Comics · TV & Movies

Feminist Friday: Women in Refrigerators

The term “women in refrigerators” comes from the world of comic books — a world that’s still opaque to many people. Fear not, though. This post is about how that term actually applies to everything else!

Women in Refrigerators - Green Lantern
From TVTropes

In 1999, writer Gail Simone first used the term “women in refrigerators” to discuss women in comics. The name comes from Green Lantern #54, which famously contains the murder of Alex DeWitt, Kyle Rayner/Green Lantern’s girlfriend. The villain Major Force stuffs her in Kyle’s refrigerator with a note so he’ll find her. This is gruesome enough, but the reason it names a whole trope is that all this happens purely to fuel Kyle’s story and Kyle’s pain. Other major examples include Gwen Stacy’s (famous and constantly-reenacted) death to motivate/de-motivate Spiderman, and Sue Dibny’s rape and murder to fuel the Identity Crisis event. This story gimmick is often turned into a verb, as in “Sara Lance got fridged on Arrow,” and it can refer to injuries as well as death.

Many friends and relatives are injured in comics. It’s part of the secret-identity narrative that those people are endangered. Plus, superheroes are often injured or killed to lend a sense of realism to a comic. But male characters are generally injured in the service of their own stories, plus they often “bounce back” quickly. Aquaman lost a hand, it was a big deal and a story element for fifteen years, and he eventually got it back. If a major character dies, you can take it as a given that he’s coming back eventually. With that main character’s wife or girlfriend, there’s no such guarantee.

So that’s comics. If you don’t read comics, what does that have to do with you? A lot, because even though the term originated with comics, the thing happens everywhere! Action movies are particularly egregious, because there’s gotta be a reason for the action hero to go on his rampage… Think about every Bond girl, Liam Neeson’s strangely kidnap-prone daughter and wife in the Taken movies, the various movies in which Harrison Ford declares he Wants His Family Back. Historical movies like Gladiator and Braveheart. Sometimes it’s mothers, like in Super 8 or Guardians of the Galaxy. 

I’m not gonna lie, I love Air Force One. I love Guardians of the GalaxyI love Batman, for goodness sake, and it happens to him all the time! No single fridging is The Problem, and I don’t believe these writers are all out to normalize violence against women. The problem with this trope is that the female character is, by definition, subservient to the male character’s story. It’s not just a side effect, it IS the trope, like it is with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope we discussed on Victim to Charm two weeks ago. These tropes happen because (straight) male characters are considered the “default,” and people build stories around them. In this case, women end up in disproportionate levels of peril.

The solution? We need more female characters with their own stories. If a woman is injured in her own comic, and it’s part of a story, okay. When the Joker paralyzed Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, that eventually became an amazing opportunity for disability representation and led to a rich history for that character. However, her injury happened in the first place purely in service of the Commissioner’s story. Going back to my first examples, it’s the same as the difference between Aquaman’s injury and Alex’s death. Aquaman’s injury happened to Aquaman, but Alex’s death happened to Kyle. Women shouldn’t be afterthoughts and additions and perpetual supporting characters. They aren’t possessions, or extensions of their boyfriends. Women are people in their own right, and they deserve to have their stories told.

Thanks to the fantastic Modern Mythologies for inspiring this post back in December. Feminist Friday continues next week at Part Time Monster!
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44 thoughts on “Feminist Friday: Women in Refrigerators

  1. I actually dropped Rick Remender’s Captain America run because it used this trope. Before issue 10, it was a fun series where Steve Rogers is trapped in an alternate dimension ruled by Zemo, taking care of a boy he found in a test tube who would be indoctrinated to be a Nazi-style extremist. Then issue 10 comes around and Sharon Carter shows up from Earth, only to be killed. For me, it completely soured what’s otherwise an intense story and a great exploration of Captain America’s morals, determination, inspirational ways and resourcefulness.

