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Game Over

Washington Diarist

I have more than a few things in common with Lara Croft, the gun-toting, Bigfoot-slaying, back-flipping, treasure-hunting, aristocratic English heroine who stars in the video game Tomb Raider, recently spun off into the number-one movie in the United States, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. We both have dark hair and dark eyes. We both enjoy music and the arts. We both like corgis. We both write for a living. And we both have breasts. But while Lara's 34Ds unwaveringly float mid-bicep, I, like most women, rely on an armada of brassieres to ballast what nature never intended skin to buoy. The 5-foot-9-inch, 130-pound Lara--even with the enviable measurements of 34D-24-35--seems not to have any breastcontrol issues at all. Whether she's fighting giant lizards or rappelling in the Himalayas, they invariably stay put.

Her secret? Lara Croft isn't real. She doesn't actually weigh in at 130 pounds (and her breasts don't weigh anything at all), the "stats" in her lengthy promotional "bio" notwithstanding. She's a synthespian: a computer-generated virtual woman with the pixels and the moxie to engender crushes in the hearts of the millions of gamers who made Tomb Raider one of the most successful video game series of all time. The game's tag line: "Sometimes a killer body just isn't enough."

But not being human hasn't kept Lara from taking heat for her unnaturally perfect body. Feminists say that, with the advent of computer-generated cybermodels and synthespians, the bar for real women has been raised even higher. Asks Germaine Greer: "How many women do you know with broad chests and narrow waists like [Lara Croft]? Men should wake up to the fact that women have big bums. Whatever these characters are, they're not real women." Princeton University Professor Elaine Showalter claims that "Croft and the cybermodels epitomise the era of power grooming. No longer can women depend on a dab of powder and lipstick before they face the public." Today's woman, Showalter writes, employs "[l]iposuction, exfoliation, laser-blasting, Botox and collagen [to] take the skin to pix[e]lated smoothness and tautness." Life imitating art.

The outrage isn't surprising. Feminists have long decried the alchemy employed to create women of Barbie doll proportions, charging that such images cause men to objectify women, and contribute to the lack of female self-esteem that leads to depression, eating disorders, and the operating table. And with Lara and her virtual compatriots, that alchemy--and presumably the suffering it spawns--has taken a giant technological leap forward. Still, there may be an upside to all this pixelation. After all, feminists aren't the only ones infuriated by the emergence of cybermodels--the "real" modeling industry has good reason to be upset as well. Cybermodels may do more than put human models out of work; their explicit fakeness might just force people to admit that the whole modeling enterprise has been fake from the start.

From toy story to titanic to Shrek, we're growing increasingly accustomed to recognizing synthespians for the man-made products they are. On the Internet, cybernewscasters Vandrea (modeled on British newscaster Andrea Catherwood) and Ananova have become celebs. And Webbie Tookay (that's "2-K"), the first virtual model, was dubbed "the most valuable model in the world" with an estimated market value last year of $15 million, thanks, in part, to contracts with Nokia and Sony. (By contrast, Gisele Bundchen, the world's highest-paid human model, earns a mere $5 million per year.) But cybermodel celebrity is a consciously cynical phenomenon. Their creators aren't trying to trick us into believing these images are real. They're just simulating reality.

What's more, even as girls' magazine mary-kateandashley dubs Lara "an Indiana Jones-esque girl" and as Angelina Jolie, the 26-year-old Academy Award-winning actress, doubles for Lara on film, it's almost impossible not to notice that Croft and her cyberpeers aren't real. It's true, as Naomi Wolf wrote in her 1991 book The Beauty Myth, that "`Computer imaging'--the controversial new technology that tampers with photographic reality--has been used for years in women's magazines' beauty advertising." But the whole point of computer imaging was that magazine readers didn't know--or at least didn't think much about the fact--that the woman on the cover didn't look that way in real life. And so young girls could aspire to look the way Gisele looks on this month's cover of Vogue. But they can't ignore Lara's inauthenticity, because her inauthenticity is central to her fame. "When I first played the game, I thought [Lara's breast size] was ridiculous," said one 15-year-old girl I interviewed after the film. "How could she run and jump dressed like that?" And you can see it on the video screen. Lara barely speaks, is controlled by the player, and is primarily seen from behind. A clear case of art trying--and failing--to imitate life.

Of course it's possible that, as technology improves, it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish real women from their computer-generated counterparts. And if that's the case, beauty-industry handlers will have even more reason to prefer synthetic women. "She is the perfect model," cheers Webbie Tookay's agent, John Casablancas--the founder of Elite Model Management who left his post last year to found the first-ever cybermodel agency, Illusion 2K. "Webbie can eat nothing and keep her curves.... [S]he will never get a pimple or ask for a raise." With a Screen Actors Guild strike looming, speculates a recent Entertainment Weekly article, the demand for synthespians may grow even higher. And, unlike most reed-thin models and actresses, cybermodels have no need for breast augmentation, airbrushing, padded bras, or industrial-strength double-stick tape.

Still, would it be so bad if technology grew sophisticated enough to trump reality, if synthespians replaced women in all those forms of entertainment feminists have historically derided--modeling, beauty pageants, pornography? Who would protest if we no longer expected women to look like models, just as we never expected anyone to climb walls like Spider-Man or have supersonic hearing like the Bionic Woman?

Perhaps cybermodels and synthespians will help us admit that what men have been getting off on all these years--and what women have been emulating at unrecoupable cost--are, like Lara Croft, little more than cartoon characters. And with that admission might come a more natural definition of what's sexy, by which the genuine confluence of health and DNA is deemed preferable to the handiwork of a Photoshop virtuoso. Were that truly to come to pass, of course, it wouldn't only be the human supermodels whose careers would suffer: Presumably, Lara's would as well. But she'd manage. After all, she'll always have her writing.