Elyce Helford frames Tank Girl as a portrait of the postfeminist
woman: hyper-individualist and hyper-sexual - a woman who is quite
comfortable in popular cinema but not so much so in reality.
For this feminist cultural studies scholar, postfeminism centers in individualism and the belief that personal choices and "bootstrap" efforts can bring a woman (and hence all women) empowerment and equality. Hence, postfeminism rejects radical feminist emphasis on "sexual politics"; it is a mindset/movement that refuses group efforts and struggles against male dominance (patriarchy). Self-declared postfeminists often tout appreciation of second-wave feminism and the privileges the movement has won for women; however, they quickly make plain that such collective work is no longer necessary. Moreover, postfeminists may go further, reacting strongly to perceived failures of second-wave feminism. For example, a postfeminist position affirms gender difference and celebrates traditional feminine traits, such as (maternal) nurturance, a woman's "right" to choose the role of housewife/mother over career, and the importance of women's sexuality as a central source of empowerment. Such examples make plain that postfeminism is largely a white, middle- to upper-class phenomenon. It also appeals particularly to young women, perhaps most for its optimism. From sexual harassment to rape to attaining a fulfilling sex life, a postfeminist perspective suggests that women can control their destiny through their individual efforts alone. Just quit that job, take a martial arts class, and wear sexy clothes to the dance club and life is your oyster.
The hopeful, positive tone of postfeminism is alluring. We all want to feel we control our destiny; we all want to wish sexism away sometimes. And, one of my favorite media examples of the illusory power of postfeminism that does a superb job of exemplifying the primary elements I have just outlined is Rachel Talalay's film Tank Girl. This 1995 box office flop but Grrrl Power cult fave was the first effort of Dark Horse films, based upon the comic book of the same name. Women's empowerment in the film is linked directly to having the right attitude and the right clothes. Lori Petty, as Tank Girl, winds her way through a dystopian future with no fear of failure because she is young, determined, and hip. When she is caught and bound by thugs, for example, she escapes the threat through her sexiness and the power of a small-dick joke. She offers to give one of the thugs a blowjob; this allows her to get him close enough to throw him off guard with a sexually demeaning joke then break his neck between her thighs. We see the sexualization of power in many other scenes as well, for example, in an early scene in which Tank Girl is forced at gunpoint to strip for a soldier and uses her talents to take his mind off her dangerousness long enough to blow him up with a grenade and, later on, in a conversation in which Jet's concern that Tank Girl will be killed by the soldiers is rebuffed with "Jet, they're men!" The audience is not invited to consider whether this would work if Tank Girl were not young, thin, white, and "beautiful"; moreover, the fantasy scenario (also seen in other postfeminist media hits, such as television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess) keeps us from attending to the fact that no one but a fantasy heroine could break a man's neck between her knees. We see in these images the perfect illusion of individual power and control for women in a sexist world, achieved largely through the power of youthful desirability and fantasy superpowers. The film thus emerges in my reading as a postfeminist media manifesto.
That the film does raise such feminist issues as sexual harassment, women's anger, and female friendship does separate it from non- or anti-feminist efforts, as seen, for example, in Dark Horse's second comic-to-flick conversion, Barb Wire. That Tank Girl was a box office flop and Barb Wire a hit may point to the fact that, at least in the mid-90's, even postfeminism was too much feminism for mainstream viewers. However, as a playful filmic lesson for girls and young women, Tank Girl is definitely selling postfeminism, and selling it hard. Just as it may be difficult not to be drawn to the idea that there is enough equality in our culture not to need group efforts for social change, it is difficult not to be drawn in to the postfeminist playfulness of Tank Girl as she caresses and sits (in parodic seductiveness) on the barrel of a tank, aims it at a group of male aggressors, and asks, "Feeling a little inadequate?" Tank Girl is all about the seductiveness of postfeminism, especially its "do-me feminist" elements. Women are powerful, the film proudly announces: we have only to use what we've got.
Sadly, of course, reality hits when we exit the theater or turn off the VCR. Rape and spousal abuse is still an everyday occurrence, the glass ceiling still closes in those of us who have the privilege to even see it, and the country is still controlled almost entirely by white, upper-class men, among other sexist and even misogynist realities. In the end, for me, postfeminism is a lovely vacation spot, an escapist fantasy I like to take now and then with Tank Girl, Buffy, Xena, Anita Blake (Vampire Hunter), or any number of other film, television, or genre fiction heroines. But coming down is a bitch.