Women in Refrigerators: Killing Females in Comics
Why does death occur in so many stories? When used as a storytelling method, death is not entirely necessary because a writer does not need to rely on a character’s demise to tell an engaging story. On one hand, death can provide heartbreaking tragedy and relatable motivation to our protagonist, giving the story more magnitude. On the other hand, death can be manipulative if a character is killed just for the spectacle, making it a cheap gut punch to the readers. Comics in general are criticized for falling into the latter category, as death of comic book characters are mostly done to gain more readers. Never is this more evident than in the comic book trope known as Women in Refrigerators (WiR).
WiR was coined by the well-respected writer Gail Simone, best known for her work on Deadpool, Wonder Woman, and the Birds of Prey. The trope came from Green Lantern #54, where Kyle Rayner was horrified and filled with rage to find his beloved girlfriend, Alexandra DiWitt, stuffed in a fridge. Kyle soon discovered that Alexandra was killed by Major Force as a way to get under Kyle’s skin. Simone was appalled to see Alexandra Diwitt and other female characters like her be killed so heartlessly, and she was sick of women characters being treated like dispensable commodities for writers. Many male and female writers took Gail Simone’s words to heart, and WiR became a huge public debate in comic circles. The trope usually has three common occurrences.
- A female character (not just limited to a love interest) is killed, sexually assaulted, depowered or brutally injured beyond repair.
- A villain is responsible for the woman’s death and only does it to provoke the hero.
- The woman’s death provides vengeful motivation for the hero to defeat or kill the villain.
Now that the 3 rules have been laid out, let us dissect the reasons why WiR is a harmful stereotype towards women.
The reason WiR is a harmful trope is because it objectifies female characters into simple story devices, and their character development serves to just give motivation to the male hero. It is the same reason why “damsels in distress” is a stereotypical trope; it gives the illusion that women cannot fight for themselves. The trope is not just limited to love interests, but also mothers, sisters, and even female friends of the male hero. Yet the trope mostly applies to the love interests. It is more tragic for the hero to lose the women he devoted his whole life to. This does not mean that female characters should be untouchable; as long as the female’s death is more concurrent to the story than just to give motivation to the hero. Despite that, it is staggering to think of how WiR appears everywhere in comics, even to this day.
Gail Simone released a long list of examples of stories that use WiR, and the list of examples has only increased. Like a lot of tropes that stereotype and diminish women this problem does not seem to be going away, showing how the industry still has some evolving to do. The counter-argument made against WiR is that it symbolizes how women are victims in real life, and the writers are just commentating on this issue in their stories. True, we do live in a day and age where a lot of women have become victims to despicable men, and it is important to reflect ongoing issues in day to day life. However, the problem with this argument is that most stories involving WiR do not really have anything profound to say about female violence. The stories themes are not really centered around female violence, and female characters are killed simply to invoke shock into the reader.
The other big counter-argument towards WiR is that men are killed all the time in comics, therefore making WiR look nit-picky. That is why the new trope, Dead Men Defrosting (DMD), was introduced to demonstrate that men being killed for motivation and women getting killed for motivation are very different. First of all, having the role reversal (a superheroin’s male love interest getting killed by a villain for motivation reasons) does not happen nearly as much as it does with WiR. In addition, when a male character is killed, he is not exploitively tortured in a sexual manner, or sexually assaulted. The same cannot be said for women being killed by villains. The reason DMD is a valuable argument is that it points out that male heroes die heroically, often sacrificing themselves to save the world or to stop an imposing villain. Lastly, men may be killed or paralyzed, but they will most likely return fully recovered and back to fighting crime like nothing ever happened. On the opposite end, women often stay dead or depowered for a very long time, unless a possible reboot happens.
