Freezing Progress


‘Women in refrigerators’ continues to show the excessive violence female comic book characters face

Mae Yen Yap / Culture Editor

For a long time, Audrey Kisilewicz was never really into comic books.

The female characters in the comic books she read were often one-dimensional, and many of them failed to have their own story arcs. Most of the time, those female characters were soon killed off and replaced with other female characters, never to be mentioned again.



But as Kisilewicz started to read comic books regularly, she never knew there was a technical term for such plots.

“It made me validated that other people were feeling the same thing,” she said. “And then it also made me really mad that it was so widespread that it had a name. Like, why does this happen so much?”

“Women in refrigerators” refers to a trope in comic books in which female characters — often the love interests of the male hero — are subjected to physical, sexual or psychological assault as a plot device to give the male hero motivation and a complex narrative. The term was coined by comic book writer Gail Simone in 1999, and it refers to a scene in a 1994 issue of Green Lantern in which the titular hero returns home to find the corpse of his girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, stuffed into a fridge.

Today, the term “fridging” refers in general to situations in which female comic book characters, regardless of their status as a main or side character, would face violent situations that fail to progress their own character arcs.

Although superhero characters who face violence within their stories may not seem like anything new, female comic book characters continue to face a disproportionate amount of violence compared to their male counterparts.

A history of violence

Violence is often instilled in superhero stories, Sam Berlin, an employee at The Wizard’s Guild, a comic book store at 19 W. Washington St., said. After all, most of the stories are about people physically fighting.

In 1999, Simone compiled a list of more than 90 comic book series featuring female superheroes who were depowered, brutally assaulted or ultimately killed. The list has only grown since then. The list, compiled by Simone and other fans, brought to light that certain groups of characters were being treated badly.

“A lot of times, it seems that maybe the writer was working out a personal issue,” Berlin said. “It seems that every superhero origin has someone — usually family, often a woman in their life — murdered.”

One of the more popular characters subjected to the women in refrigerator trope is Batgirl, the alias for Barbara Gordon. In Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, the Joker physically and sexually assaults Barbara Gordon as a way to torture her father, police commissioner James Gordon, and Batman, the alias for Bruce Wayne. However, the story continues to focus solely on James and Batman’s guilt over the assault, despite Barbara being the one who was the most affected by the attack.

“I’m not even saying that every story has to be about women, but these are the times (female characters) should have their own stories,” Kisilewicz, the co-owner of The Wizard’s Guild, said. “She was the one most impacted by it, so why did we not make it her story?”

Although the writers of the original series retired Barbara as Batgirl, John Ostrander and Kim Yale brought the character back as Oracle, a technologically savvy hacker who helps provides intelligence and is also paralyzed in Suicide Squad.

“It almost makes me madder that … the stories … were really good and were Barbara’s stories,” Kisilewicz said. “If we can do that … why didn’t we do it for the story that she was actually hurt?”

'An easy way out'

Jared Gardner, a professor at Ohio State University who specializes in American literature, comics, film and popular culture, has known of the trope ever since he began teaching classes about comic books at the university the same year the trope began.

“It resonated right away with my own experiences as a reader of comics,” Gardner said in an email. “I continue to think it is an extremely important intervention on the part of the fan community into the unexamined politics of superhero comics.”

When he first read about the Green Lantern issue featuring Alexandra DeWitt’s death, Berlin didn’t consider it “a bad story.”

“But the idea that women in comics are just written out to show that there is violence in the world, that’s just throwing away perfectly good character ideas to give fake stakes to a story about space gladiators,” Berlin said.

Oftentimes, writers and fans diminish female characters, simply because they aren’t the main characters fighting in the front lines, Kisilewicz said. By subjecting those female characters to the trope, she describes the writing as “an easy way out.”

“It’s like, ‘Well, we can include female characters, but we don’t have to make them three-dimensional if we just kill them off or if she’s not here for half of the movie,’ ” Kisilewicz said. “(They) can still say, ‘We have X female character starring in this movie’ and not have to worry about hiring women to write that character.”

Film and TV adaptations are often amalgamated to feature iconic stories that are able to get reactions out of fans, Berlin said. 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 featured the controversial scene in which Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) attempts to save Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) from a fall by shooting a web strand at her body, only to realize she died because of the whiplash from her sudden stop.

“That’s the one thing about the whole ‘women in refrigerators.’ Instead of Gwen as a character, she’s the plot device of ‘the one he couldn’t save’,” Berlin said.

Ditching the refrigerator

Kisilewicz is unsure if the women in refrigerators trope will continue in the future. It’s up to the writers.

“I certainly hope that it will get better,” she said. “It’s a slow-developing field.”

“It is an easy and lazy narrative device with pernicious consequences, wherein female characters exist solely to sacrifice themselves for male characters’ self-discovery,”- Jared Gardner, a professor at Ohio State University

Discussions about increasing diversity within comic books and the comic industry have helped in terms of representing characters of different social backgrounds as superheroes. Recently, films such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther have gained international success despite not starring a typical white male hero.

However, there are still superhero films that portray female superheroes as disposable characters. The 2016 animated adaptation of The Killing Joke was heavily critiqued for the screenplay including additional sexual elements that were not part of the original story, including a scene where Barbara pursues a sexual relationship with Batman. The scene raised criticisms as the duo had originally been depicted with a father-daughter relationship.

“It is an easy and lazy narrative device with pernicious consequences, wherein female characters exist solely to sacrifice themselves for male characters’ self-discovery,” Gardner said in an email. “Good writers don’t need to lean on such devices.”

There are times when the trope can be written in such a way that empowers the female character.

Marvel’s is an example of a female character who goes through the fridge, but comes out from her ordeal stronger than before.

“It definitely had a huge impact on her story,” Chloe Smith, a senior studying political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, said. “I don’t want to say that she necessarily had to go through it, but it was central to her story and essential to who she was.”

While Wonder Woman portrayed the title character as an empowered female superhero, Kisilewicz found the supporting female characters in Black Panther to have been even more empowering because those characters are fleshed out and different but still strong in their own ways.

The women in refrigerators trope seems to ebb and flow, appearing every few years, Berlin said. Although Berlin believes there have been less female characters being fridged over the years, the timing still depends on the comic sales.

Kisilewicz remains cautiously optimistic about the future for female characters.

“People are pushing back against diversity,” she said. “… For many years, we’re still going to get more bad things than good things.”

Development by: Megan Knapp / For The Post

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