Tropes vs. Women: #2 Women in Refrigerators

April 7, 2011

This is the second of a six part series created for Bitch Magazine.  Tropes vs. Women explores the reoccurring stories, themes and representations of women in Hollywood films and TV shows.

Women in Refrigerators is a trope identified by comic book fan (and now comic book writer) Gail Simone because she was sick of seeing “superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator.”

Special thanks to Jennifer K. Stuller author of Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology and Rachel O from Feminist Fatale for their respective comic and gaming expertise.

Related Links and Articles:

** This video is available to be translated into other languages by volunteers like you. Please visit the subtitling page on Universal Subtitles and click TRANSLATE to get started.

 

Transcript

A trope is a common pattern in a story or a recognizable attribute in a character that conveys

information to the audience. A trope becomes a cliche when it’s overused. Sadly, some of these tropes often perpetuate offensive stereotypes.

Who remembers the 1994 issue of Green Lantern #54 where Kyle Rayner finds that his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt has been brutally murdered and stuffed into a fridge? Okay, well I’ve never actually read Green Lantern but thankfully Gail Simone did, because she began to see a trend.  Simone was sick of seeing “superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator.” In 1999 she created a startlingly long list of over 90 comics that featured female superheroes who suffered a loss of super powers, brutal violation or an untimely, gruesome death most often as a plot point for the male hero to seek revenge or further his heroic journey. She called this reoccurring pattern Women in Refrigerators, for obvious reasons.  Since it was originally created the list has continued to grow, I’m just gonna show you just a few examples.

Spiderman’s first love, Gwen Stacy was thrown off a building by the Green Goblin back in 1973. Despite Spidie swooping in and heroically catching her before she hits the ground, she still died either from whiplash or from shock. Unsurprisingly, this seemingly random death of a significant character outraged fans of the series.  The writers chose to kill off an important female character for the sole purpose of giving Peter Parker a more complex and interesting story arc.

In the Batman Universe, Stephanie Brown who played my characters The Spoiler, a female Robin and also Batgirl was gruesomely tortured to death with a power drill by Batman’s enemy, The Black Mask.  The highly sexualized images of Brown being tortured spanned across multiple issues, some fans were so outraged by this fridging of Batgirl, that they refer to this as torture porn.

Another strong female superhero who met an untimely and trivial death was Big Barda.  She was the leader of the Female Furies, and also  a member of Birds of Prey and the Justice League.  She was married to Mister Miracle, and interestingly was actually physically stronger then her superhero husband.  Although Big Barda had all these superpowers she was killed in her kitchen with no signs of a real battle.  And of course her death conveniently created a narrative for her husband.  He struggled with whether or not to use the Anti-Life Equation which would allow him to control the will power of all sentient beings.  Big Barda is just one of many female character who’s random and meaningless death was constructed to order to create a more intricate storyline for a male hero.

Comic books can be a little bit difficult to follow since characters are killed and brought back to life, or there’s multiple canons in different books for the same characters, so this doesn’t hold true across the board but it certainly happens a lot.  Women in Refrigerators is one way of making sense of this incredibly complex world by pulling out overarching patterns of the way women are treated in comic books.

When Simone released her list in 1999 there was an instant backlash from some comic book fans who thought it was unfair that they were singling out female characters. This criticism happens whenever we point out tropes specifically about women.  In this case, comic book fans criticized the Women in Refrigerators by saying that male heroes get killed and tortured too so what’s the big deal?  The people who run the Women in Refrigerators website responded to this by creating another trope (how much do I love fans!) called Dead Men Defrosting.   Comic fan John Bartol explains, “In cases where males heroes have been altered or appear to die they usually come back even better than before, either power-wise or in terms of character development/relevancy to the reader.”

Many popular superheroes fit neatly into the Dead Men Defrosting trope such as Superman, Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, Barry Allen as the Flash, Spiderman, Captain America, The Hulk, Nick Fury etc. etc.

A classic example of this difference applies even when characters are depowered, when Barbara Gordon as Batgirl was shot in the spine by the Joker as a way to drive her father, Commissioner Gordon, insane.  She was permanently paralyzed and had to create an entirely new identity for herself.  But when Batman’s back was broken over supervillian Bane’s knee, he fully recovered.

Simone responded to this criticism by saying, “First, there’s [always been] a larger selection of male characters, so a handful killed made barely a ripple. Second, they didn’t seem to be killed in the same way—they tended to die heroically, to go down fighting. Whereas in many cases, the superLADIES were simply found on the kitchen table already carved up.” The writers of these comics treat similar narrative situations very differently based on a character’s gender, and it seems to be fairing much worse for the women.

While the Women in Refrigerators trope originated in the comic book genre it can be applied across other pop culture mediums such as video games, TV shows and movies.  For example Libby and Shannon on Lost were murdered specifically to push the story arc of two male characters. Or how about all of these women from Heroes who were depicted as losing or being unable to control their powers.

 

In video games such as God of War 1, Splinter Cell, and Fable 2 the narrative revolves around a man seeking revenge the death of female family members.

And there are plenty, plenty more examples.

Writers are using the Women in Refrigeratorstrope to literally trade the female characters life for the benefit of a male hero’s story arc.  They are making clear that women, even powerful female superheroes are basically disposable.

