Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, Ex Machina) is our new Lara Croft, and though the film isn’t due until March of 2018, we already have our first peek at the raider of tombs:
Look familiar? She’s wearing an outfit almost identical to that of Brie Larson’s character, Mason, in this year’s monster epic Kong: Skull Island:
This same look also appeared on Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day…
…and on Penelope Cruz as Eva in 2005’s Sahara.
Pocketed cargo pants and a tight tank = timeless?
There are, of course, variations on the look, one of my favorite being the I Was Wearing a Nice Outfit But Then I Got Sweaty So Now I Am in a Tank Top look, a fate that befalls Bryce Dallas Howard’s character Claire in 2015’s Jurassic World:
And Jennifer Lawrence’s character Aurora in 2016’s Passengers:
(It’s worth noting that Passengers takes place centuries into the future and in space. Again, timeless.)
Similar to the Leather Jacket of Badassness, the Tank Top of Adventure signifies that this character—the sole female or one of very few—can take care of herself. She can get dirty. She’s wearing pants because she can hang with the guys, and those pants have pockets because she’s prepared. And because the pants aren’t too tight, the movie isn’t really using her as eye candy (unlike Megan Fox in short-shorts in Transformers or Angelina Jolie’s Croft in a bodycon suit). But, crucially, the tank top is low-cut and tight. The audience paid good money to see this movie; they’re getting cleavage! Thus, a pattern was born.
Or, to quote Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock, “Liz, it’s the dream! Boy on the bottom, girl on the top!”
Setting aside a lack of originality on the part of costume designers, this ensemble isn’t, in and of itself, problematic. Everyone wears some kind of uniform: female politicians wear suits, female doctors wear scrubs, female adventurers wear, apparently, cargo pants and tank tops. If a woman fighting the big bad is dressed more or less like she’s going on a hike, where’s the harm? There isn’t any…necessarily. The risk is that this outfit could become a shorthand filmmakers use in lieu of character-building in the writing. It takes so much longer to script a good character than it does to give her the outfit of one.
There are certain iconic garments that stories play with—a white dress for the pure and innocent victim, a black hat for the evil villain—and it doesn’t always make the story worse. Westworld, for example, did a masterful job of using and manipulating “trope” characters, asking us who we become when we don, say, a holstered gun or a cowboy hat. But the use of tropes isn’t always so deft or successful. In Rogue One, protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has all the makings of a cool female hero: armor, pants, rousing speeches, sad backstory, brown hair. But she basically just flies around delivering messages that other people could have delivered. For every great “actually, the pretty girl has a brain” moment in something like Legally Blonde, we also get an “as suspected, the pretty girl can’t do science” on The Big Bang Theory. Whenever a female character trope is established, good writers play with it, but bad ones use it as a crutch. This could be happening with the Tank Top of Adventure.
As for the films mentioned above? Well, there’s a spectrum. On one end you have Sarah Connor, BAMF with a real arc. On the other, there’s Mason Weaver (that’s Brie Larson in Kong), an empty collection of traits in a movie stuffed with half-written characters…plus John C. Reilly. Even though the ensemble is stranded on a jungle island, beset on all sides by creatures that could easily kill them, and even though they are literally military operatives with lots and lots of artillery, it isn’t until the very end of the film that Mason even picks up a gun. Meanwhile, we get a number of shots that pan around a group of guys holding weapons to find the lone girl holding…her camera. She’s basically asking to be eaten, but we know she’s still empowered because, I mean, look at her pants pockets! No one helpless could have so many pockets. Somewhere in the middle is Eva in Sahara, an entirely forgettable movie. We’ll see next year whether Alicia Vikander’s interpretation of Lara Croft will be meaty or as flimsy as a dirty cotton tank top.
Really, what I want is a full and original character; if you have that, you can put her in whatever the hell outfit you want. But because full and original female characters aren’t exactly hallmarks of the action/adventure genre, this repetition gives me pause. Maybe this time Lara Croft could raid someone else’s closet (OK, that’s a bad joke, but you get what I mean). There’s a reason the Kill Bill poster is so popular: that yellow getup doesn’t look like every other outfit. Originality is good, thanks for playing!