The Riot Grrl Post-Feminism of Tank Girl

by JoHarrington

I spotted that Riot Grrl was back. Then I noticed that all of the original Tank Girl comics had been collected together into a book. Time for a bit of gleeful nostalgia again.

Tank Girl was the backlash of a backlash of a backlash.

She exploded in our cultural consciousness in the late '80s and early '90s, when everyone was trying to work out what to do about Feminism. Tank Girl told us; and it was fabulous.

Then Hollywood made a movie starring her. We all cringed and Tank Girl went away (for all but those who tended the shrine in private). It's now 2012 and She. Is. Back.

The Hole of Tank Girl by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett

Yes, that is the bloke who drew the Gorillaz. 'Tank Girl' was well before all of that.
The Hole of Tank Girl

Who is Tank Girl?

She was the cartoon Riot Grrl icon for a generation back in the early '90s. Our slightly older sisters had discovered her earlier, if they were cool enough.

Image:  Tank GirlTank Girl lives in post-apocalyptic Australia.  Her home is a tank and her (steady) partner is a mutant kangaroo named Booga. 

Which isn't to say that he's her only partner.  Tank Girl had sex with just about anything that moved - man, woman, beast, stuffed toys, reconditioned World War II armored vehicles...

She's female, so you'll want to know what she looks like by now. After all, a woman in the public eye is ALL about her body, isn't she?  And we'll just assume that there is no brain.

Take your pick.  Tank Girl changes outfits and aspect on a regular basis.  Often that was between panels in the same sequence, when there's no way that she could have actually moved.  Being too drunk or stoned.

Tank Girl's hair fell to her shoulders.  It was shaved, partially or wholly. It had a choir-girl's wave cut.  Then it was dread-locked.  A kaleidoscope of colors came and went. She looked like she'd been dragged through a hedge backwards.  She looked like a prom queen.

All without moving an inch.  It wasn't about what Tank Girl looked like, but, of course, it was.  Everyone could have identified Tank Girl in a comic strip.  She was the only Riot Grrl in cartoon form.  And the point was this - you can wear whatever you damn well want to.  You can do your hair however you please.  You can go naked if you want to.  You can cover up too. 

Tank Girl represented female empowerment.  She couldn't even be bothered to flash the birdie at what all of society thought that she should do.  They knew that they were dismissed.

The First Three Tank Girl Collections

Buy these remastered editions of the original comics to find out for yourself what all of the fuss was about. Do not read sober.

Tank Girl in Context During the Late '80s and Early '90s

This was punk rock during Feminism's Third Wave, or the Post-Feminism Era.

Image: Tank Girl

These were my years and my generation, so forgive me my rose-tinted spectacles, as I tear us all to shreds.

Our grandmothers had achieved universal suffrage.  Women had the vote.  Our mothers had smashed through glass ceilings, demanded and secured gender equality in the workplace (and much more besides).  Now it was our turn.

How on Earth are you supposed to follow an act like that!?

We were all of an age when we could see open (and often casual) sexism scurrying into retreat. We had all experienced it, and occasionally still did from the older men, but it was shocking and unacceptable now.  We were allowed to rub their noses into the grime.

And we were all looking ahead, towards that seemingly clear avenue, when women would have the same opportunities as any man.  For the first time in history, females had choice.  We could be whatever we wanted to be.  We could do, act and say in whatever way we wanted.

So what was the response?  The initial one was the backlash.  Back in the 1980s, it became fashionable to disdain Feminism - they were all men-hating lesbians and ugly to boot - while embracing, as a choice, pretty much everything that the Women's Movement had sought to secure.

Rampant individualism actually looked very much like women rushing like frightened sheep back into the pen.  They flung the baton back out after them, and their bewildered younger sisters caught it.  My lot caught it.  And we didn't have a clue what to do with it.

Into the confusion of this pivotal moment stepped Tank Girl.  And HER message was 'sod the lot of them.'

Ladies of the 1980s and 1990s, was that a fair comment?

Come on, it's possible that I'm rewriting our own history here. Much of the '90s is a blur anyway. Let's get this right for whatever wave is reading now.
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No, you totally invented it all!
JoHarrington on 11/04/2012

You definitely have a point there.

Kate on 11/04/2012

I think you maybe do a mis service to some 89s women. The Greenham women weren't all shoulder pads and lip gloss.

Yes, you told it as it was.
katiem2 on 11/11/2012

lol yes from your prospective, we all have our own ultra egos, this plays exactly into that realm IMHO I totally remember the 80's and 90's the very time I was coming of age, good times!

The Post-Feminism Chaos of Tank Girl

Please note that, while Tank Girl was extremely popular, she was never mainstream. She reflected the state of play, without ever influencing the masses.

Image: Tank GirlIf Tank Girl had appeared for the first time in 2012, instead of 1988, the viral catch-phrase that would have immediately applied is, 'And not a single f**k was given that day.'

