so.” It’s taken as read that maybe a man might die as a consequence of putting himself in danger – but that’s the life he chose. What a principled hero. If a woman dies, well, that’s her fault: we told her not to do that. It wasn’t safe.
In that jungle, at seventeen, I am so far from those voices. My gender makes no difference here, in the wild. It seems like a construction to pretend that we are anything but a set of consciousnesses traversing a fraught earth. It seems odd to regard Rob and Josh, whose tent is out of sight somewhere near, as being somehow able to cope better here, or as somehow in less danger.
At twelve, back in Tomb Raider, I was in the tight grasp of monophobia. For the first time, I’d been allowed to go out into town by myself. I was aware that some of my friends were still not allowed to do this – because it is dangerous for little girls to go into town themselves. Everything seemed dangerous to me. The bus driver was dangerous. The people on the streets were dangerous. As I grew up that caution never waned. By sixteen, boys aren’t told as often to be careful any more, as equally unfairly, they become the danger. At twenty-six, I am still often told that being out alone at night is dangerous.
Tomb Raider encouraged me to be alone. The very act of playing it was solitary, away from friends. Our computer was shut in a tiny ‘study’ (a cupboard) at the top of our three-storey house (just next to the gymnasium with the secret entrances) and I always played it in the dark. My dad never set the heating to anything less than full blast as if he were an orchid threatened with wilting, so the study was always sweltering. I’d play until I couldn’t bear being afraid any more. And it was terrifying: I would scream at every bear and I was not particularly squeamish, not a ‘girly’ child. And still I was determined that I needed no help. I wanted to do it alone.
Outside of the study I came to realise that wanting to do things alone was not always a bad thing. If Lara Croft can raid tombs by herself, I figured, then I can go anywhere by myself. I started enjoying my own company more and stopped worrying what my friends were doing. I visited town by myself sometimes, not to meet anyone, but to buy ice cream and shop for clothes because I wanted the time to ponder things. I started to value my own judgement more. I wrote outrageous opinion pieces for the school newspaper. I became more active in identifying and chasing the things I wanted. I used to get frustrated that I didn’t have a boyfriend. Well. Lara didn’t have one either, I reasoned. She probably chose to be alone. The very idea that one could choose not to have a boyfriend blew my young mind.
Lara didn’t have a love interest in the original Tomb Raider. There was no ongoing romance beyond the romance of finding secrets, climbing colosseums, shot-gunning T-Rexes. Larson was shot dead, a footnote. Frustrated at missing jumps, terrified at being impaled on spikes, you willed her to jump farther, shoot faster, swim for longer. At twelve I was a competitive swimmer, and the thing you always strove for in the pool was a Personal Best time, not finishing a heat first.
Both Lara and I didn’t really need someone to help us out or encourage us. We competed against ourselves. Years later, Crystal Dynamics would ruin that in Tomb Raider: Legend by providing not one, but two or three different men supporting her, as if she couldn’t lop off an endangered species’ head with the help of a good nutritious breakfast and her own sheer determination. It was as if a jaded Ripley had been put on an infested ship with three fratboys who’d read a report on Aliens and decided they’d come and help her out. Perhaps it was just bad writing. Perhaps it was an essential part of the game. Perhaps.
Is wanting to do things alone dangerous for women? Much of the ‘danger’ surrounding women and girls who dare to do things alone is framed as the threat of sexual assault. It is kind of terrifying that women are warned that men will be looking at us in a sexual manner in every situation – and horrifying that all responsibility for men controlling their sexual or violent urges is absolved by an emphasis on keeping women in a safe space. Ultimately, if society started valuing self control and respect for others’ personal space, we probably wouldn’t have to patronise women, who, let’s not forget, are also capable of sexual assault. This last fact is shrugged off constantly. It’s as if the threat of the male gaze penetrating our heroine is what makes Lara vulnerable. Is she being sexually assaulted by us, the viewer? As if the very act of seeing women turns the voyeur into the threat.
When I played I was Lara, experiencing everything through her character. My male friends sat there identifying with the camera – with the looking, the controlling, with the interfaces. They were outside her body. I was her body. It was survival horror.
My most vehement wish was to keep Lara alive. This is the same wish I clutch now, in the jungle. I wonder: would I have taken as many risks in life if I hadn’t been Lara all those years ago?
My toes twitch in my boots. I master myself. The screaming is all around me, up in the trees.
If you were going to attack me, you’d have done it by now, I think. I unfreeze the frame and wade into the dark. I feel a guilt sting at having failed to match Lara Croft’s composure faced with similar peril. Fine barbs of vines cling to my skin, threatening to trap me, trip me up. Again I lust for a machete, licking dry, bug-stained lips. I forget the last time I saw my face in a mirror, but I imagine that my face, all grit and mosquito bites. I am Kurtz.
Unseen tree animals scream around me. No, I decide: here is where I stop and pee. I’m gonna do what I came here for. You hear that jungle? That is the sound of me pissing on you. Yeah? Well I hope it’s a freaking ant hill I’m pissing on. Your ant hill.
Oh god, it’s an ant hill.
I spend the rest of the night and the following two days picking the pincers of suture-strong Siafu ants out of my legs. I still have the scars. Rachael slept on through what I later found out, over a stiff pint of sugar cane liquor, was the Tanzanian equivalent of the Bush Baby mating season – they have Velociraptor screams.
During warm weather I sometimes dream of machetes. Machetes and Lara Croft. I hear she’ll get a machete in the new one.