The Fridging Dead: The Walking Dead’s Patriarchal Problem
In the 1990’s, comic book writer Gail Simone noticed a disturbing trend about how often female characters were killed senselessly in popular comic books. Simone coined the term “women in refrigerators” in 1999 to describe these characters who were “either depowered [sic], raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator” (Simone). Feminist members of the comic book “fandom” have taken up this term as a battle cry, and over time, it has been sharpened. “Fridging” has now especially come to signify the pointless deaths of female characters in order to fuel a (usually male) character’s pain in fictional worlds that extend well beyond comic books.
The Walking Dead began as a comic book series created by Robert Kirkman in 2003 and has been seen in a remarkably feminist light for its creation of notably strong characters, such as the battle-scarred leader Andrea and the katana-wielding Michonne. But the TV series companion to The Walking Dead, which began in 2010, has since proved to be an indelible failure. It has failed some of the female characters its source text provided such rich stories for. It has failed female characters created or modified specifically for the show. And beyond that, it has failed its large female audience.
The Voiceless Victims
In the pilot episode “Days Gone Bye,” the viewers are introduced to sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who awakens from a coma to find the world has been overtaken by the undead. When he escapes from the hospital, he meets Morgan Jones (Lennie James), a man who has survived the fallout with his young son, Duane. Conveniently, however, his wife, Jenny, did not survive. And even more conveniently, she was bitten by a “walker” (the show’s affectionate term for the undead) and left to turn into one. She wanders the streets outside his home and he has every opportunity to pull the trigger and kill her once and for all, but he simply cannot. He breaks down sobbing and the viewers are expected to share his anguish. Later in the series, Morgan returns, but without Duane, who was conveniently killed off-screen by his zombified mother. Then and only then does Morgan take the shot that kills Jenny, but it’s not out of any sense of remorse or love or loyalty to her, but because she killed their own child. Morgan has devolved into madness, all because of the first “fridged” female whose story the audience never truly gets to experience.
Similarly, in the next to last episode of the first season, “Wildfire,” the character of Dr. Edwin Jenner (Noah Emmerich) is introduced. He is the sole surviving doctor at the CDC who is first introduced through a series of video diaries. An accident occurs as he experiments on a test subject that causes the lab to go into emergency decontamination mode. His test subject, the eponymous “TS-19” of the season finale, turns out to have been his wife and fellow doctor, Dr. Candace Jenner. “She was a loss to the world. Hell, she ran this place. I just worked here,” Edwin admits in a candid moment in the finale, before going on to call her an Einstein (“TS-19”). Yet the viewers only learn her story through his words and the dehumanized, zombified MRI scan that Jenner shares with Rick and his group. Her death and the loss of her remains in the decontamination ultimately push Jenner to commit suicide. Even though she was portrayed as a scientific genius in the brief moments of characterization the show provides, Candace Jenner’s death merely acts as a catalyst for Edwin Jenner’s pain. Her real story will never be heard.
Perhaps the most disturbing trend the show has taken in terms of “fridging” is the recurring theme of the death of young girls. The entire first half of the second season revolves around the search for the missing Sophia Peletier (Madison Lintz), who wanders off in the season’s first episode “What Lies Ahead” to escape attacking walkers despite Rick’s urging her to stay put. Rick and his group spend multiple episodes searching for her. At the end of the episode, Rick, his best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal), and Rick’s son Carl (Chandler Riggs) are searching the woods for her when Carl is nearly fatally shot by a hunter’s straying bullet. Rick spends multiple episodes in despair, while another member of the group, the skilled hunter Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), decides to pursue the search for Sophia on his own. Naturally, Daryl also nearly dies in the process. All of these near-losses are ultimately proven meaningless by the shocking twist in the mid-season finale “Pretty Much Dead Already,” when it is revealed that not only has Sophia been dead the entire time, but she has also been right under their noses, trapped within the barn on the farm property the group has lived on. Sophia’s detailed back story as a victim of physical abuse (with the potential of becoming sexual abuse) from her father means nothing in the end. Her absence and death ultimately serve to injure the male leads and cause Carl, who is the same age as Sophia, to become entirely disillusioned with the world.