She cut entirely from her roots.  The world was hers for the taking, so she took it.  She listened to nobody and never looked back.

If something got in her way, she blew it up. She lived in a tank; and she had an improbable amount of over-sized weaponry at her disposal.  This included atomic bombs as a bra, long before Madonna did the whole conical breasts thing.

In fact, the majority of the gags and scene sketches were simply excuses to blow stuff up. 

On the surface, it looked like the Riot Grrl generation had taken as their fictitious leader a psychotic, highly selfish bitch.  So what did it say about the third wave Post-Feminists?

Actually, not a lot.  Tank Girl was never mainstream.  The majority of females around at the time hadn't even heard of her until Hollywood's travesty of a movie. Even then, they may not have been aware that she'd stepped out of the pages of a comic. 

Many old school Feminists rejected Tank Girl out of hand.  She came from the drug-addled minds of two male art students.  Sorry, I should have made bold and underlined a certain word in the midst of that.  Male. Art students.

So what were we doing even reading such a thing to divine anything to do with how females should react?  That was surely handing back one patriarchy and replacing it with another, closer to our own ideals.  We'll take the pen next to our older sisters then, shall we?

Writers like Elyce Rae Helford have argued that we did do ourselves a disservice. In Post-feminism and the Female Action-Adventure Hero: Positioning Tank Girl (pdf), she pointed out all of the ways that Tank Girl was still objectifying women, primarily through a voyeuristic, male gaze upon a female body.  

It was all more about reinterpreting traditional roles for women, than reinventing them.

However, Helford was commenting upon the movie, not the comic.  She does make this point repeatedly, and she makes clear where the original cartoon would have deviated strongly from the film portrayal.  (As well as where the movie tips a wink to the wilder, more sexually free, more devil-may-care proper Tank Girl.)  That was a whole different scenario.

Trailer for Tank Girl (1995)

Tank Girl on DVD

Tank Girl

Did you like Tank Girl the Movie?

My Take on Tank Girl's Third Wave Feminism

Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Those with no history at all are cursed with the knowledge that they have all of the mistakes left to make.

Image: Tank GirlAt the time, what I read in those Tank Girl comics was an extremely positive female role model.

She was blasting her anger into her surroundings, defending all parapets that the Women's Movement had achieved.  Taking it back from those too afraid of not gaining male approval to fully embrace the disdained Feminism.

In retrospect, it was more like two enlightened men (in the context) saying, 'Ladies, it's ok, go for it!  Freaking well go for it!"

And so we did.  Perhaps the older Feminists were right, but they missed the fact that they'd torn our roots from under us.  Unhealthy, undesirable and totally unwanted traditions had been ripped away for the first time in history.  But they were still traditions. 

Everyone gets roots and traditions upon which to build.  Our groups, societies, countries, tribes, species all get to stand on the shoulders of giants.

What the first and second Feminist waves did was smash through the gateways and let us pile through, but they were left holding the doors open. It was up to the third wave to start building on nothing much at all.

Is it little wonder that Tank Girl held the appeal that she did in those circumstances?

She was the Post-Feminist Punk way of saying, 'Yes, we want what you all fought to give us, but you're going to have to give us time to work out what we do next.  We have no precedents.'

So what we did was blow stuff up, wear what we wanted and have sex with mutant kangaroos.  At least we did in our heads.  But mostly we rode our metaphorical tanks out onto the road ahead and did our best to forge a worthy future.

And perhaps our failure is implicit in the fact that Tank Girl is back again.  Ah!  F**k it! I'm off to buy a talking toy koala.  You get the hand grenades.

Tank Girl Comics and Merchandise on eBay

Updated: 11/04/2012, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 11/11/2012

Nostalgia kick and dual review?

katiem2 on 11/11/2012

You've made me start thinking about it again, it would be cool to watch now and measure how my reaction has changed or not! :)

JoHarrington on 11/10/2012

If you like the movie, then perhaps I should revisit it. It's been over a decade since I saw it and I was much more sneery about things then.

katiem2 on 11/10/2012

I adore tank girl, she's one of my idols so strong and smart. Love the movie it is pure BA! :)K

JoHarrington on 11/07/2012

It would have been a very masochistic male fantasy, though there is some credence in what you're saying. At the time, it didn't feel like that though. It was actually quite a shock to realize that the author and artist were both male.

Mira on 11/07/2012

To me she's such a male fantasy, though!! I mean, I don't know anything about her except for your text and images here, but it certainly looks that way to me. :-(

JoHarrington on 11/02/2012

To me, she's the perfect embodiment of it; and that's my wave, so she was quite important to me. Now she's sentimentality important, though I would like to get my hands on those comics now.

Ember on 11/02/2012

I've never heard of her, but she certainly does sound like an embodiment of third-wave feminism in a lot of ways, even from how you described how she 'looks' alone. :)

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