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Comic Book Dictionary – Women in Refrigerators

As I mentioned when I started this particular series, the point of these entries is to explain to folks what I mean by certain terms that I use often. If people like my particular terms and definitions, then they are certainly welcome to use them as well, of course. I bring this up because today’s entry is about a term that I have seen many people use in many different manners, which makes it difficult for me to use the term, as folks do not know how I am using it. Here I will give my definition, so you at least will know what I mean when I use the term in the future. The term, of course (you can see the title, natch), is “Women in Refrigerators.”

The term was first coined by Gail Simone a number of years ago. The reference is to an issue of Green Lantern, where Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend is murdered and then stuffed inside a refrigerator by a bad guy who wanted to send Kyle a message. Simone proceeded to put together a list of a number of female characters that had been killed, maimed or depowered. Soon, people made suggestions for additions, et. al.

Simone put the list on its own website (it went through a few versions – here is the current “official” one).

Simone’s point in making her list, as she says herself, has always been a simple one – “if you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won’t read comics. That’s it!” Which is completely fair enough. When I use the term, however, I am not being as broad as Gail Simone apparently originally intended the term to be used (which was simply to show how a disproportionate amount of female characters have been either killed, maimed or depowered).

Instead, I look to the plot device that the term is named after (Major Force killing Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend and shoving her into a refrigerator to send a message to Rayner), and note that rather than being typical poor writing (which most plot devices are), “Women in Refrigerators” is a very specific form of poor writing that continues to pop up over and over in comic books to this day.

How I decide that the “Women in Refrigerators” plot device has occurred is determined by the use of a bipartite test, half objective and half subjective.

1. (Objective) A female character is killed/maimed/tortured/raped etc. for the main purpose of eliciting a desired reaction from a male character.

2. (Subjective) I do not believe that the same death/maiming/torture/rape would have occurred had the female character been a male.

The first part is, I believe, bad writing, in that it is extremely hokey to kill off a character (especially an established character) for the express purpose of just making another character react. I think you should have a purpose for a character’s death other than, “It would really make Character X mad!” (especially an established character). It seems rather cheap. However, it is only when the second part is met that I believe it stands out as atypically bad, as it is extra-cheesy when a character is killed/maimed/etc. specifically because it is felt that the action done to a WOMAN would be more shocking than if it happened to a man. You know, “Yeah, he’d be sad if a guy was killed in front of him, but if a WOMAN was killed in front of him, then you KNOW he would REALLY be upset!”

If I don’t think both parts are met, then I think it is just typical bad writing, not having to do with gender issues, specifically.

So if you see me refer to something in a comic book being a “Women in Refrigerators” moment, you now will know exactly what I am referring to.

11 Comments

I like your definition. It’s one thing to have a character killed/maimed/tortured/raped for the purpose of getting a rise out of the main character, it’s a whole different thing when the reason that the main character gets so pissed off is BECAUSE it’s a woman. I didn’t used to get bothered by this but more and more it gets under my skin as it perpetuates a chauvinist undertone in comic media that is a completely legitimate criticism of it. That it’s decided to show how evil the new villain is (or how evil the old villain REALLY is) the villain will kill off another character is annoying. That to show that they’re really bastards the character killed is a woman, is too much.

As someone who gets annoyed when people scream “Misogyny!” everytime anything vaguely negative happens to a female character, I’m all for clarifying the rules of “women in refrigerators”.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Simone herself accused of the same thing after an issue she wrote where Black Canary took a severe beating?

“1. (Objective) A female character is killed/maimed/tortured/raped etc. for the main purpose of eliciting a desired reaction from a male character.”

Lethal Weapon II is a classic example of this lame dodge. A woman’s gruesome drowning is merely a trigger to set off Mel Gibson’s looney-tune character into a jew-hating drunk — er, I mean, a violent killing machine. This way, any deaths Riggs causes can be not only justified but cheered on. There are swaths of other examples in other films.

