Talking to My Daughter About Women in Refrigerators

The panel that gave the trope its name.

On New Year’s Day, I did some surfing through various Twitter feeds and came across this article by Caroline Pruett. Titled, “Talking to Our Daughters About Violence Against Women in Comics,” she speaks to the issue of “women in refrigerators,” a term for using the death and/or brutalization of female characters as devices to motivate male heroes. It’s a concept that’s been covered in great detail elsewhere.

The panel that gave the trope its name.

The panel that gave the trope its name.

As I read Ms. Pruett’s article, I thought about my own daughter, and what I’d tell her if she were older (she’s three right now) and asked me about this. It struck me that writers might answer this question differently than readers or consumers, since we have a unique viewpoint into the creation of these sorts of tropes. So here’s what I’d tell my daughter:

Honey, each of these characters was created by someone, but that creator is not the only one writing about her. In comics, different writers come along and tell stories in different ways, and some are better than others. Editors are supposed to make sure everything stays consistent, but they change, too. So occasionally you get people who just aren’t that smart, making decisions they just haven’t thought out. And just like in real life, that’s when people die.

So, it’s reasonable* for her to ask, why do those writers think that way?

Well, sweetie, I think part of it is tradition, part of it is immaturity. The “women in refrigerators” trope has been around for a long time, and it’s awfully omnipresent in our popular culture, not just comics. How many stories of revenge begin with the death of someone close to the hero, usually a woman?

Beats me, Dad, I’m just a kid.

It’s a lot, trust me. And when you start to write, in any format, you first write the stories that surround you (hence fanfic). Then, with time and practice, you learn to write your own stories.

I’m not saying comic writers are inherently immature, nor am I criticizing the medium as a whole; I do think that by its nature, mainstream superhero comics appeal to a core demographic that, due to age and other factors, seems to coddle immaturity. And most of today’s creators have come from the ranks of fans: they may have internalized this immature appeal without moving past it. Also, most of them are guys.

What does that have to do with it?

Because of the way the entertainment industry works, and who it tries to appeal to, these guys are essentially writing to impress other, similar, guys. Many of them have likely never experienced the death of someone close to them, so the only way they know to depict it is through the examples they’ve encounter in popular entertainment. And that’s how the trope is perpetuated.

So how do we change it? I hope she would ask.

By writing the stories you want to read. By connecting with readers who also want to read those stories. By supporting the people who already create the stories you want to read, who don’t reduce women to plot points and cliche’ motivations. Art isn’t a meritocracy, it’s a marketplace, and you have to convince the people who produce it that these old tropes are no longer as profitable as the new ones. That’s when the girls will start to have a bigger voice, and the boys will have to grow up.

Can I write those stories?

You bet, honey. And get all your friends to do it, too.

*****

Reasonable in the sense that this is what I want to write about next.

4 Comments on “Talking to My Daughter About Women in Refrigerators”

  1. Great article, Alex. I personally think that the women in the frig pheom equates to the ‘bad boy you can change’ phenom trope in romance novels. Both teach falsehoods that mislead young readers (male and female) and subconsciously set ideas that are not healthy. I want my niece to be kick a** smart, and physically strong, and emotionally wise enough not to try and change a bad boy. I want young men to have all those qualities and not try to force strong women into boxes (or frigs…) Wait, Strong woman …put in frig…strength = cold? I have a feeling that particular trope has some deep psycological issues tied to it.

  2. Thanks for participating in this conversation, Alex! As a fiction writer myself (and a longtime reader not just of comics but of crime novels and fantasy & other genres where bad stuff tends to happen to women) I honestly have mixed feelings about where the fridge trope comes from. The examples I cited in the article are ones that strike me as lazy and cynical, but it certainly seems possible to me that the trope can come from a deeper place — if writers are drawing on their fears, and if their greatest fears are related to losing their wives or families — I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong or disingenuous to draw on that. What frustrates me about it is when imaginations seem limited regarding the possibility of women doing other things, including being protagonists of their own stories, and that’s the intersection that comes up with Batgirl and the like.

    These are complicated issues and thanks again for engaging with them.

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