06/16/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Aug 16, 2012

Lara Croft's 'Tomb Raider' Reboot Origin Story Misses The Mark

When I hear the name Lara Croft, I think "badass." The (virtual) woman is a brilliant archaeologist, she can jump into hand-to-hand combat matches with the best of them, she carries her gun in a garter holster and Angelina Jolie played her in a movie. In my opinion, the girl doesn't really need any help from anyone. Apparently, the heads behind "Tomb Raider" -- the video game -- beg to differ. A revamped Lara Croft is on her way, and this heroine needs a protector.

Kotaku's Jason Schreier spoke with "Tomb Raider" executive producer Ron Rosenberg about the "Tomb Raider" reboot, which is going to be a prequel of sorts to previous "Tomb Raider" games, at this month's Electronic Entertainment Expo. When Schreier asked about the difficulties of developing a female lead character, Rosenberg said:

"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character. They're more like, 'I want to protect her.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to adventure with her and trying to protect her.'"

And according to Schreier, the way the producers plan to make gamers harness these protective instincts is to make Croft suffer through her friend getting kidnapped, being taken prisoner by "island scavengers" ... and an attempted rape. (The studio has since issued a statement saying that the scene in question has been "incorrectly referred to" as attempted sexual assault, but I agree with Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams that "there's an unmistakable sense of sexual menace in the scene." Click here to view the clip.) Some human suffering is par for the course when it comes to heroes' "how they became how they are" narratives (one classic example is Spider-Man losing his Uncle Ben). However, do kickass female characters really need to endure attempted sexual violence to be sympathetic?

Less-than-empowering representations of women in video games are nothing new. A 1998 study of violence and gender roles in video games found that 41 percent of games with characters in them didn't include women at all. Of the ones that did feature female characters, 28 percent presented them predominantly as sex objects and 21 percent featured violence specifically directed at women. More recently, culture critic Anita Sarkeesian launched a project called "Tropes vs. Women," which examines the stereotypical roles that women play in video games. She focuses on major archetypes including "the sexy villain," "the damsel in distress," "the fighting f**k toy," "the sexy sidekick," and "women as background decoration."

So Lara Croft, in all her badass-fighter glory, is somewhat unique to begin with. Although her original avatar is definitely sexed up -- hence the famous booty shorts and crop top -- her outfit was always secondary to her skills. (And really, if she could engage in extreme fighting while rocking some short shorts, more power to her.) Giving her an origin story that rests on making (the presumably male) gamers want to protect her from other "bad men" is an unnecessary plot device. Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan interviewed a female game designer who called it simply "lazy storytelling," and Ryan argued that "the whole sexy victim thing is played out," as well as insulting to both male and female gamers.

Lara Croft doesn't need to be a sexed-up victim to appeal to men and women. Without this backstory she was able to helm a film that made $48.2 million its first weekend and grossed $274.7 million worldwide. As the saying goes, "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" Especially when that "fix" involves more frustratingly simplistic depictions of women.