That Which Does Not Kill You
I haven’t played Tomb Raider yet. I don’t intend to. This opinion started when I was reading an editorial1 of the new Tomb Raider game, written to cover the very controversial sexual assault scene shown during the E3 Demo.
I’ve read followup pieces; the rape scene wasn’t really a rape scene, just sexually charged. Lara struggles, and ends up strangled during the QTE.
In another scene, she bursts into tears at her first human kill. She apologises to a deer she has to kill, in order to eat.
I’ve written characters like this; women given the opportunity to catch their dreams, and suffering deeply for it.
Telling a story that they gain strength through that suffering, the world growing colder and less magic being a net good. Breaking her down, in order to be strong.
The creators talked of breaking Lara down as well; hurting her so that she could be rebuilt, for her to be able to be strong.
This narrative is common across Western fiction, but when Tomb Raider did it? I was rather upset, but I couldn’t figure out why.
Around the same time, I watched Haywire2. It’s about a strong woman, deep in the espionage and mercenary culture, dealing with the fallout of being double-crossed, of an op going dreadfully wrong.
As a field agent, she’s extremely good at what she does. She’s powerful, relentless, highly trained in weapons and combat, owning herself and her actions working to drive a violent, visceral and graphic film.
The film could have been better; passing Bechdel3, for instance, but on the whole I really enjoyed it.
Mallory, the lead, is hurt, causes hurts ; suffers and recovers.
Her backstory is never revealed; her father was ex-military. She’s an ex-Marine. Their relationship is warm and loving; he’s protective and appears kind to her..
As an audience, we’re left with little view of her past or her motivations.
It was only after the movie that I realised; her strength was her. Hers isn’t the cold and emotionless anti-feminine strength, nor the strength that was forced upon her by outside forces.
We see Mallory keeping her team focussed; we see her enjoying in passion once the mission is complete.
We see her hurting, emotionally wounded when the man who shared her bed gets killed. We see her loving her father, trying to keep him separate from her life of espionage.
We see her emotions, not as weakness, but as a pieces of her.
Her strength never needs to be explained or justified; it just is.
She’s strong because she wants to be strong; she has, and has had the agency and initiative to make those choices. She’s angry, and that emotion is real.
She retaliates, and it’s real because it’s hers.
Trauma as Laziness
In the world of sexism and women as weak, the only path our narratives offer is Trauma Equals Strength.
A person, most especially a woman, must be broken and hurt in order to transcend their emotions and become “strong.”
She must shed that which makes her a woman; leave femininity, adopt the hard stoicism of “masculine” strength.
The constant message that if you aren’t hurt, you’re not strong. It’s not enough to just be.
The Tomb Raider developers use uncomfortable sexual tension; try to hurt Lara with terror and violation. That these scars; nearly being raped, nearly being killed, or being hunted across the island are the only way she can be strong. That she has to be like the men who hunt her; that her femininity and softness betray her now; she must become masculine.
Worse is the the very idea that Tomb Raider even needs a backstory; that we, as a culture, need to know how she was hurt, so that we can accept that she can be strong.
I prefer Mallory; jumped and attacked multiple times, her femininity was never compromised nor weakened by the only backstory we know how to tell.
Strong, just for being herself.
Strength Through Suffering
The meta-trope through these examples is the strength through suffering ideal; that we can only grow as people if we do suffer, if we are hurt.
Haywire ignores the trope; Tomb Raider revels in it. Mallory is strong because she wants to be, Lara is strong because she’s forced to be.
I don’t agree with the narrative backing; when suffering is positioned as the only real strength, strength from ethics or faith, family or community becomes worth less.
Being emotionally injured hasn’t made me stronger, it has made me damaged. What strength is there in needing to fight myself to change how I react? What strength is there, really, in Lara being traumatised enough that she can take lives? Where is the strength in her entire self being stripped away and forced to survive?
The Scars of Trauma
It was also raised to me that not all trauma is damage; that how we react to it is whether we result in damaged people or not.
I think I disagree with this core idea; trauma is always damage. We get hurt, and we change because of it. Commonly the responses are healing or hiding; neither choice leaves us unable to leave the lens of that damage behind.
Trauma never lets you go.
The crux of suffering is strength is that the presence of those scars makes one strong. Without those scars, women are emotional, weak, or can’t do what needs to be done.
Scars can never be discarded, not fully. We can learn to live with them, to correct our thinking around their distortions. We can make them ours, gain some strength from that process, but never truly recover. Functional, but never again whole.
Mallory has scars, but Haywire doesn’t spend its entire existence reveling in them, or how they were formed. She takes lives, gets in fights with her opponents; actions that, the first time she performed them, would have hurt, deeply. Actions that would have damaged her.
Her strength is not that she was damaged, or that she is able to take actions because of that damage; her strength is that she chooses to be strong in spite of that damage.
For Lara, the scars will stay with her forever. It will affect how she opens herself to other people, to people she loves. It will affect how others see her. The world around her will hold it against her, force her further away from her emotions; will tell her those scars are the only thing that makes her strong.
The world will force her further from her femininity.
I guess that’s what makes it “strong.”