Advisory: Potentially NSFW content.
Geek culture has evolved. Over the last few decades, a push for greater inclusiveness and better representation has gained major ground as our generation’s penchant for nostalgia simultaneously breathes new life into dusty classics. One of the more excellent byproducts of all this dusty life-breathing has been the tendency to reexamine some of our favorite classic female characters and expose them to modern feminist criticism. In the midst of it all, however, I feel like one of the most unique ladies in comics has remained largely confined to “cult status”: Tank Girl.
This foul-mouthed, sexually liberated, substance-abusing, interspecies dating, ultra-violent, post-apocalyptic badass has been around since the late punk days and has given us some of the most incredible and incredibly fucked up stories I’ve ever read. She has been able to retain such a consistent emotional energy throughout decades of artists interpreting her that she nearly seems to have some level of real-world agency; at times she almost feels real. I, and many of her fans, see her as a sort of pop culture meta-demigod-thing: “Tank Girl, goddess of anarchofeminism and blowing shit up.”
Tank Girl is, in many ways, the comic book equivalent of the punk and riot grrrl musical movements. Born a decade after the Sex Pistols but a few years before Bikini Kill, Tank Girl’s pages radiate a sense of anarchistic artistic resistance to the inequality born of extreme commercialism and the emotional damage caused by rigid and oppressive social norms. Tank Girl is regularly portrayed literally destroying systems of oppression, often going to ludicrous extremes to avenge minor injustices (such as the mafia buying up all the good beer to sell everyone crap at inflated prices) and occasionally committing major injustices in the process, highlighting and mocking the fragile nature of these systems along the way.
Both the writing and the art style have contributed to this absurdist anti-establishment vibe since the beginning. Tank Girl comics were often in the vein of an adults-only Beano or Mad Magazine, usually featuring margin doodles, random banter, and non-sequiturs all addressed directly to the reader. In some cases the characters even break the fourth wall and directly address the reader as well.
Her first solo story (currently collected in Classic Tank Girl Vol. #1) introduces us to our antiheroine and establishes exactly what kind of world she lives in. In that first issue, Tank Girl is chasing a bounty on a biker gang of sentient mutant kangaroos. She literally crashes her tank into a party the gang had metaphorically crashed earlier, killing not only all the gang members but the partygoers as well. The one survivor (a grizzled old outback hermit) tells her that the leader has escaped and she needs to chase him down. After a “long and tedious” chase that is not shown, she catches up to him atop a high rock formation. The two collapse, exhausted, start making out, and then proceed to have sex. Afterwards, assuming their romantic tryst had bought his freedom, the talking mutant kangaroo asks if he can be on his way, only to be shot in the face by Tank Girl who explains curtly that she’s collecting the bounty on him dead rather than alive.
Now, clearly, that’s the kind of story that leaves an impression. The whole thing is written in the style of a comedic adventure in a kids’ comic, only it’s about reckless violence and interspecies fucking. As those early strips proceed to show us TG being tasked with urgently delivering fresh colostomy bags to the president, inadvertently foiling an assassination plot against herself, and delivering missionaries to a Christmas party where she encounters the second coming of baby Jesus and laments not being able to get him drunk, she keeps up this level of chaotic intensity on almost every gloriously goofy page.
But aside from the sheer fun that underlies Tank Girl’s antics, there are also some running themes subtly woven into the sledgehammer wit that Hewlett and Martin deliver so expertly in those early issues. Aside from the general rebelliousness prevalent in late 80’s punk art, the nature of sexual agency and sexual exploitation are explored in particularly subversive ways. Essentially, the tropey exploitation of female comic book characters is deconstructed by taking it to satirical extremes while simultaneously directly criticizing it.
Another of those early strips is a perfect example. A top military officer (Sgt. Small Unit) is sent to kill Tank Girl for defecting (or quitting, it’s not entirely clear what the deal is) and being a general nuisance. This officer has been having vivid nightmares about getting killed by Tank Girl’s breasts, which have turned into missiles just as he is about to execute her (by tying her to two huge ICBMs). Meanwhile, TG has gotten voodoo plastic surgery to change her appearance after seeing herself on a wanted poster. When he catches Tank Girl, a side effect of the surgery causes her breasts to rapidly grow and send him and his men into a suicidal panic. As this leaves our intrepid tank riding heroine topless (except for “censorship stickers” covering her nipples) she is forced to find a top… in the form of a scrap torn from God’s bathrobe, “the most sacred dressing gown in existence.” She later trades this to Satan in exchange for wishes, one of which she uses on a massive can of lager. The entire arc deals with patriarchal institutions and breast obsession in a way that employs tropes about the hot lady action hero always somehow ending up topless, in order to subvert such tropes. It’s brilliant and funny and occasionally, even a little hot.
But, aside from over the top moments like this, there are a great many instances where female nudity in Tank Girl is presented in a way that is neither sexual nor sexy. Like Lena Dunham in Girls, much of the nudity is intentionally countering the perception that any time we see a naked woman we are supposed to regard her sexually. It also recalls the concept of “good naked vs bad naked” from the classic Seinfeld episode. Tank Girl is often dirty, sweaty, and disheveled; her hair is usually a punk or pixie cut that has been singed, leaving her largely bald. She lives in a tank in the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback desert; the denizens of Mad Max type universes aren’t exactly known for having plentiful shower facilities. Yeah, Tank Girl’s usually presented as really sexy, but she is no stereotypical cartoon pinup girl; she’s a real woman and real people are often really gross a lot of the time.