    It’s a trope that’s normally detestable to me. That’s not to say writer’s can’t kill off characters important to the lead, but they should have more meaning than just motivating the hero, and the same goes for if it’s a man killed to motivate a female character. Maybe the victim actively puts themself into a dangerous position against the protagonist’s advice as part of a conflict between them, so that their demise is partly the protagonist’s fault. Maybe the victim doesn’t go down without a fight, and even helps in some ways by leaving an important message and/or takes down some of the villain’s henchmen with her.

    Personally I wouldn’t count Guardians of the Galaxy as part of this trope though. This isn’t a woman being killed by a villain, it’s a mother who dies of cancer when Peter is still very young. It’s not a motivator so much as it’s a dramatic moment that clearly affects his personality and attitude down the road. It also makes his mix tape all the more important to him, indirectly making his mother the sixth member of the Guardians of the Galaxy team.

    And finally, that video is hilarious. Of the movies shown I’ve only seen Air Force One and The Fugitive, but I should have noticed Harrison Ford’s connection to this trope before. Those two are still good movies, and in the Fugitive’s case it’s forgivable since it’s actually the core plot and the villains intended to kill him instead.

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    1. Good for you! It sucks when a story plunges downhill like that.

      That’s a good explanation of the difference between a plot event and this trope. I think if the female character (or whoever is about to die) has some agency and a purpose in the story other than dying in service of the hero’s plot, then it’s not really a problem. The rest of the story also makes a difference — does it have complex female characters and a thoughtful plot that incorporates the death or endangerment in a meaningful way? Like I said, I love Air Force One, but there’s no denying the only reason there even IS a family is for Harrison Ford to worry about them! Okay as one movie, bothersome as a trope.

      I think Guardians of the Galaxy is a gray area… I think the only reason his mother died was to set up Peter’s plot, but at the same time, the presence of the mixtape and her backstory with the aliens make her more of a substantial character and a presence throughout the movie.

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  2. It’s become too easy to develop a character around this is the problem. It’s a formula, though like you said it may be unintentional but so common the writer doesn’t realize he’s using a formula. I doubt there’s much thought of “let’s kill the women!” but it is rather tired, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I liked your comment about how fridging women has become a lazy trope to add “depth” or tragic backstory to the male protagonist’s character development or to further his plot.

    Right now I’m reading a lot of criticism about Fifty Shades of Grey, and even in that narrative, we have an author who chose to make the male love interest’s emotional problems, interest in kink (to some extent), and emotional abuse of the protagonist the result of his mother and her death. You’re certainly right that it’s not just comics!

    SPOILER COMING
    The long-dead-mother trope does admitted have some different implications than fridging, so a better example might be the love interest in Young Sherlock Holmes (Spielberg), whose SPOILER death at the end of the film gives young Sherlock a sad so that he can go on to never marry because girls are gross and get in the way of science. Or something.

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    1. Yep. Hadn’t even thought to apply it to 50 Shades. And ha! Kind of the same issue, really. There has to be a “reason” for Christian Grey’s kink and a “reason” for Holmes’ asexuality, so they come up with this tragic past. Not quite the same as fridging, but definitely related.

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      1. Holmes’s “asexuality” (as seen through contemporary eyes) is more his being a model Victorian man in canon– women are silly! Leave that to Watson! But that also just got me thinking:

        If you don’t marry the hero, you die.
        There’s no reason why Spielberg or any writer of prequels couldn’t decide to include an afterward like “Elizabeth and Sherlock smooched and stuff but she eventually went on to be the school’s first woman graduate and became a great chemist and inventor.” Why are women’s only choices to be the girlfriend and then wife or die–and even if you become the girlfriend, you still die?

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        1. Quite so. Holmes is in that odd definitional area where he’s “just busy with nonsexual things” most of the time, although I don’t see why that can’t count as “asexual” too. It’s something of a different issue in canon vs. modern interpretations. But there’s probably a whole series of posts either of us could do on that one, please steal it if you have the time! 😀

          Oh yeah, that’s a great point. Marriage or death. Maybe there’s an aversion to showing a breakup that’s not a disaster? I’m going out on a limb here because I have few examples off the top of my head, but that seems less common in female-led stories. There are more amicable breakups, or at least not-tragic ones.

