Tuesday, July 10, 2012

TANK GIRL: Some thoughts on a 90s icon

Here's an opinion piece that I wrote for the first issue of DERZEIT during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin last week. You can download all previous issues here.

It seems the mid-1990s is the new epoch for mining and reviving pop culture icons and trends: Absolutely Fabulous fashionistas Eddie and Patsy came out of retirement with new episodes this year, and a Spice Girls musical is slated for London’s West End. So I should feel on-trend for my obsession with the outré stylings of a certain 90s movie heroine, right? I don’t mean Winona Ryder’s grungy waif in Reality Bites, or Uma Thurman with her Rouge Noir-manicure in Pulp Fiction. I’m talking about Tank Girl, the protagonist of a cheesy, sci-fi action comedy that bombed at the box office in 1995. (Lead actor Lori Petty’s career apparently nosedived after this role, too.)

I’d have more street cred if I’d collected the British comics that spawned the Hollywood adaptation; they were penned by Jamie Hewlett who later co-created virtual band Gorillaz. Like the movie, they chronicle Tank Girl’s outlaw adventures on the fringe of post-apocalyptic, dystopian society – it’s 2033, the Earth’s a desert, and water is the world’s most valuable commodity. Think Mad Max, but with a wisecracking anarchist punk who steals military vehicles and sticks it to ‘the man’ with bravado and balderdash. (Add to that a mutant species of kangaroo-humans, who live underground and to whom Tank Girl’s boyfriend belongs.)

In pop music circles, 1995 marked the breakthrough point for Gwen Stefani’s glammed-up skater style – her band No Doubt released Tragic Kingdom that year – and the Spice Girls hadn’t yet consumed pop culture with their cartoon take on “girl power”. Ergo, here we see an outrageous female lead who’s strong and capable, willful and wily, and sports a constant rotation of action-appropriate outfits – it’s combat boots over platform stilettos, every time. Tank Girl’s styling – overseen by Madonna’s long-time collaborator, Arianne Phillips – is true to the frenetic comic book aesthetic. Forget about Sex and the City’s revolving designer wardrobe – Tank Girl manages 18 different hairstyles in the film’s 104 minutes, and there’s certainly no water available for a blow wave. It’s truly styling porn for DIY fashion lovers. 

Make no mistake, it’s camp, junk-food cinema. Stylistically, it’s very “busy” – that’s putting it nicely – meshing action and comedy with music video direction, animation, and even an old-Hollywood song and dance number. But whether you’re an awkward tween or a 30-something rollerderby enthusiast, Tank Girl is pure, positive escapism… and a shining reminder of the value of utilitarian fashion accessories.