25 years ago, Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl exploded onto the big-screen, and like Cathy Yan’s kick-ass Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey which was released earlier this year, Tank Girl also had a rocky reception at the Box Office. Tank Girl only recouped about $6 million of its $25 million budget at the box office, but like Harley Quinn, the film went on to have a devoted fan base and a cult following. Tank Girl and Harley Quinn are both proudly feminist films which champion female empowerment in the face of the patriarchy.
The films also share many other similarities: both have their roots in the graphic novel/comic book world, both feature a larger-than-life female protagonist who loves to have multiple costume changes and has run-ins with some pretty misogynistic and sadistic men. Both Tank Girl (Lori Petty) and Jet (Naomi Watts) are both subjected to sexual harassment, something that Harley Quinn addresses too.
It’s not hard to imagine that Petty’s Rebecca Buck (AKA “Tank Girl”) helped to shape Margot Robbie’s vision of Harley Quinn— both could be sisters from another mister. The characters of Harley and Tank Girl are the embodiment of the ‘Grrrl power’ movement which was beginning to emerge during the 1990s. Talalay’s 1995 film was an adaptation of the British comic book created by Jamie Hewlett (who went on to co-found cartoon band Gorillaz) and Alan Martin. The comic book was a celebration of punk culture and a big “F- You” to the Conservative government at the time.
Before Tank Girl, comic book adaptations on the big-screen tended to be an exclusively male affair, with the likes of Superman and Batman becoming Box Office hits compared to the dismal flop that was Supergirl. Even before Tank Girl had made it to the big-screen, the odds were not in its favour. The cinematic landscape of the 1990s was vastly different to our contemporary one, with the majority of action films featuring hyper-masculine action stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Female-led action films in the 1980s and 90s were few and far between. So, the fact that Tank Girl was even filmed is something of a miracle.
When Talalay burst onto the big-screen in 1991 with her directorial debut Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, she was thrown in at the deep end. In an interview with LA Mag, she spoke of the experience stating that “Everything I learned about film-making I learned from Nightmare on Elm Street because we did everything.” Despite previously working on four other Nightmare on Elm Street films, Talalay was still subjected to sexism, as she was given internal memos telling her not to be “too girly” or “too sensitive” during her time as director for the sixth instalment of the franchise.
She came across the Tank Girl comics when her step daughter gave her a copy as a Christmas present, and immediately contacted the comic book’s publisher Tom Astor and asked if she could obtain the rights. Weeks, then months went by and after hearing nothing for almost a year, Talalay was about to give up trying to secure the rights when he gave her permission to make the film. The next step was to pitch the film to a studio. Amblin Entertainment and Columbia Pictures, both turned it down. Talalay turned down an offer from Disney, as she was unsure that the studio would allow the levels of violence and the sexual content of the film. Finally, an offer was accepted from MGM.
Even before anything was shot, MGM had issues: they were unhappy with Catherine Hardwicke —who would go on to direct the first Twilight film— being chosen over more experienced production designers. Talalay had to personally meet with the producers to persuade them to allow Hardwicke to work on the project. Even after the film was shot, the studio still had problems, with one rather intimate scene between Tank Girl and her mutant kangaroo boyfriend Booga (Jeff Kober) having to be cut, and bizarrely a shot of Tank Girl putting a condom on a banana was also cut.
In order to find their Tank Girl, MGM held open auditions which—according to Talalay, many believed were just a publicity stunt. The poster advertising the audition states that they were looking for: “A stunning woman in her twenties, spirited, sexy, quick-witted, irreverent, and tough, possessing a rock and roll spirit”. Originally, actress Emily Lloyd was cast in the role, however according to Talalay, she fired Lloyd after she refused to cut her hair for the role (something that Lloyd disputes). In the end, Lori Petty was cast and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Petty brings a raw kinetic energy to the role, and it is her natural comedic talent and enthusiasm that holds the film together through its more surreal elements.
The studio had concerns over the budget for the film. MGM placed Talalay under immense pressure to keep to the shooting schedule and not go over budget. Filming was completed only two days over schedule, and more importantly it didn’t go over budget. Released in March 1995, the film opened to a mixed critical response which could possibly be best summed up by Roger Ebert who praised the film for its ambition and energy, but didn’t “care about it for much more than a moment at a time, and after a while its manic energy wore [him] down.”
Sadly, the film bombed at the Box Office, with its final gross in the United States was just over $4 million. Still despite all of this, the film has gained a cult following and has left its mark in pop culture. It is also an important footnote in the feminst film movement, because the film doesn’t shy away from addressing everyday sexism which is beautifully illustrated in the scenes which take place in the Liquid Silver club. In her 2006 book The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women On-Screen, Dominique Mainon writes that the film has anti-establishment themes and stands out as being “stridently feminist”.
Talalay best sums up the film, by the following statement “We were definitely ahead of our time and scared the studio to death.” However, despite all the years that separate Tank Girl and Harley Quinn, the sad fact remains that women filmmakers and their films still face sexism and prejudice. Still, you have to be a tank half full kinda girl, and the fact that Margot Robbie has secured the rights for a new adaptation of Tank Girl means there’s still plenty of fuel left in the tank!
You can stream Tank Girl on Amazon Prime with a free trial of the MGM channel