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Wide Angle 21.1 (1999) 77-93

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Mobile Identities, Digital Stars, and Post Cinematic Selves

Mary Flanagan


IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= Molly Haskell noted that "The closer women come to claiming their rights and achieving independence in real life, the more loudly and stridently films tell us it's a man's world." 1 Women's relationship to technology is perhaps the most threatening relationship the West has known. Unlike issues of property ownership, the right to vote, wage discrepancies, and other calculable inequities, the use of technology by women is dangerous because it not only allows for immediate access to information but because it is also immeasurable. What an ironic image, then, to have the emerging personalities of the new millenium--female digital stars--created by the technology that "real" women are denied.

Lara Croft, the 3-D star of the action game series Tomb Raider, has become the most popular computer game character ever. Created by Core Design in England, Lara's game series Tomb Raider (I, II, III, IV: The Last Revalation, and soon to be released Tomb Raider Chronicles), distributed by Eidos Interactive, has helped create a new star system in the arena of electronic gaming. Since premiering in 1996, her games have sold over six million copies--some of the best-selling video game titles in history. In the game, players control Lara Croft, a female Indiana Jones-style swashbuckling archaeologist on a global quest to whisk away artifacts from "exotic" locales in epic, colonialist CD ROM adventures. She is the best-known computer generated character in the world and her creation has brought into existence a virtual star system. As the millen- nial icon, she has been featured on the cover of over eighty magazines with [End Page 77] characters such as Bill Gates and America Online CEO Steve Case, and touted as one of the fifty "cyber elite." Lara is more than a character; she is a celebrity. "She's developed a persona," says Keith Boesky of game publisher Eidos Interactive. "She's the first digital character that's really treated like a person." 2 Lara Croft might be compared to a person, but she is much more onscreen. Lara wields amazing physical prowess and multiple firearms. She is capable of any physical activity demanded by the game's incredible situations: back-flipping out of buildings, swimming underwater, punching tigers, round-housing monks, and even biting foes (blood/gore included)--while barely clad in scanty, skin-tight "explorer" clothing. In addition to her superhuman traits, Lara is precise, rides in great vehicles, and, unless there is user error, never needs a second take.

Inevitably, the comparison has to be made between this new star system and film history's account of stars and star discourse. A review of this material will help us understand how and why the cinematic star as a culturally produced body has evolved into a digital star system in which signifiers, identities, and bodies themselves are called into question. More than the indulgence of looking in at these stars within filmic worlds, we now embrace the very real pleasure of controlling these desired bodies: Lara is at the apex of a system in which looking manifests into doing, into action. The digital star is the location on which fantasies of desire and control are projected; they embody the fears, desires, and excess of our culture in the form of obnoxiously sexualized female stars. The subject, object, audience, director, viewer, participant, creator, and user tangle and double over; these roles blur into a new phenomenon that refuses to take on a shape.

Lara is clearly our first digital star, 3 and the role of information and technology in the construction of the digital star cannot be ignored. Rob Milthorp has pointed out that the lure of the video game fantasy is "that of a vicarious [End Page 78] escapist experience that also responds to men's technological passion." 4 Beyond the attraction of technology, however, this essay suggests that it is through the excess of information and sexuality, the absence of the "authentic," and the...