Lara Croft set off on her first Tomb Raider adventure in 1996, traveling the globe in search of ancient artifacts amid dark and dusty ruins. She pushed that video game into a multibillion-dollar franchise that included several sequels, two feature films (starring Angelina Jolie), an animated series, apparel and merchandise. Now, the Academy Award-winning Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is set to portray Lara Croft in a reboot of the series.
But 20 years on, Lara Croft has a complicated legacy. Her creators introduced her as a tough, agile archaeologist who could outmatch Indiana Jones, yet she was noticed more for her voluptuous physique and revealing attire — a tank top and short shorts. And she remains a polarizing figure among gamers, a paradox regarded as either a digital pinup girl or a feminist role model — or sometimes both.
“There was a duality in her character,” said Meagan Marie, the community and communications manager at Crystal Dynamics, the video game developer entrusted with the Lara Croft franchise, and the author of “20 Years of Tomb Raider: Digging Up the Past, Defining the Future.” “She was a sex icon and a feminist icon, and there is no issue being both of those at once.”
Her sexualized appearance was a drawback from the early days of video game development when women were hard to distinguish from men on 32-bit consoles, Ms. Marie said. Flowing hair was difficult to design — Lara Croft wears her hair in a single braid — so emphasizing a woman’s hips, legs and breasts became an easier way to feminize her.
Heather Stevens, a video game designer who worked on the original Tomb Raider game, said Lara Croft’s physical attributes were originally played up to market the franchise. “There was a difference in the way the character was in the game and the way she was represented in the advertising,” she said. “We knew a different Lara Croft.”
But because of her appearance, Lara Croft is often considered part of a systemic problem generated by a male-dominated video game industry.
“She is one of the most iconic representations of women in gaming, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing,” said Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic and executive editor of Feminist Frequency, a nonprofit organization that looks at how women are presented in pop culture. “She is a hypersexualized character that promotes a deep objectification of women.”
Ms. Sarkeesian said Lara Croft was simply a stereotype for the category of games typically associated with male players. Even the camera angle in the game focuses on her rear end, she said, putting it at the center of attention.
“With Lara Croft, you see her entire body running around in her hot pants,” she said. “That encourages players to look at her as a sex object.”
Yet Lara Croft has managed to survive two decades in pop culture — straddling the line of feminist figure and femme fatale — long after fellow 1990s girl-power symbols like the Spice Girls and Xena the Warrior Princess have faded from relevancy. When it comes to video games, except for Ms. Pac-Man, no other female characters have reached the same level of fame.
Lara Croft’s appearance gradually changed as more women were drawn to video games. (Research shows that nearly half of all players now are women.) In 2013, Crystal Dynamics rebooted the franchise and gave Lara Croft a more natural look, including trousers.
“The goal was to make her a relatable character, one that was believable,” Ms. Marie said.
Lara Croft is said to be inspired by the Swedish singer Neneh Cherry and the comic book character Tank Girl. Since her introduction, fans have identified with her commanding demeanor and confidence as well as her sex appeal, said Ms. Marie, who grew up with Lara Croft and was drawn to her from the start.
“We had nothing in common other than being a woman, but I saw myself in her and she inspired me,” she said.
Lara Croft crosses gender barriers, inspiring men, too. Isaac Cabrera, a 24-year-old freelance artist in Tucson, has been a fan since he was 4, when he received the first Tomb Raider game from his mother. After that, he followed her adventures in video games as he grew up.
“I can relate to her struggles, trying to explore truth and discovery,” he said.
For the last couple of years, Mr. Cabrera has explored cosplay (short for costume play) by dressing up like a male version of Lara Croft that he calls Tom Braider.
“I want to be Lara,” he said. “I don’t want to imitate her physicality. Lara Croft is a state of mind, not just a body type.”