In the third season, the villainous Governor (David Morrissey) keeps his zombified daughter Penny captive in a cage in his apartment. His inability to protect her in the apocalypse is clearly given as one of the main reasons for his madness. The audience only knows Penny in relation to the Governor, so when she is suddenly killed by the stern warrior Michonne (Danai Gurira) in “Made to Suffer,” the mid-season finale of the third season, the viewers know to expect that this will further cement his descent into madness. In the fourth season, the seemingly reformed Governor latches onto the Chambler family and particularly the young Meghan Chambler (Meyrick Murphy), who becomes a second daughter to him and even looks like Penny. When a walker inevitably attacks her, the Governor is the one who is forced to mercy kill her. His emotional state is compromised by this second loss to the point that he resumes his earlier evil nature, and naturally, this state of emotionally blinded rage leads to the loss of his life as well.
Throughout the second half of season four, there is even the presumed death of an infant. Rick and Carl believe that Judith, Rick’s young daughter and Carl’s little sister, has been brutally murdered when they find her bloodied car seat at the end of the blow out battle in the mid-season finale “Too Far Gone.” Rick immediately breaks down into hysterical sobbing, while Carl becomes enraged and shoots an approaching walker multiple times more than necessary before succumbing to his own sobs. They are left to think for the rest of the season that Judith has died in this gruesome way as they struggle to survive. Rick slips into a small coma due to the wounds he sustained in the battle and Carl is left to fend for himself, which pushes him to the brink of despair. Yet while all of this is happening, the viewers know that Judith is alive and well in the care of Tyreese Williams (Chad L. Coleman).
But this entire arc runs parallel to perhaps the most disturbing child-related plot of all. Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) and Mika Samuels (Kyla Kennedy) are sisters who are taken into the care of Tyreese and Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) after the death of their father. Lizzie stubbornly believes that walkers keep their humanity after death and tries to befriend one, which nearly leads to her death. Carol tries in vain to explain to her the difference between humans and walkers, and Lizzie’s inability to understand leads her to take the drastic action of killing her sister Mika in cold blood. She hopes to prove to Carol and Tyreese that dying won’t change anything since she believes Mika will come back and still be Mika. But Carol, fearing that Lizzie could harm Judith next, is thus forced to kill Lizzie to ensure Judith’s safety. This decision continues to haunt both Carol and Tyreese until the present moment of the show’s fifth season. These children thus became collateral damage for shaping these two adult characters.
But it is not only the children and the voiceless who have been cut down without consideration. The nameless Mrs. Blake, the Governor’s wife and Penny’s mother, is revealed to have died in a tragic car accident eighteen months before the virus pandemic spread. Her death serves only the purpose of establishing the basis of the Governor’s angst and furthering the emotional bond between him and his already dead daughter. Josephine and Annette Greene, the first and second wives of Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson) and the mothers of Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Beth (Emily Kinney) respectively, both also died off-screen but have presences that linger and provide pangs of longing for the past. Mary (Denise Crosby), the mother of the early season five villain Gareth (Andrew J. West), is shown via flashbacks to have been brutally raped multiple times and is then callously gunned down by Carol and left to be eaten alive by walkers.
Yet there is no other mother character who receives poorer treatment than Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies), the beloved but unfaithful wife of the protagonist Rick. In the first season, she is manipulated by Rick’s supposed best friend Shane into believing her husband has died in the hospital during the outbreak, so she grieves and then moves on to have a sexual relationship with Shane. But when Rick returns alive, she becomes the wedge that is driven between their lifelong friendship–the first time the show reduces her character to the amount of pain she can cause for men. When Shane grows angry about the fact that she has gone back to Rick and ignored whatever it was they had, he sexually assaults her. Since their relationship is impossible to be salvaged after this point, and since Lori really had no desire to ever be in an actual relationship with Shane, he declares silent war on Rick throughout all of season two. This immature, chauvinist battle culminates in Shane trying to kill Rick, only for Rick to be the one to kill Shane.
But in the midst of this entire vengeance plot, Lori receives unsettling news: she is, of course, pregnant. Each man believes the baby to be his own; the show provides no answer. Her role as a mother is changed by this plot development. In the beginning of season two, when Carl is near death from the gunshot wound, she begins to think about whether he isn’t better off dying rather than living in this world. When she takes an abortion pill for her pregnancy, however, she immediately vomits it back out and chooses to carry the pregnancy to term, even as it leads to her own demise. She dies during an emergency C-section performed with just a knife and no medical supplies in the third season episode “Killer Within.” Carl claims it is his duty to put her down via a bullet to the head so she won’t turn into a walker since she’s his mother. This decision changes Carl’s character for the rest of the series so far, hardening him into a less emotional and more strategic thinker, which often portrays him as lacking certain basic facts of humanity.