Examples of Women in Refrigerators
Elektra was the popular Greek ninja created back in the 80’s by Frank Miller during his run of Daredevil. While Miller may have brought the character to life, he would also be the one to kill her off in Daredevil #181. In this story, she was tasked by Kingpin to kill Matt Murdock’s partner Foggy Nelson, but she spared him for Murdock’s sake. Kingpin’s top assassin Bullseye took this opportunity to kill Elektra, making sure he remained Kingpin’s number 1. While she put up a fight, she was impaled with her own sai by Bullseye. Then, she crawled to Matt’s doorstep and died in his arms. Bullseye did not kill Elektra to simply motivate Daredevil, but Daredevil still came after Bullseye to avenge Elektra, meaning the story still follows the three main components of WiR. Elektra was also Matt Murdock’s girlfriend in college, meaning she was mainly created to give Daredevil a love interest, only to be killed a couple issues later. She first appeared in Daredevil #168 and was killed in #181, so her being expendable to the storyline seemed deliberate.
Where WiR becomes even more insulting is when it is applied to god-like women because it diminishes their greatness as powerful characters. Big Barda, for example, was an all powerful warrior for the planet Apocalypse, and she was married to the similarly powerful Mister Miracle. She never came across as a sidekick to Mister Miracle; in fact it seemed feasible that her powers surpassed her husband’s. One would expect her to die in a big battle or something to that extent. Instead she is found dead in her kitchen with a bullet shaped hole in her chest. While Big Barda adopting the role of housewife was of her own choosing, she was still a warrior first and foremost. Her death is disappointing because it gave the impression she did not put up much of a fight. Her killer turned out to be the Infinity Man, who murdered her only to provoke Mister Miracle.
Probably the most obvious example of WiR is in the backstory to the vengeful killer, The Punisher. In his past, Frank Castle was a special forces officer who had a seemingly happy life with his wife, Maria Castle, and their two loving children. Because of Frank’s status to the force and U.S. Marine core, he became a huge target for many different criminals. Frank’s life would take a turn for the worst, as his whole family was gunned down by mafia members while they were harmlessly having a picnic. Don’t get me wrong; The Punisher is a classic Marvel character for a reason, and refreshingly stands out from all the heroes in tights. Nonetheless, he is the embodiment of WiR. His family had little significance beyond motivation through death. The death of his family may have emotionally destroyed Frank, but to the readers, they were merely created to be killed. This is taken to the extreme in the 2004 film, The Punisher. Not only did his wife and only son get killed, but almost all of Frank’s family relatives are brutally gunned down at a family gathering. These extra deaths are completely unnecessary because it downplays the importance of his wife and son’s death; as if it was not manipulative enough.
The Death of Gwen Stacy
Gwen Stacy’s death is one of the most famous examples of WiR, becoming a template when discussing female treatment in comics. However, when looking at her death from a storytelling perspective, it is a little more well-written than other examples of WiR. For those who don’t know, in The Amazing Spider-Man #121-122, The Green Goblin threw Gwen Stacy off of a bridge only to have Spider-Man catch her with his webbing. Unfortunately, when his webbing caught her, it broke her neck, making Spider-Man partially responsible for her death. There is a lot to take in to consideration in the effectiveness of Gwen’s death. Keep in mind, this was one of the first times an important female love interest was killed off, causing shock to many readers at the time. It does not take away the fact it is an example of WiR, but it is a factor to consider.
The downside is that Gwen’s death is only done to prove grief from Spider-Man, and not to give a proper closing to her character development throughout the series. She does feel like an object for Spider-Man to cry for. Yet, to the credit of the writer Gerry Conway, Spider-Man’s reaction to her death is more complicated than just revenge. He probably feels more grief than revenge, as he was technically the one who killed her in the end; Green Goblin was just the one who put her life in danger. It is one of those mistakes that Spider-Man wishes he could take back, and now he has to live with the ramifications. It also shows his transition from when he first started out as Spider-Man, into his adulthood.
When Uncle Ben died, it demonstrated how Peter should take his powers seriously and use them to help people. Similarly, Gwen’s death represents how his life as Peter Parker and Spider-Man need to be separate in order to keep his loved ones from being killed. With all this in mind, the reason Gwen’s death is remembered by many comic book readers is because of how inarguably effective it was. Even to this day, it is depressing to see our hero try so hard to save their lover, only to have them die in their arms. So if a character’s death is generally saddening to the reader, then the writer is doing something right. It may fall into the WiR category, but maybe it should be considered an exception to the rule because context is always important.