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        2. The new Holmes’ movies are guilty of the “If you don’t marry the hero, you die” plot too. Irene Adler is fairly important in the first movie – not quite Watson-level but a strong side character. It seemed like she would stick around, as a villain or at least a foil to Holmes.

          When she died in Game of Shadows it seemed bizarre and abrupt to me. The last thing we see of her – or last thing of hers we see – is Holmes smelling her handkerchief before letting it go, which gives him sufficient motivation to go on. But Mary survives the movie (somehow) after marrying Watson at the beginning.

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          1. Especially since Irene Adler canonically escapes the investigation in London and successfully runs off to America with her fiance! Arthur Conan Doyle already wrote her out in a way that gives her agency, and she beats Holmes, too. Argh! he could still miss his adversary while she’s doing all sorts of fun things abroad. I guess having Moriarty kill her was supposed to show how eeeevil he is, but that could have been accomplished without any women dying. Seriously.

            I loved Mary, though, and wish she could have done more in the film.

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          2. Yep! I read somewhere that the abruptness was from the actress not wanting to do the second movie (scheduling conflict?) — and I kind of hate Irene Adler in most of her forms, so I was thrilled — but they could’ve just left her out without killing her, it didn’t even need explaining. Or they could’ve written her out another way, since she was willing to do that short scene. Did love Mary though!

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  4. I am not sure this applies perfectly, and it is pre-1999. But this is what I always think of when Women in Refrigerators is discussed. There are TWO of them here. And I loved this film back in the day. It is the best of the Lethal Weapon movies.

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      1. Yeah, it stuck in my mind because I thought she did a really good job of articulating her ideas on the issue, and I think it’s a pretty sound explanation. That said, I think the season 2 finale had some fridging in it.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve been on the TV tropes before, but somehow had missed fridging, yes. I just stumbled across her blog post about the character’s death on WordPress, and I was really impressed she’d written about it. There was a lot of discussion over whether her character was being fridged or not.

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  5. I think these type of stories is an endemic problem with society in general. Part of the issue IMHO is that we (all of us) do not expect or demand behavior dictated by good character. Is it be cause we have lost the understanding of what good character is? Maybe. Will all of us expecting each other to have good character solve the problem? I don’t know. I would hope that stories like this point out concerns and issues that we (society) tend to gloss over. Sometimes we say, oh that’s just a story or a comic or fiction. Yes it is, but what we put into our mind, the kind of people we hang out with, the music we listen all affect us. It can be a good effect or bad. Thank you opening the door and letting the fridge light shine. If you want to read more about my thoughts on character, feel free to drop by http://downhomethoughts.com and take a thought or leave one. Have an #AWEsome day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Opening the door and letting the fridge light shine” is very good, Shawn, and thank you for joining in!

      Here is the thing about stories, whether we are talking about comics, or movies, or paintings, or novels. I hammer on this a bit.

      1. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world.
      2. In our formative years, and in moments when we are vulnerable to suggestion, we use other peoples’ stories to figure out how we should act. Ultimately, this is where character comes from. From the stories people tell us when we are young, and from the one we choose to believe as true.

      So. representation in mass media is important. Because it affects behavior. I am glad Hannah wrote this post and glad people showed up to discuss it.

      This is why Plato banishes the poets from his ideal republic. He felt the poets were representing the gods in a ways that encouraged poor character and bad behavior. The connection he makes between the stories and the education is one of the main reasons college students are still forced to read The Republic these thousands of years later. (Do correct me if I am butchering the Plato, people. It has been a long time 🙂 )

      Liked by 3 people

  6. I’m happy to have helped inspire more discussion on “women in refrigerators”!

    The more we have a reasoned discussion about this issue, the more aware we become. Hopefully, that will translate to less and less “fridged” female characters and a more feminist world view in general.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Definitely! I think if more writers and editors stopped to think about why they were killing off a woman character (or a queer or trans character), we could change the narrative and destroy the trope.

        Liked by 2 people

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