The most demeaning aspect of this “fridging” plot, however, is the arc that follows it. Upon learning of Lori’s death, Rick collapses to the ground with cries of pain and uncontrollable sobs. He spends the following episode, “Say the Word,” savagely racing through the prison they have been living in and chopping down every walker he comes across. In the episode after that, “Hounded,” Rick hallucinates receiving phone calls from those who have died along the way, including Lori herself. Soon after this, he even begins to hallucinate seeing Lori wandering the prison grounds. Lori’s death has caused Rick to lose his grasp on reality and become a weaker leader as a result of it. Her death had no ostensible meaning other than how it defined the two men she left.
The Voices of Hope
Perhaps the most offensive incidents of “fridging” come in the cases of two incredibly similar characters with very different relationships to the original comics. Andrea Harrison (Laurie Holden) is still alive and thriving as a leader in the comics, while on the show her character was thoughtlessly butchered for the sake of certain characters’ pain. Conversely, Beth Greene doesn’t exist in the comics at all, but her journey from suicidal teenage girl to impossibly strong survivor was handled with such grace and care until it all came crashing to a halt for the sake of shock value and ratings.
Andrea and Beth both lost siblings. Andrea lost her younger sister Amy during a surprise walker attack in season one, while Beth lost her older brother Shawn to a walker attack before the series began. Andrea comes close to committing suicide at the end of the first season when Dr. Jenner decides to stay behind in the soon to self destruct CDC building and she considers staying with him. Beth actually attempts suicide by slitting her wrists near the end of season two since the world has become too much for her. Andrea is left by Rick’s group at the end of season two and forced to fend for herself until she finds a new ally in Michonne, who looks out for her. Beth is abducted from the funeral home she and Daryl have found together and forced to fend for herself until she tries to flee with her new friend Noah, who is able to get out safely even though she remains behind. Andrea joins the new group of people in Woodbury and makes a misguided alliance with the Governor, just as Beth begins to find her place at Grady Memorial Hospital and hesitantly trusts the domineering Officer Dawn Lerner. Even after all they have been through, Andrea and Beth try to see the best in people and offer pillars of hope within this increasingly dire world.
But the ways the show handles their deaths couldn’t be more different.
Andrea gets to die with dignity in the third season finale “Welcome to the Tombs” surrounded by two of her closest friends, Michonne and Rick. She may have been bitten by a walker, but she gets to end her life on her own terms with a bullet she fires herself. There are call backs to earlier scenes with both friends, with lines repeated verbatim. She is able to commit suicide with her most faithful friend Michonne at her side. The end of the finale lingers hauntingly on the image of the fresh grave with Andrea’s memorial cross planted firmly within it. The Walking Dead allows the viewers time to grieve just as it allots the time this powerful death needs.
Beth, however, is nowhere near as lucky. With Beth, the show spends a good deal of time setting up promises it refuses to deliver on.
Beth calls Daryl out for seeing her as “just another dead girl” in the episode “Still” in season four. She goes on to add, “I’ve survived and you don’t get it ’cause I’m not like you or them. But I made it” (“Still”). In the following episode, “Alone,” she is learning how to track and hunt and tells Daryl, “I’m getting good at this. Pretty soon I won’t need you at all.” In the season five episode “Slabtown,” which is devoted entirely to her character, she is sexually assaulted and saves herself by killing her would be rapist and letting him get eaten by a walker. Officer Lerner criticizes her for her suicide attempt scars but Beth fights back and powerfully asserts, “I am strong” (“Slabtown”). The audience doesn’t doubt her. When Beth helps Noah escape at the end of the episode, she is caught, but she still smiles. She stares the camera down directly and smiles, because she isn’t afraid anymore.