Crippling Barbara Gordon
In Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, The Joker breaks into Commissioner Gordon’s home and shoots Barbara Gordon in the pelvic region. She did survive the gun shot, but she would never walk again because of it. This officially ended her persona as Batgirl. The Killing Joke has arguably become one of the most popular examples of WiR, but is it one of the worst examples? After all, WiR is supposed to point out extreme examples of female violence, but it is more about how hastily and lazily writers often kill off female characters. Alan Moore has been called many things, but lazy in not one of them. There may be more to The Killing Joke than what is presented at first glance. While The Killing Joke does follow two components of WiR, there is one rule that is purposely left out.
What needs to be understood is the reason the Joker had for shooting Barbara Gordon, and how it ties into the theme of the story. Joker injured Barbara Gordon not just to provoke Commissioner Gordon, but to also drive him mad. As the Joker sees it, all it takes is one bad day to turn someone just as crazy as he is. This is demonstrated in a flashback that may or may not be the actual origin of the Joker. It tells of an unnamed comedian who not only loses his pregnant wife in a car crash, but who is also forced into a crime he does not want to commit, resulting in him becoming the mad prince of crime. To rub salt on the wounds, Joker’s minions strap a naked Commissioner Gordon to a roller coster and bombard him with pictures of his bare naked daughter crying in agony.
At first, this sounds like an unnecessarily violent way to exploit Barbara Gordon as a character, but here is the interesting factor: When Batman arrives at Gordon’s location, Gordon informs Batman to “I want him brought in by the book!” After all the ungodly torture he endured watching his daughter suffer, Gordon just wants Joker behind bars like any other criminal. He knows killing the Joker will bring him no pleasure, making Joker’s plan completely ineffective in the end. The Killing Joke avoids becoming a completely distasteful example of WiR by not giving Gordon an urge to kill. The Joker may have gotten under Gordon’s skin, but he did not strike a nerve.
True, Barbara was still treated as an object in the story, but luckily her character arc did not remain that way for long. Years after the events of The Killing Joke, Barbara reappeared as her new persona, Oracle, the wheelchair bound computer expert aiding in Batman’s ongoing investigations. Some may argue that Oracle is just another shameless example of DMD because she was depowered for a very long time. Barbara being crippled is hardly a bad thing; in fact she is an inspiring figure for individuals who are crippled and to victimized women. Instead of just giving up her superhero career, she stood up and show that anyone can metaphorically get back on their feet, even after a traumatic event. When her character was back as Batgirl in New 52’s reboot, fans were upset because Oracle was such a diverse and interesting character. Oracle and The Killing Joke are examples of using the commentary of female violence to illustrate a point. Like Gwen Stacy’s death, Barbara getting crippled should be an exemption to the rule, not the standard.
Why the Trope Exists
WiR in not commonly known to everyone, but its significance has evolved to encompass movies and television. As great as shows like Game of Thrones and Son of Anarchy are, they too have used the WiR blatantly. It is good to see a trope be recognized by many people. Some readers may be wondering why villains killing a female character is such an important factor. Is it not equally unfair for women to die in general just to give motivation to our male hero? Yes and no! It could be considered an WiR trope if a female character dies in an unexpected accident, like Lois Lane dying in an earthquake in Superman: The Movie. However, all deaths that occur in media are done to give grief to our heroes. It all comes down to context, and whether or not the character death was warranted or manipulative. Someone could argue that Supergirl’s death in Crisis on Infinite Earths applies to WiR because she was mourned by Superman and many other DC heroes. Yet her death stands out because she sacrificed herself to save Superman, giving what all superheroes (both male and female) deserve; an honorable death.
While on the subject of male and females deaths, it may be time to address the elephant in the room. The new trope that has emerged from the comic books fans is the trope “fridging” which means the three factors of WiR can also apply to male characters. Now, in some respects, this can be true with male character like Jason Todd, who was killed by the Joker only to scrutinize Batman. Despite that, fridging is a problematic trope because it takes away the away the significance in WiR. Women are still being mistreated in today’s world, and our entertainment reflects that in many ways. So let us stop falling into the tropes like WiR that withhold women in stereotypical roles. Do tropes like WiR automatically make a story bad? No, but they can perpetrate harmful stereotypes if not addressed. Women in Refrigerators was created so female characters would be treated like human beings, not slabs of meat to be tossed in the fridge.
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