Throwback Thursdays: Tank Girl, the Hero We Deserve?

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 - Do not mess with tank girl.png

You really don’t want to make her mad.

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.

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Mankind Divided on Using Real-World Controversy

For many, fictional media is an escape from real-life troubles and stresses. Of course, completely fantastic settings achieve this easily, but seeing an “our world, but different” setting can also provide this escape. This is becoming increasingly common, such as in our superhero fiction; the Marvel Cinematic Universe is set in our world, for the most part, with only subtle changes. The DC universe, while set in fictional cities like Gotham or Metropolis, still reflect our cities and sometimes have shoutouts to real-world locations. These reflections create a shorthand of worldbuilding and can certainly enhance the experience. However, what kind of responsibility does fiction owe to real-world realities?

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Eldritch Terror and the White Man’s Burden: H.P. Lovecraft’s Xenophobia

I’m a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. They evoke a sense of wonder, dread, and the allure of forbidden knowledge. As Neil Gaiman has stated1, “Lovecraft built the stage on which most of the last century’s horror fiction was performed.” He draws the reader into a world of arcane mystery and nameless horror, threatening his protagonists’ sanity and indeed their very lives with a sense of addictive fascination that practically flows out of the page. Lovecraft’s method of “describing the indescribable” with florid and evocative language has all but made him a genre unto himself.

H.P. LovecraftHowever, he was also a racist imperialist whose protagonists share those biases in spades.

While that never stopped me enjoying his stories, it is sometimes off-putting and makes much of his stuff difficult to read. It is tempting to contextualize this to the period he was writing (where such attitudes were expressed openly), but Lovecraft’s social and racial elitism was considered beyond the pale even for his times; though the tone of his arguments on this topic became more general over the years, they did not appear to change with the times. His correspondence (much of which has been collected and published by S. T. Joshi) bears this out.

But as I’ve re-read his stories over the years, something has dawned on me: the often wholesale embrace of “the white man’s burden” is not only a central metaphor in Lovecraft’s work, it often deepens the isolation of his characters and heightens their peril.

TW: Racist and imperialist language and themes, as well as ableist language and themes, after the jump.

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Discriminating against the Body Electric: Fallout’s Synths as a Metaphor for Institutionalized Racism

I’ve been a huge Fallout fan for almost two decades now, reveling not only in its lore and gameplay but also its humorous yet (usually) thoughtful treatment of social issues. The post-apocalyptic genre lends itself to this in a unique way. By incorporating sci-fi and fantasy elements, these stories can deal with fairly abstract concepts. By grounding their narratives in a world steeped in dirt, decay, and the conflict between the social contract and raw survival, the best examples of the genre are often able to address these issues in an accessible (and fun) manner.

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid playing/watching/reading about Fallout 4, here’s a bit of background before we dive in. Set in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Boston in the year 2287, the story of Fallout 4 revolves heavily around synths. Synths are synthetic people, made from human DNA, indistinguishable from humans, and created to serve as a labor class for the manipulative and technologically advanced Institute. They are inspired by, if not directly based on, Blade Runner’s replicants. In one way or another, all the major factions involved in the game’s central plot have an interest in what the synths represent and what is to become of them.

Synth in production, looks human to me

A generation 3 synth in production

On the surface, the parallels to western slavery are pretty clear. The synths are a race of people viewed as “human-like” by their masters and used as free labor to maintain the status quo for a leisure class. They are given virtually no rights and are seen as little more than machines. While their masters take pains to prevent them from being killed or seriously harmed, this is mostly due to the expense involved in replacing them rather than any real concern for their well-being. There is also an underground group seeking to liberate them. This group calls itself the Railroad and is a direct reference to the real-life Underground Railroad, being referred to as such even within the world of the game.

The idea that synths are meant to represent slavery as a human institution was clear to me from the get-go. But in addition to this central metaphor, the treatment of synths and their place in the game’s civilization goes much deeper. There are parallels to infamous examples of racial and cultural discrimination throughout human history, as well as constant remarks by NPCs that the synths are infiltrating their communities and plotting terrible things. Fear that a synth might be living next door, might kill you in your sleep, and might poison the town’s drinking water is a near constant. While some of this is certainly due to the shadowy operations of their human masters, the synth race has become synonymous with deceit, violence, and threats to civilization itself. Sound familiar? This demonization and scapegoating of an entire class of people is common to most examples of real-life discrimination, and synths are a consistent metaphor for that in Fallout 4.

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A Noble Obsession

Sometime as I was reading the Song of Ice and Fire books a few years ago, just when Game of Thrones was getting popular and more and more fans were starting to fight over who they thought would be the best person to end up on the Iron Throne, I started wondering, “Wait a minute. We live in a supposedly democratic, meritocratic society these days that (at least nominally) no longer believes in hereditary rule. Why are we so invested in seeing an autocratic, hereditary tyrant installed on a throne, to lord it over our favorite fictional continent? Shouldn’t we be rooting for the Seven Kingdoms to become a democracy instead?” (I’m on Team Dany, by the way!)

And have you ever thought about how weird it is that, in Sailor Moon, we’re supposed to be happy that Usagi and Mamoru end up as Neo-Queen Serenity and King Endymion, absolute rulers of the entire freaking Earth for over a thousand years? The narrative presents this as a positive thing because they’re such just and peaceful rulers, and those who question Neo-Queen Serenity’s rule are presented as the villains.

This should be absolutely terrifying. Just sayin'.

This should be absolutely terrifying. Just sayin’.

As I began thinking about this further, I realized that a lot of our modern media is still in the habit of over-valuing noble blood. It makes sense that old fairy tales feature lots of royalty, secret royalty, and marrying into royalty, because back then, that was the best possible situation people could imagine for themselves. But why does this obsession still exist today when kings and queens with real power (for the most part) are not prominent anymore? You also may be wondering, what’s the harm of featuring noble-born characters? I would argue that they reinforce the false idea of privileged birth translating to inherent “special-ness,” as well as ignore the stories of those born into less privilege.

Let’s examine this in several examples below the jump!

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Who Survives the Apocalypse? On the Edge of Gone Has Some Ideas

I read a lot of YA books, and since not all of them are great, I keep track of the authors of the ones that I really liked. So ever since I read Corinne Duyvis’s Otherbound two years ago, I’ve been waiting and hoping that she would soon publish something else. Duyvis, an autistic writer who co-founded the Disability in Kidlit website and writing resource, is a writer with a particularly unique point of view. And when I found out about Duyvis’s newest book, On the Edge of Gone, a story about disability and classism told as an asteroid hits the Earth, I jumped to get it.

on the edge of goneMinor spoilers after the jump.

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Magical Mondays: Shadowshaper and Cultural Conflict

My to-read pile of YA gets higher and higher every day, but I recently realized I was a little annoyed with it: not because the books themselves are poorly written or uninteresting, but because (perhaps with the success of the Hunger Games and Twilight) they all seem to be about a strong-willed girl who gets into a love triangle (with two guys, of course) and somewhere along the way they save the world and there’s kissing. “Isn’t there anything else being published these days?” I complained to Saika.

“Have you tried Shadowshaper?” she said.

I had not.

I was missing out.

I was missing out.

To my very great joy, although Shadowshaper still had the saving the world and the kissing, there was no love triangle in sight. Instead, the multiracial cast of Shadowshaper has to deal with things like gentrification, racism, and appropriation on top of a really suspenseful mystery about whoever or whatever is behind the murders of several prominent members of their community.

Spoilers after the jump.

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