In addition to these powerful assertions on her own part, the parallels between Beth’s journey and Rick’s feel incredibly deliberate. Beth begins season five by waking up in a hospital and having no idea where she is in the very same way that Rick began in the pilot. Some of the shots are filmed in an almost identical way: tight shots on their eyes snapping open, sudden jerking out of their IV tubes, close-ups of the clock ticking away nefariously on the wall. Rick puts his signature hat on Beth in the season four finale “A” and says that, “There’s a new sheriff in town.” The show sets up every expectation that Beth will be a new heroine. Leah Thomas of Bustle even published the article “Is Beth Greene the Hero that ‘Walking Dead’ Deserves? She Has the Nerve, the Brains, & the Girl Power” a mere week before the mid-season finale “Coda,” in which Beth’s life was claimed, aired.
Beth dying is not the problem. The show writing off all the signs of her character becoming a survivor is where the real problem lies. Beth’s death is an accident that relies on Beth showing poorer judgment than she has shown in seasons. She tries to stab Officer Lerner with a pair of scissors, but rather than go in for the kill, she merely stabs her in the shoulder. Officer Lerner reflexively grips the trigger of her gun and Beth takes a bullet straight through the brain. There is no logic to this death. It is purely random, totally meaningless, and one hundred percent for the sake of a man’s pain. Daryl, who has spent a quarter of season four and almost all of season five looking for Beth, steps forward and fires a bullet through Officer Lerner’s brain in a knee jerk reaction. Beth does not get to die a hero. She just simply dies.
When the audience sees Beth’s body for the last time, she is limp in Daryl’s arms. Daryl sobs as he carries her out of the hospital. Her sister, Maggie, who has mentioned Beth twice all season, falls to her knees in agony, in a pose totally reminiscent of Rick’s grief at the loss of Lori. But this grief doesn’t feel earned. This tableau does not elicit the emotions it was intended to. Beth does not get to be the heroine that the parallels with Rick set her up to be, precisely because she is female, and this world does not accept heroines. There is no world in which this death was not done for shock value, for making already miserable men and women that much more miserable, and for stripping this increasingly dark world of one of its last glimmers of hope.
It is true, however, that there have been at least three male characters who can be said to have been “fridged.” Original voice of reason Dale is alienated from the group’s savage mindset and attacked by a walker in the middle of the night, only to be mercy killed by Daryl. Daryl’s brother, Merle, is brutally murdered and Daryl is forced to put him down as well before he falls to his knees and sobs. Hershel, Beth and Maggie’s father and Rick’s mentor, has his throat slit in front of their eyes, a death that begins a battle that will leave the group homeless as the prison is destroyed in the crossfire. But the sheer volume of female characters who have been senselessly killed on this show speaks for itself and cannot be ignored, especially when compared with such a small sampling of men. The majority of other male deaths create a list filled with villains: the backstabbing Shane, the intimidating thugs Dave and Tony, the sociopathic Governor, the ruthless and pedophilic Claimers, and the cannibalistic Gareth and his friends. When these men are killed, it is meant to be experienced as a catharsis and a relief. But when each of these women is killed, the audience is expected to recoil in heartbreak and horror, not because the female character has died, but because the characters who survive are now expected to carry the load with them.
Simone, Gail. Women in Refrigerators. March 1999. Web. 01 December 2014. <http://lby3.com/wir/index.html>.
Thomas, Leah. “Is Beth Greene the Hero That ‘Walking Dead’ Deserves? She Has the Nerve, the Brains, & the Girl Power.” Bustle. 28 November 2014. Web. 01 December 2014. <http://www.bustle.com/articles/50444-is-beth-greene-the-hero-that-walking-dead-deserves-she-has-the-nerve-the-brains>.
“Days Gone Bye.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 31 October 2010. Television.
“Wildfire.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 28 November 2010. Television.
“TS-19.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 5 December 2010. Television.
“What Lies Ahead.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 16 October 2011. Television.
“Pretty Much Dead Already.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 27 November 2011. Television.
“Killer Within.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 4 November 2012. Television.
“Say the Word.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 11 November 2012. Television.
“Hounded.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 18 November 2012. Television.
“Made to Suffer.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 2 December 2012. Television.
“Welcome to the Tombs.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 31 March 2013. Television.
“Too Far Gone.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 1 December 2013. Television.
“Still.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 2 March 2014. Television.
“Alone.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 9 March 2014. Television.
“The Grove.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 16 March 2014. Television.
“A.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 30 March 2014. Television.
“Slabtown.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 2 November 2014. Television.
“Coda.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 30 November 2014. Television.
What do you think? Leave a comment.