Why action film heroines must wear white tank tops
Why did ”Red Planet” earn a measly $8.7 million during its opening weekend, when this year’s other, far more terrible Mars movie, Brian De Palma’s ”Mission to Mars,” debuted to $22 million? Perhaps it’s because ”Red Planet”’s distributor, Warner Bros., was a bit too genteel in its advertising campaign: The trailer showed two minutes of rockets, explosions, astronauts in peril — pretty much what you’d expect from a space action movie. But ”Red Planet” isn’t really about that stuff. It’s about Carrie-Anne Moss (”The Matrix”) wearing a white tank top and telling men what to do. Say that up front, and that’d probably be enough to bring in the crowds.
The cinematic tradition of action heroines wearing white tank tops and telling men what to do is an important trend to consider. Sigourney Weaver, wearer of the ur- tank top in the original ”Alien,” was the first actress to demonstrate that men in action movies have a hard time listening to women until: a) at least half their number have been horribly killed, and b) the heroine discards most of her clothing and dons what I like to call the White Tank Top of Authority. In the post- ”Alien” era, whether the action’s in the Amazon (Jennifer Lopez in ”Anaconda”), the tornado-stricken plains (Helen Hunt in ”Twister”), the high seas (Famke Janssen in ”Deep Rising”), or fantasyland (Angelina Jolie in the upcoming ”Tomb Raider”), the can do heroine is apparently required to whip a wifebeater out of her valise before she can really triumph.
No, the White Tank Top of Authority isn’t practical for today’s workplace — or even for the world of movies. And it isn’t gender neutral, either: While action movie heroines are magically impervious to heat, cold, and flying debris, the men around her are portrayed as delicate, sensitive creatures who bundle up in combat fatigues, leather jackets, and space suits. (It’s a wonder they don’t wear mittens that Mommy made, clipped to their outfits, too.) But before the heroine’s tank top is donned, the men never listen to her wise warnings. She labors competently but Cassandra -like, under a burden of suspicion and doubt and…clothes. Then she’ll inevitably encounter some contrived situation (like getting all wet or scorched or covered with blood or alien slime) and she simply MUST change her clothes. And the only thing handy happens to be… the White Tank Top of Authority.
In ”Red Planet,” Moss’ moment comes after she’s saved her crew and put out a raging fire on the spacecraft. Maybe it’s hot and stuffy, and well, she IS all alone (except for the audience watching her), so she changes into a very fetching, uncannily clean, white, spaghetti strap, cotton Lycra blend camisole with flattering side support — NASA’s Tank Top of the Future, I guess. And even though Moss is fabulously smart, spending the rest of the movie basically explaining to her colleagues how to save their own lives, her wardrobe choices are a bit — how shall I put it? — distracting.
Probably most of the women in the audience are, like me, getting a charge out of seeing Carrie-Anne (or Sigourney, or whomever) relish her chance to play a commanding lead role. But I suspect that when the tank top first appears in a film, the female thought pattern runs something along the lines of ”What kind of bra is she wearing? Is she even wearing a bra? Because in the last scene she was wearing an evening gown/ military uniform/ business suit/ pajamas, and she was DEFINITELY not wearing the kind of bra you wear under a tank top.” I don’t pretend to know what men are thinking at that point (something like ”YESSSSSS!” probably sums it up, but feel free to enlighten me.). What I know is, someday there will be movies about women getting things done while wearing more than undergarments. Until then, thanks but no tanks.