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!
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 Galaxy. I 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.