Warner Bros’ Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn) arrived on the screen like a reformed crime clown on roller skates: loud, brash, vulgar and unapologetic. It has been lauded as evidence that DC/Warner Bros is finally letting directors turn the color saturation up from “sepia and some grey” to “very bright” and letting them have some fun with its naturally campy source material. My most trusted demographic of The Girls and The Gays LOVED it (I’m included in that: I am both a Girl and a Gay!) and predictably, straight men left the theater, complaining about how it wasn’t made for them or straight up called it “garbage” as did one loud teenage boy said in an opening night showing I attended.
However, something struck me as I was watching Birds. The excitement and feeling of complete wonder that I was feeling felt both welcomed and familiar. The familiarity felt nostalgic even! But that feeling wasn’t on the same emotional frequency as I felt with the movies that can be filed under “Holy S--t, I Thought I Would Never See This Made” such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther. The fangirling and emotional nourishment hit from a place that I had not experienced since I first saw Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl on some random basic cable when I was a tween.
For as long as I can remember, Tank Girl has always held a special place in my heart when I accidentally caught a showing of it on Oxygen (now known more for its true crime fare than its programming and movies aimed towards women) in the year(s) 2000 Something. While the comparison between Birds and Tank Girl seems like a reach, I could not help but make the comparison because Birds felt like it was a 2020’s Tank Girl in how it used on-screen text for jokes and reference points, animation sequences, and a buffet of Hardcore Cool Girl aesthetics (BOP very much borrowed from the Tumblr-esque “Support Your Local Girl Gang” aesthetic with a healthy sprinkling of fringe, leather, and bell bottom jeans). The snarkiness. The foul mouthiness. The complete disdain for the brand of Male Gazey pageantry where displays of sensuality and sex feel forced and inorganic.
However, while those elements made Birds of Prey a box office success, that magically combo did not work in the slightest for Tank Girl back in 1995. An adaptation of the comic of the same name by Jamie Hewlett (of Gorillaz fame) and Alan Martin, Tank Girl was a marriage of 80s British punk aesthetics with 90s riot grrrl sensibilities with a female director (Rachel Talalay) and a female production designer (Catherine Hardwicke) at the helm. If the name Catherine Hardwicke sounds familiar to you, yes, that is the lady who directed the first Twilight movie! I know, I couldn’t believe it either!
With Talalay and Hardwicke at the helm of directing and guiding the visual language of the film, the film stars Orange is the New Black’s Lori Petty as our plucky anti-heroine Rebecca “Tank Girl” Buck in a post apocalyptic Australia where the remaining water of the world is policed by an evil corporation ironically named Water and Power. Rebecca is enslaved by Water and Power after her commune is raided when they find out that the commune had the last remaining non-W&P controlled water well. While enslaved, Rebecca meets the shy Jet Girl (yeah, Jet doesn’t have a real name in this) who is being harassed and belittled by one of the W&P higher ups. Some mutant kangaroo men related shenanigans offers our heroines an opening to escape from W&P for an adventure that leads into a Mad Max-meets-Bikini Kill adventure that is very sex positive, anti-capitalist, and anti-normalcy.
While Tank Girl was wonderfully, capital B batshit in all the right places like Birds is, Birds of Prey was treated with a modicum of respect from its studio while Tank Girl faced extreme edits, cuts and scrutiny from Trilogy Entertainment Group and its distributor United Artists. Talalay does not view Tank Girl with as much shine as contemporary voices such as myself do. She reportedly hated making this film as her vision for the film was severely neutered by the studio. While Cathy Yan was allowed to show how upside down, topsy crazy Gotham is and allowed the natural camp of the source material to shine through, methinks Trilogy and United Artists should NOT have agreed to adapt a film where its main heroine canonically has a boyfriend that is a kangaroo mutant monster who she has a healthy sexual relationship with!
While the sexiness of Birds could very much be boiled down to both Margot Robbie and the act of seeing attractive women shot and/or beat men in the face, Tank Girl’s use of sexiness was vastly limited to whatever the studio saw fit which meant a few fake-out seductions, the girls visiting a pleasure castle, and an IMPLIED sexual relationship between Tank Girl and Booga, the aforementioned kangaroo mutant monster. Talalay recounts that they cut a scene showing Tank Girl’s bedroom that was decorated with a bunch of dildos and a scene where Tank Girl puts a condom on a banana and proceeds to throw it at a soldier.
(However, insistence of men torturing the film’s heroines remained seemingly unedited and untouched. Funny how that works!)
Finally, the thesis statement of this article is about “legacy” and how a critically reviled flop can influence a modern day hit. While internet discourse inevitably created the rat race for a female led superhero movie in the 2010s, Tank Girl seemed to be excluded from modern conversation of qualifying as a groundbreaking success for female led movies as it is not looked at fondly or looked at all in certain spaces. However, it gave space for future creatives to create female heroes who were not shining paragons of goodness like a Wonder Woman but to operate on their own moral codes and do what they deemed was right. Not only that it dared to be purposefully ugly to men.
If you thought Loud Men on Twitter were bemoaning Margot Robbie taking Cheese Whiz to the head in a onesie in Birds was “unattractive”, what would have been their thoughts on how Lori Petty looked in Tank Girl! The ugliness in Birds of Prey is still very pretty, but Tank Girl absolutely laid the groundwork for how to visually and physically style a lead female character that is not suitable for the male gaze palette, but speaks to an audience that wants that ugliness and unattractiveness to feel seen.
Tank Girl kicked the door slightly ajar and Birds of Prey took a mallet to it and properly knocked it off its hinges.
If you have read this entire piece and are completed in the dark of what Tank Girl is, you can stream it for FREE on TubiTV or rent it on Amazon Prime Video for $3.99 USD.