That dynamic continues through to the present-day incarnations of the series with Tank Girl and her cohorts all unabashedly embracing their sexuality and their bodies and making the point that not all instances where a woman is naked are (or should be) sexualized. TG’s friend Barney often serves to convey this point as well. She regularly makes a topless appearance to distract someone as part of a plot or caper, even sometimes remarking on how she always ends up topless and how it’s bullshit. Jet Girl and Sub Girl also sometimes serve in this role. Often these scenes are constructed in such a way as to make the viewer feel as if they are engaging in a mild form of voyeurism; other times it almost seems to nod to the sex positive art scene in San Francisco, and still other times it recalls the revenge exploitation genre and revels in ultraviolent reactions to patriarchal oppression. Occasionally it actually does feel exploitative, but rarely in a way that is not at least somewhat self-aware. As with Tank Girl, though, Jet Girl’s and Barney’s nudity often mocks tropes while acknowledging the shocking fact that women do, in fact, have bodies and are not wearing Victorian dress 24/7, especially in a hostile wasteland.
In addition to the way Tank Girl and her cohorts’ bodies are used to make a point about exploitation, her sexual and romantic life is similarly used to address issues of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. The deuteragonist in Tank Girl is her long-term boyfriend Booga, another talking mutant kangaroo. While Tank Girl is presented as pansexual and polyamorous, she has a strong preference for male kangaroos and is mostly faithful to Booga.
The interspecies relationship between the two is often used to represent the struggles of interracial couples in the western world, with Booga often standing in for an Aboriginal Australian or African immigrant in the U.K. This enduring and endearing (when they’re not beating the crap out of each other anyways) interspecies relationship regularly serves to normalize real-life interracial and intercultural relationships and serves as a solid proxy with which to empathize; a crucial detail given Tank Girl’s audience. In the divisive film version (disclosure: I have not seen the film version. I am both “saving it” and “dreading it” so feel free to weigh in in the comments) Booga is played by Ice-T, further affirming the overt implication that this represents an interracial relationship. What’s more, while Tank Girl is shown to have a preference for kangaroo dudes, it’s crucial to note that she doesn’t fetishize them.
That is essential to any examination of this as an allegory for interracial relationships. It should be noted that there is a long history of giving actors of color parts as non-humans (or “not-quite humans”) in predominantly white casts. Cartoons and comics in particular have a history of casting a person of color in the role of a magical but somehow abnormal creature, denying that they have a role in the normal everyday lives of their stories’ protagonists; and that’s not even getting into the fact that they’re rarely the protagonist themselves. There are moments where this is hinted at with Booga and, in particular, where popular negative stereotypes of Aboriginal Australians are directly referenced in his portrayal. Even recently, this denigrating caricature has been invoked in popular media, and it’s something the creators of Tank Girl were clearly aware of.
While there are plenty of problematic moments, especially in those early stories, ultimately I think this is another case of employing a trope to subvert it. Those stereotypical depictions send the message “these people are basically animals and don’t deserve the same social protections we give ‘real people.'” The rebuttal to such a portrayal is usually to expose it as purely a byproduct of ignorance and bigotry, but Tank Girl takes it a different direction. Her response is “I know he’s not like us; I prefer people like him.” The series effectively inverts the trope of “these people are animals” to make the argument that “if that’s the case, I prefer them to what you call humans”. While there are certainly still moments where these harmful stereotypes are played for a laugh, the anarchic nature of Tank Girl usually has us laughing at those stereotypes rather than with them. Though the nature of this portrayal is conflicted enough that it falls far short of our current standards for representation, I think the underlying message is one that ultimately serves the same goal. I can’t quite say Tank Girl is an unblemished beacon of positive representation; however, it does feel like an early attempt at addressing those same concerns, albeit from an absurdist perspective.
This complex relationship is also one between two lower-class people. TG and Booga are often engaging in shady one-off jobs and outright criminal activity in order to make ends meet. Well, to make ends meet without doing anything boring, at least. Here again the punk influence on this fictional relationship is clear, sometimes taking on an almost Sid and Nancy or Bonnie and Clyde quality inasmuch as the two rebellious and disturbed young lovers have virtually nothing to lose.
On top of all that, several story arcs throw genderqueer identities for both these characters (and many others) into the mix, making their relationship, canonically, at least somewhat queer. While a few of these moments do actually seem to play to tropes for a laugh, they also often recall the radical queerness and often violent reaction to it that permeated the zeitgeist in which punk and riot grrrl were born. Here too Tank Girl seems to regularly engage in tropiness as a means to subvert it.
Over the years, Tank Girl has expanded into a deep and complex title. We have been treated to absurdist interdimensional time travel arcs involving magic jeans, a giant stone Barney leading an ancient army of smaller terracotta Barneys into battle against the Australian Army, a mafia war in a quaint family 5 star hotel, and mythical beat poets getting dragged into violent crime sprees in the name of fighting boredom, but Tank Girl has remained a strong and unique title right up to the recent series from original writer Jamie Hewlett and a variety of incredible artists. The irreverent and chaotic exuberance that Tank Girl’s title character seems to embody has changed with the times, but she remains relevant, perhaps even more so as the years progress. She may be a violent rogue, but she’s our violent rogue, damnit! While I mentioned that Tank Girl is largely a cult title, it is also one with a lasting influence; characters ranging from Harley Quinn to Furiosa often seem to have at least some subtle nod to Tank Girl.
We often look to fictional characters for strength and moral support, finding something in the various gods and goddesses of geek culture to provide real-life guidance. In times like these, we may need a Tank Girl at least as much as we need a Kara Zor-El or a Wonder Woman.