It’s important to remember that these comics don’t exist in a vacuum, that they are created by writers and artists who live in the same sexist social systems we all do and that’s reflected in the characters and the stories.  It is saddening to see how flippantly and trivially violence against women is treated in comic book pages (even with the most powerful of female superheroes) especially when violence against women in the real world are at epidemic levels.  We have to remember that the Women in Refrigerators list was created for us to identify, understand and resist the variety of ways that women and our fictional representations are disempowered and victimized.

I’m not saying women can’t ever die in comic books but it matters how and why they die.

So comic book writers, tv and movie writers, and video game producers….  stop relying on stereotypical tropes, stop using violence against women as a way to further the storyline of your male hero, and start writing us as full and complete human beings…. okay? Okay!

16 Responses to “Tropes vs. Women: #2 Women in Refrigerators”

  1. Thank you for unpacking this one – and for the link roundup! I’m sending it through links and RTs. Good work!

  2. Loving this series and and your videos in general!!! More of this please!

    Just one point of mild disagreement: In Fable II you can choose to be a female or male character, so the death of the sister character is not necessarily for the development of a male character, but can be for a female character. In Fable III the main character’s love interest can die at the beginning of the game (depending on whether you choose them or a group of townspeople to save), but the sex of the love interest varies depending on the sex of the main character (heteronormative!).

    So I guess I’m not sure whether it’s entirely accurate to group Fable II with the others.

    Looking forward to the next in the series!

  3. “In video games such as God of War 1, Splinter Cell, and Fable 2 the narrative revolves around a man seeking revenge the death of female family members.”

    But yet in your criticism of the girl from True Grit, you found it anti-feminist if the female in a reversed role goes after revenge for a family member?

    (Sigh) Sorry, I don’t mean to be picky or contrary. I started reading these blogs after an argument with a friend over Suckerpunch. I found I didn’t have enough background to defend my position that I found it a positive female image. The problem is, across a dozen of these blogs I have come to for research I have found thousands of examples shown to me about what is NOT female positive, but almost no examples or descriptions of what would be a positive image.

    Coridyn Reply:

    In the discussion of True Grit Anita didn’t say that she thought the character was anti-feminist, only that she wouldn’t go so far as to label Mattie a feminist character as others had done (and the reasons are not because she’s out for revenge).

    See specifically paragraph 7+ of the transcript: http://www.feministfrequency.com/2011/03/true-grit-mattie-ross-and-feminism/

  4. [...] Not quite a non sequitur: I invite you to observe this particular trope in your lives, and in the media you consume. How many so-presented “strong female characters” have you watched get punished (killed, raped, violated, shamed, etc.) for not conforming to the stereotypical female roles or for exacting their agency and power? How many times has it been for the perpetuation of a male character’s development? [...]

  5. After a few false starts, subtitled in Polish and used the transcript for English. Would do Spanish, but I’m pretty sure someone else here knows it better.

    Anita Reply:

    Thank you SO MUCH!

  6. [...] Tropes vs. Women: #2 Women in Refrigerators || Feminist Frequency [...]

  7. While I don’t disagree with the intention of the Women in Refrigerators movement, I do call in to question the overuse of the term. Big Barda wasn’t fridged and a quick wikipedia search will back that up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_the_New_Gods. The Death of the New Gods story arc saw almost every New God being killed, and in almost every case without a significant fight. This wasn’t done to forward Scott’s storyline, but because DC was bringing that chapter of the New Gods story to a close. This was a unilateral killing of an entire group of gods, not the writers targeting Big Barda.

  8. [...] out the Women in Refrigerators trope and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope videos. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); [...]

  9. Slight correction: Stephanie Brown didn’t become Batgirl until after she was brought back. She was still only Robin/Spoiler when she got “killed”.

    Your point still stands, of course. Keep up the good work.

  10. A related trope: Miscarriage/death of a child as a plot device. No doubt losing a child is a very real and very traumatic experience. But in works of fiction, it is often used in a shallow way to further the story. If a female character has a child or becomes pregnant, the odds are far too good that she’ll lose her child, resulting in emotional breakdown and crisis. (And of course, when face with loss, men seek revenge; women cease to function entirely.)

  11. [...] The Secrets in Thier Eyes (Juan Jose Campanella, 2009) won last year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and is now out on DVD. The film is about a legal counsellor who is reflecting on a life changing case and its lasting effects on his life. The film is very touching and delicate while it also provides an interesting connection worth thinking about: the Women in Refrigerator’s trope as unpacked by the incerdible Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency. [...]

  12. [...] on the re-occurance for women in comics to meet a rather grisly end. However, as Feminist Frequency noted, this trope also applies to the treatment of women on both the silver and the small screen. [...]

  13. [...] on some pretty offensive tropes, such as the Smurfette principle, the man eating seductress, or Women in refrigerators. I plan on discussing these and the many, many other offensive tropes in the future. [...]

  14. Id love to hear about your opinions on motivations. ideally, from the feminist view against using females as a primary motivation of male characters.

    My favourite video game ‘Shadow of the colossus’ would fit into your videos theme, but I don’t consider the idea that somebody the male character loved and is willing to do whatever is required to save her is a bad motivation for him. The game doesn’t offer her any character development, but you know he cares for her.

    This is only a small point of your video, but I don’t think the motivation is the problem. It’s the repeatable trope which bothers you.