There’s another aspect to this habit, that gets a little misunderstood sometimes, I think. When one writer does a bit a of lame writing with the characters and situations she or he has inherited, that doesn’t make the writer a misogynist.

But when the same trope keeps happening again and again, in a genre when there are relatively few female lead characters to begin with and a heck of a lot of gratuitous cheesecake, the overall effect is to make the genre as a whole seem like it doesn’t really like women, and views them as disposable for the sake of plot.

Another irritating tick is when you kill the wife or girlfriend, and then afterwards, the hero finds out she had been _secretly (or not) pregnant_. So you kill the chick as a cheap plot device, but since women are so disposable her death on its own just isn’t enough to be dramatically interesting.

See Indentity Crisis, 24 and Se7en. (I think Se7en may get a by on this one for the way it links the trope so strongly to the main plot and theme of the rest of the movie).

Black Canary was put through the wringer, and it was an uncomfortable read, but she was the lead character in the scenario, not an means to the end of some reaction from the male protagonist.

The Mad Monkey

April 9, 2007 at 11:20 pm

Just a thought…
I respect Gail Simone very much. Her site lashed out at the hack writers in the business and did so proudly and unabashedly. But, unfortunately, that kind of hack writing sells comics (see Identity Crisis), so her protests have done little to change the air.
However, I can’t help but wonder if her current storyline in The All New Atom is something of a shot back at this issue.
An old flame of Ryan’s takes a shovel and bashes the head in of her abusive husband.
Is this Gail’s way of saying that women can be just as brutal as men? Or is she driving the nail deeper by asking, “Okay, men of the comic world, how do you like that?” Or maybe something else…I dunno…
Regardless, I can’t wait to see a storyline from her that involves Ryan (or some other male supporting cast memeber) forcibly becoming “the catcher”. Surely that’ll have people forgetting that Captain Something-or-other was killed.

I think the term is extremely unfair to GL writer Ron Marz. The woman in question, Kyle’s girlfriend, was an importat character in the series and her death marks a turning point in tone.

Would you say the death of Hamlet’s father was poor writing?

Hamlet’s father is dead before the story begins, right? So I don’t get the comparison.

Alex DeWitt appeared (not counting her cameo in #48) in four issues. She was quite a cool character. A hero with a normal girlfriend – what a novel concept! I was quite impressed.

And then she was shoved into a refrigerator to make Kyle learn about the dangers of being a superhero.

The term may be unfair to Ron Marz, in that it specifically picks an incident that he happened to write, and it is always rough to be the one example that was picked up as THE example. But the death of Alex DeWitt is a perfect example of the atypically poor treatment female characters get in comic books.

So in the context you are talking about, no, I do not think the term is unfair to Ron Marz.

I DO feel bad for the guy to get grief over one bad scene he wrote almost 15 years ago. That is unfortunate, I will certainly admit.

While I agree that character deaths sometimes can be written off just for shock value, especially women in recent times, I think that from the inception of the Kyle Rayner as Green Lantern idea Alex was destined to die. Her purpose was to bring kyle in a new direction, akin to uncle ben dying. Her death wasnt the story what came after was. I didnt find her death in poor taste at all.

But the death of Alex DeWitt is a perfect example of the atypically poor treatment female characters get in comic books.

I admit I haven’t read the story, but I’d find it hard to write off any individual story like this as bad writing. If this sort of thing happened to men as much as women then I doubt anyone would bat an eyelid, so the net effect is that certain stories get written of as bad writing based not on the contents of the story itself, but on the fact that there are other similar stories.

That seems unfair to me.

That said the story was written by Ron Marz so if my previous experience of his work is anything to go by it probably was poor writing

Ian Sholes, an NPR commentator in the 1980s, coined the phrase “That dog’s gotta die!” to identify similar cliches in the movies. His concept was a little broader since it applied not just to girlfriends, but to friends, partners, pets, and all loved ones, anybody or anything whose death would trigger a violent act of vengeance by the movie’s protagonist. He identified this trend at about the same time that Lethal Weapon 2 came out, although I don’t remember whether he mentioned that movie specifically.

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