She can accurately fire a pistol over her shoulder while riding a motorcycle between two semi-trucks full of spy robots.
She can fling a knife across a room and knock the earring off the Big Boss of the major corporation that has been secretly ordering the assassinations of international political figures.
Piece of cake.
She can wield a flamethrower the size of a Prius while biting out the word “fuck” and lighting a cigar, her boot firmly planted on the jugular of the man she just finished beating up for calling her a girl.
But what to wear?
If the path walked by the Acceptable Woman is, by design, a narrow one, then the path walked by the Badass Woman is a tightrope. Like the Acceptable Woman, she must not be too interested in the way that she looks (but she must still look good [but she must not try to look good]). Like the Acceptable Woman, she must be sexually enticing, but not sexually available.
The Badass Woman has an extra layer of complexity, and thus an extra layer of constraint. Her complexity, if left unchecked, becomes threatening—thus, because she is allowed to be tough, she must also sacrifice emotional availability. Because she is allowed to have skills, she must be a little less pretty.
This poses a serious problem. The Badass Woman must still be an Acceptable Woman, which means that she must be consumable—must still look beautiful, or at least approachable, in promo shots and commercials. This by itself isn’t difficult to accomplish: it’s not a challenge to find a pretty actress, and there is an entire interlocking kingdom of industries dedicated to the maintenance and production of attractive women.
But the audience has to know that the very pretty woman they’re rooting for isn’t pretty. They must be made to reject the evidence with which their lying eyes present them.
Enter the costumer.
Enter the black tank top.
The black tank top is a simple garment—unisex, unstructured, comfortable. It doesn’t show blood or sweat easily. It comes in a three-pack. It’s ostensibly incredibly practical.
Ostensibly-Practical, in the language of women’s costuming, can be a useful indicator of not-pretty. House dresses, curlers, oversized glasses, and paint-splattered aprons are all examples of this philosophy: women dressed not as tableaux, but as active people in the process of living their lives, are presented as unfinished products. These are women in a state of shabby uncaring; if they are not invisible to other characters, then they are actively disgusting.
This is ideal for the Badass Woman. A black tank top is as ostensibly-practical as one can get. It’s still flattering, but it’s not pretty. It’s simple.
It’s the perfect costume for a tightrope walker.
The un-prettiness of the black tank top reminds the audience of the choice the Badass Woman has been required to make; it’s a choice between tough and feminine. In a society that places strict boundaries around femininity, this character has chosen to root her identity in “Badass” rather than “Woman,” and as such, she is required to eschew society’s acceptable markers of feminine expression. Lipstick? Out. Hairstyles? Practical, or none at all. Emotional connections with other people, especially with other women? Never.
Don’t make her laugh.
She’s made a choice. She chose to put on the uniform of Rambo and Blade and John McClane, men who were forced by circumstance into the role of Action Hero. The Badass Woman has chosen that uniform, and the black tank top is a signpost that points the audience’s assumptions to that choice and its consequences. We are admonished: this character has chosen to turn away from Womanhood, so anything that happens to her is her own fault.
The female viewer is warned by the black tank top: If you chose wrong, all of those bad things could happen to you, too.
Why specifically a black tank top? Why not a black moisture-wicking cargo-pocketed unitard or a tactical turtleneck or even a black t-shirt? A tank top doesn’t offer protection to major arteries, doesn’t insulate against the elements, doesn’t even prevent mosquito bites. Why on earth would any action hero choose to wear a garment that leaves her so exposed?
This is the final deft turn performed by the costumer. Remember: the Badass Woman is required to be un-pretty, but she must still be consumable. She is required to be tough, but she must still be sexy. The black tank top, as practical as it is, renders the Badass Woman vulnerable. That vulnerability is the access point provided to an audience that consumes via their gaze: the Badass Woman is tough, and you can’t beat her, but as a viewer you can still have her. You can still see her weak spots—her throat, her underarms, the nape of her neck. She may be enigmatic, the black tank top says, but she will never be hidden from us. She may be tough, but she is not protected.
Thanks to the black tank top, the Badass Woman is still ours to possess. No matter how many bad guys she punches, no matter how many bullets litter the ground at her feet. No matter how many cigarette butts she spits out in order to swear more clearly.
Because of that black tank top, she’s still ours.
Sarah Gailey’s fiction has appeared in Mothership Zeta and Fireside Fiction; her nonfiction has been published by Mashable and Fantasy Literature Magazine. You can see pictures of her puppy and get updates on her work by clicking here. She tweets @gaileyfrey. Watch for her debut novella, River of Teeth, from Tor.com in May of 2017.