Tropes vs. Women: #2 Women in Refrigerators

April 7, 2011

This is the second of a six part series created for Bitch Magazine.  Tropes vs. Women explores the reoccurring stories, themes and representations of women in Hollywood films and TV shows.

Women in Refrigerators is a trope identified by comic book fan (and now comic book writer) Gail Simone because she was sick of seeing “superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator.”

Special thanks to Jennifer K. Stuller author of Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology and Rachel O from Feminist Fatale for their respective comic and gaming expertise.

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A trope is a common pattern in a story or a recognizable attribute in a character that conveys

information to the audience. A trope becomes a cliche when it’s overused. Sadly, some of these tropes often perpetuate offensive stereotypes.

Who remembers the 1994 issue of Green Lantern #54 where Kyle Rayner finds that his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt has been brutally murdered and stuffed into a fridge? Okay, well I’ve never actually read Green Lantern but thankfully Gail Simone did, because she began to see a trend.  Simone was sick of seeing “superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator.” In 1999 she created a startlingly long list of over 90 comics that featured female superheroes who suffered a loss of super powers, brutal violation or an untimely, gruesome death most often as a plot point for the male hero to seek revenge or further his heroic journey. She called this reoccurring pattern Women in Refrigerators, for obvious reasons.  Since it was originally created the list has continued to grow, I’m just gonna show you just a few examples.

Spiderman’s first love, Gwen Stacy was thrown off a building by the Green Goblin back in 1973. Despite Spidie swooping in and heroically catching her before she hits the ground, she still died either from whiplash or from shock. Unsurprisingly, this seemingly random death of a significant character outraged fans of the series.  The writers chose to kill off an important female character for the sole purpose of giving Peter Parker a more complex and interesting story arc.

In the Batman Universe, Stephanie Brown who played my characters The Spoiler, a female Robin and also Batgirl was gruesomely tortured to death with a power drill by Batman’s enemy, The Black Mask.  The highly sexualized images of Brown being tortured spanned across multiple issues, some fans were so outraged by this fridging of Batgirl, that they refer to this as torture porn.

Another strong female superhero who met an untimely and trivial death was Big Barda.  She was the leader of the Female Furies, and also  a member of Birds of Prey and the Justice League.  She was married to Mister Miracle, and interestingly was actually physically stronger then her superhero husband.  Although Big Barda had all these superpowers she was killed in her kitchen with no signs of a real battle.  And of course her death conveniently created a narrative for her husband.  He struggled with whether or not to use the Anti-Life Equation which would allow him to control the will power of all sentient beings.  Big Barda is just one of many female character who’s random and meaningless death was constructed to order to create a more intricate storyline for a male hero.

Comic books can be a little bit difficult to follow since characters are killed and brought back to life, or there’s multiple canons in different books for the same characters, so this doesn’t hold true across the board but it certainly happens a lot.  Women in Refrigerators is one way of making sense of this incredibly complex world by pulling out overarching patterns of the way women are treated in comic books.

When Simone released her list in 1999 there was an instant backlash from some comic book fans who thought it was unfair that they were singling out female characters. This criticism happens whenever we point out tropes specifically about women.  In this case, comic book fans criticized the Women in Refrigerators by saying that male heroes get killed and tortured too so what’s the big deal?  The people who run the Women in Refrigerators website responded to this by creating another trope (how much do I love fans!) called Dead Men Defrosting.   Comic fan John Bartol explains, “In cases where males heroes have been altered or appear to die they usually come back even better than before, either power-wise or in terms of character development/relevancy to the reader.”

Many popular superheroes fit neatly into the Dead Men Defrosting trope such as Superman, Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, Barry Allen as the Flash, Spiderman, Captain America, The Hulk, Nick Fury etc. etc.

A classic example of this difference applies even when characters are depowered, when Barbara Gordon as Batgirl was shot in the spine by the Joker as a way to drive her father, Commissioner Gordon, insane.  She was permanently paralyzed and had to create an entirely new identity for herself.  But when Batman’s back was broken over supervillian Bane’s knee, he fully recovered.

Simone responded to this criticism by saying, “First, there’s [always been] a larger selection of male characters, so a handful killed made barely a ripple. Second, they didn’t seem to be killed in the same way—they tended to die heroically, to go down fighting. Whereas in many cases, the superLADIES were simply found on the kitchen table already carved up.” The writers of these comics treat similar narrative situations very differently based on a character’s gender, and it seems to be fairing much worse for the women.

While the Women in Refrigerators trope originated in the comic book genre it can be applied across other pop culture mediums such as video games, TV shows and movies.  For example Libby and Shannon on Lost were murdered specifically to push the story arc of two male characters. Or how about all of these women from Heroes who were depicted as losing or being unable to control their powers.


In video games such as God of War 1, Splinter Cell, and Fable 2 the narrative revolves around a man seeking revenge the death of female family members.

And there are plenty, plenty more examples.

Writers are using the Women in Refrigeratorstrope to literally trade the female characters life for the benefit of a male hero’s story arc.  They are making clear that women, even powerful female superheroes are basically disposable.

It’s important to remember that these comics don’t exist in a vacuum, that they are created by writers and artists who live in the same sexist social systems we all do and that’s reflected in the characters and the stories.  It is saddening to see how flippantly and trivially violence against women is treated in comic book pages (even with the most powerful of female superheroes) especially when violence against women in the real world are at epidemic levels.  We have to remember that the Women in Refrigerators list was created for us to identify, understand and resist the variety of ways that women and our fictional representations are disempowered and victimized.

I’m not saying women can’t ever die in comic books but it matters how and why they die.

So comic book writers, tv and movie writers, and video game producers….  stop relying on stereotypical tropes, stop using violence against women as a way to further the storyline of your male hero, and start writing us as full and complete human beings…. okay? Okay!

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