Adult Fiction · Comics

Feminist Friday Review: The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valenti

Refrigerator Monologues coverI’d been meaning to read The Refrigerator Monologues for a while, and I finally did. It’s like the Vagina Monologues, but for comic book women who’ve been fridged — killed or maimed to further the main superhero’s story. In this book, versions of Gwen Stacy, Jean Grey, Harley Quinn, Queen Mera, Karen Page, and Alex DeWitt sit in the underworld and tell each other stories about what happened to them, how they died. It’s intense but for a comic fan, especially a female one, it’s kind of mindblowing. They’re not short stories exactly, but there’s no overarching plot, although some settings and characters pop up more than once. Anyway, I just wanted to warn you because people call these short stories or the whole thing a novel and that gives the wrong impression. It’s experimental.

That said. The writing is excellent. It always feels raw, but it must have taken a lot of work and polishing to make each voice sound distinctly different. It’s gripping, sometimes too intense for me, I took week-long breaks. I also stopped and started a few times because I wasn’t sure what to make of it, if it was just brutal writing or if it really meant something. I mean, you can make these parallels and talk about how female characters are portrayed, but is it really meaningful to say violence is being done to a character by never resurrecting her, or by constantly reinterpreting her and not allowing her any consistency? I didn’t think so at first. It’s not like there’s a real person there who remembers that she gets a new iteration every year or two. But there’s a sense in which that character could have been something and she’s not, while the male characters are, and that’s not fair. The gimmick of having the characters remember is what brings it all into clarity. And she hits a delicate balance where her characters are very clearly related to specific comic book women, but the fact that it’s not about those characters can make it about those characters in an even more fundamental way — the way Watchmen is a more pointed commentary now than it could’ve been if it used existing characters.

Dark Phoenix
“Hear me, X-Men! No longer am I the woman you knew! I am fire! And life incarnate! Now and forever — I am Phoenix!” -The Dark Phoenix Saga

There are other observations, too. The kind of thing you read in an essay and think “Of course, this represents that, this can be read in this way with the character standing for an idea.” The writing is almost that obvious, and for any other writer those things would probably break the book, turn it into some kind of satire or bad commentary or extended example, but Valente’s writing is vicious in the best possible way. She can just say things and it doesn’t take away the impact, it makes it worse.

For instance: The (male) heroes are the ones who embrace the status quo, the privilege. The girlfriends and wives are the women who are screaming, and the men can’t understand why because they’ve got it so good, why should anything change? They only see danger, unpredictability. The Phoenix/Charybdis and Mera/Bayou segments both show it so well, how when a woman has the same power as a man, or more, it’s dangerous and has to be controlled, whereas with a man it’s celebrated. They don’t know what to do with a woman who doesn’t want what they want, doesn’t just want to support them. That’s the thing about this book… It’s not about “strong women” or “women who are just as good as men.” It’s about women who’ve been wronged, who didn’t get the chance to be at all, and their pain and rage bleeds through on every page.

These are all things I knew, arguments I’ve made myself, but I still won’t be able to read these comics the same way again. It’s a hard book sometimes, but I think if you’re invested in the genre, you probably want to read it.

CN: Murder, torture, violence, child murder, sexual violence, implied domestic abuse.

On Amazon | On Goodreads

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5 thoughts on “Feminist Friday Review: The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valenti

  1. I read parts of this last year. I say parts because I didn’t get through the whole book, but what I did read will forever affect the way I view female characters in comics. I feel like in a lot of these critics though, the elephant in the room that everyone refuses to mention is, once again, the subject of race. It is largely White female characters who get this treatment (or get noticed as being treated that way), and it makes me wonder what exactly is being expressed towards White women in general , when so much of the comic book industry is run by White men.

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    1. Yeah. I noticed the absence of queer characters too, when they also get fridged all the time, but the book doesn’t address race as a thing, although the expies for Alex Dewitt and Green Lantern are black. For my own part, it seems to me that (as usual) white male is the default, white women are allowed as long as they don’t get too powerful or too independent, and everyone else is “Oh yeah, there are other people I guess, um, I’m uncomfortable.” When the whole genre is tied up in power metaphors, yikes.

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    2. Also re: what is being expressed toward white women, I don’t have an answer for that because yikes, but it reminds me of the bizarre comic-fan tendency to say that violence against women and children then makes the male character more “emotional” and “relatable” because he’s sad about it. I think there’s often a similar dynamic in Bury Your Gays events where they’re genuinely trying to develop sympathy for the queer character but they’re doing it by inflicting tragedy rather than by allowing them to be a character. I just. No.

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      1. I’m going to have to read this. All the points the commenters raised are important, but the one that really stood out for me was the fear of women with power. I’m not sure if there’s a similar dynamic with non-white characters, but they certainly aren’t allowed to be angry.

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        1. Yep. Or, very occasionally, black characters are ONLY allowed to be angry (but not powerful at the same time of course.) I’m thinking of the utter impossibility of having Kamala Khan (a Muslim female character) be motivated by anger, or if she had the kind of overtly destructive power so many white male characters have…

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