Pop Culture Rewind: Women in Refrigerators

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Words || Gabby Edwards

Superman. Batman. Iron man. Spiderman. Aquaman. Antman.

Comic book spaces have often felt extremely male-dominated, and it’s not hard to see why.

With the most celebrated characters being predominantly men, there are already few female characters for fans to aspire to and see themselves reflected in. To make matters worse, examining the treatment of these few women brings up even further concerns.

In 1999, writer Gail Simone, alongside other comic fans noticed this issue and created the website ‘Women in Refrigerators,’ particularly in response to Green Lantern #54. In this issue, Alexandra DeWitt, the hero’s girlfriend, was murdered, with her body shoved into the fridge for Green Lantern to find. Hence, the term ‘fridged’ was adopted to describe female characters in popular culture who were injured, depowered or killed to advance a male character’s arc. 

While this might seem like a harmless trope, considering we’re just talking about fiction, the implications are a lot stronger. When audiences are continuously given representations of women whose lives revolve around the men they are associated with before being violently disposed of, it perpetuates them as lacking autonomy and independence, therefore making them seem less human. 

With so many popular examples, specifically across comic books, the phrase quickly took hold amongst fans who were disappointed with these continual depictions. Simone summarised the issue, saying, “If you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won’t read comics.”

Beyond comics, the trope has revealed itself across popular culture for plenty of years. Examples from Greek mythology and Arthurian legend continuously portray threats toward women as plot devices that incite further violence from the men around them, driving the narrative. In modern popular culture we see it everywhere from James Bond, Game of Thrones, Star Wars and many more.

Similar to fridging, is the trope of ‘The Lost Lenore,’ which refers to a deceased love interest whose death significantly impacts the protagonist and their journey, meaning they remain relevant to the story. This term originated from the Edgar Allen Poe poem, ‘The Raven,’ where a mysterious figure haunts the narrator. While the two tropes appear quite similar, an argument can be made that female love interests who fall within this trope have a deeper impact on the story, asserting their character’s importance and agency. 

One of the most popular examples of fridging in the superhero world was seen with Gwen Stacy, Spiderman’s girlfriend. In the 1970s comic, Gwen’s neck was snapped as Peter Parker attempted to save her. This was similarly portrayed in the 2014 movie adaptation, starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. It wasn’t until a 2015 comic where her character was revived in an alternate universe as Spider-Gwen, where she was awarded with similar powers to Spiderman himself and was given her own arcs and adventures.

Today, things may appear to be better. There are definitely more female characters across most popular superhero comics and in their subsequent adaptations on film and television. Though, to say the trope is a thing of the past would be inaccurate.

The 2018 film, Deadpool 2, came under critique for the supposed fridging of Deadpool’s girlfriend, Vanessa. Though, the writers insisted this was not their intention since her character appears later in the movie, particularly when her death is reversed in the post-credit scene. She is further described as a ‘spiritual guide’ of sorts for Deadpool throughout the film, meaning she still, in a sense, exists within the story after her death. Regardless, many fans were still disappointed, questioning why her death had to happen in the first place if it was going to be reversed anyway.

An even more recent example is the box office hit Avengers Endgame from 2019. Similarly, there has been some debate over whether this instance counts as fridging or not. Regardless, the death of Black Widow’s character and subsequent portrayal of Hawkeye’s life having more value than hers solely because he has a family carries plenty of negative implications. In the end, her death allows the heroes (the majority of which are men) to save the day, though is ultimately overshadowed by the death of Tony Stark who receives a full funeral while Black Widow’s passing only receives a few passing lines of recognition.

This is particularly concerning considering the relatively poor way her character has been treated throughout the franchise. In Avengers Age of Ultron, her character is thrown into a romance with Bruce Banner, surprising many viewers. She then refers to herself as being a monster just like him due to her simply being infertile. Not to mention, she’s one of the only original Avengers who hasn’t had her own solo film until its initial intended release earlier this year, ten years after her character was first introduced to the screen.

Though of course, her character is central to many of the film’s storylines and has received development over the course of the franchise. And, due to her death being a sacrifice based on a personal choice she made, her character clearly shows some sign of autonomy. Still, having to see the dead, broken body of arguably the most popular Marvel female superhero was incredibly disappointing. Especially since another female character, Gamora, met the exact same fate in the previous film.

Another iteration of the trope has been the depowering of a female character and often subsequent death. This is best demonstrated through Jean Gray’s character in the X-Men comics. During the Dark Phoenix saga, originally published in the 80s, Jean Gray’s character undertakes a great amount of power after summoning a cosmic entity to help save her husband and friends. This force gives her immense power, leading to her rebirth as ‘Phoenix.’ Though, as the saga continues, the power overwhelms and corrupts her making her a key villain for the rest of the series. It’s only when she renounces the power through suicide that she is able to return to her old self and save the world. This reinforces yet another tired stereotype of women with power being an uncontrollable threat that must be put down. 

There are a few who still question the existence, and therefore impact of this trope. For example, a common defence is that there is just as long of a list of male characters who have died in many of these stories, as well as women. While this may be true, their deaths typically aren’t as violent nor act as a motivating factor for the other male characters. Additionally, within comic series, male characters who have been killed typically return in some way, usually even stronger and more powerful. 

As representation of women across popular culture diversifies and improves, it can definitely be harder to identify whether specific examples can even classify as fridging. It’s important for viewers to continue questioning and analysing the media they consume and be prepared to discuss or call out poor representations and their potential negative impact. Making sure female characters are treated respectfully within fiction is one step closer to ensuring the same respect and empathy is directed toward real women today.