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'Tank Girl' taught Hollywood representation matters — 25 years later the message still does

The movie delighted a generation of women who wanted to see the ways they saw the world arrayed against them reflected onscreen — and who also wanted to wear combat boots with fishnets.
Lori Petty in "Tank Girl."MGM / Courtesy Everett Collection

Even if you didn't see "Tank Girl" in theaters when it premiered 25 years ago — and, given that its worldwide box office take was a piddling $4 million on a $25 million budget, odds are you didn't — you've seen its effects in theaters. You can't watch "Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey" and not see the influence of "Tank Girl's" aesthetic (and Margot Robbie's production company has optioned the rights to reboot it); it's hard not to hear the echoes of the Rippers' religious ceremony in the (rightly panned) religious dance scene in "Matrix Reloaded"; you can't watch "Kick Ass" and not remember foulmouthed Sam and her silver; you certainly can't watch "Mad Max: Fury Road" and think it sprang sui generis from the minds of its filmmakers.

You can't watch "Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey" and not see the influence of "Tank Girl's" aesthetic (and Margot Robbie's production company has optioned the rights to reboot it).

"Tank Girl," loosely based on the 1988 Alan Martin-Jamie Hewlett comic book and starring the eponymous antihero in a dystopic, drought-ravaged future run by authoritarian capitalists, did more than just worm its way into the subconscious of Hollywood. Director Rachel Talalay's film — with Gale Tattersall's cinematography, Catherine Hardwicke's production design and Arianne Phillips' costume design — also both tapped into the then-ascendant third-wave feminist, Riot Grrrl aesthetic (epitomized, even, by the Courtney Love-assembled soundtrack) and brought it further to the masses.

Ironically, although it was Talalay's and Hardwicke's punk feminist perspective that reportedly irked the movie's all male producers and studio executives — and resulted, according to Talalay, in numerous cuts, including to the movie's sole intended love scene — the movie's feminism was what gave it cultural currency over the last 25 years.

It passed the Bechdel Test on women in film before anybody else in Hollywood was even taking it — and, technically, Tank Girl (Lori Petty) and Jet Girl (Naomi Watts) never have a conversation about men unless it's about killing them. Tank Girl (Rebecca, before she gets her tank) is explicitly positioned as her boyfriend's equal if not his superior in the opening scenes and is recognized as a leader and a potential leader by both "good guys" and villains. She's also loudly sex positive and, perhaps most daring for 1995, explicitly embodies the third-wave feminist idea (as seen in the Liquid Silver dressing room sequence) that you can pick and choose from the available feminine ideals to construct your own idea of what's beautiful to you, for you ... and not simply to please men.

And when Tank Girl does opt into a relationship with a Ripper part of a group of genetically engineered man-kangaroo super soldiers who violently bedevil the fascist Water & Power regime she doesn't choose, as mid-'90s audiences were poised to expect, the gruff, domineering T-Saint (Ice-T), who says he's the reincarnation of a New York City police officer. Instead, she chooses the sweet, incredibly loyal and slightly stupid Booga, who says he's the reincarnation of a very good dog. (In the comic, Booga is a former successful toy designer.)

Then there is the running theme of the explicit sexual harassment to which Jet Girl is subjected, first by Water & Power's Sgt. Small and then by the Ripper Donner — both of whom use their power over her to cop feels and otherwise attempt to coerce sexual favors from her. Arriving in theaters just 3½ years after Anita Hill's testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and less than a year after Paula Jones' allegations of sexual harassment against President Bill Clinton came to light, the film put a sympathetic, bespectacled face on the situations that many women were — and still are — forced to navigate in their own, real-life workplaces.

Add to all of that the young Sam, a girl in Rebecca's initial community who is kidnapped during the violent raid on which the rest of the movie hinges. In other female-led action films — most iconically, in the James Cameron-helmed "Aliens" — the Sam character would be used to soften the heroine's more masculine attributes by highlighting her supposedly natural maternal instincts. Rebecca, while clearly fond of Sam, doesn't show much in the way of said instincts: She encourages Sam to swear more effectively, gives her a weapon and praises her for using it to maim a would-be molester and encourages her participation in the Liquid Silver hostage-taking stage show. Rebecca is no Ripley, but Sam is hardly Newt, either.

Any one of those elements would've made "Tank Girl" stand out from the other female-fronted action movies of the time — which were few and far between but included the cinematic "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "G.I. Jane" and "Terminator II: Judgment Day." But put together, they made Talalay's movie way ahead of its time. With the mixed media elements of the film, the interspecies romance, the defiantly anti-capitalist messaging and the major departures from the canonical source material, you had a movie that didn't appeal to the still mostly male critics of the time, turned off fans of the original and confused mainstream audiences.

But the movie also delighted a certain generation of women who were then, in many cases, coming of age and wanted to see themselves and the ways they saw the world arrayed against them reflected onscreen — and who also wanted to wear combat boots with fishnets and short skirts, get some piercings and generally flip off the establishment while throwing off sarcastic one-liners. (Maybe some, if not many, of us still do.) It didn't feel like a movie made for men, and it didn't feel like a "chick flick," as we were then given to understand those categories; it wasn't a "date movie" or a "kids' movie" or an "art house film." It was an action film — a comic book movie, even, when those were hardly a thing unless they starred Michael Keaton — and a sci-fi one at that. But it felt like it was made for women to see themselves in, rather than have to project themselves into from a distance.

It taught some of us exactly why representation mattered; 25 years later, it shows why it still does.