Bettelheim meets Green Lantern

This is something I didn’t know about: the women in the refrigerator trope. Anita Sarkeesian offers an illustration in three panels from the 1992 arcade game Dead Connection.

Wikipedia provides some background.

The term “Women in Refrigerators” was coined by writer Gail Simone as a name for the website in early 1999 during online discussions about comic books with friends. It refers to an incident in Green Lantern #54 (1994), written by Ron Marz, in which Kyle Rayner, the title hero, comes home to his apartment to find that his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, had been killed by the villain Major Force and stuffed in a refrigerator.[2][3]

Simone and her friends then developed a list of fictional characters who had been “killed, maimed or depowered.”[4] The list was then circulated via theInternet over UsenetBulletin Board Systeme-mail and electronic mailing lists. Simone also e-mailed many comic book creators directly for their responses to the list.

Oh yes, that trope.

Simone received numerous e-mail responses from comic book fans and professionals. Some correspondents reacted with hostility at the creation of the list and assumed a radical feminist agenda on the part of Simone.

Sigh. Because it’s so “radical” to think that tropes about women (and men, and blacks, and whites, and you know how to fill out the list) matter. It’s so “radical” to think that people learn anything from cultural tropes, and that what they learn can be bad or good.

Several comic book creators indicated that the list caused them to pause and think about the stories they were creating. Often these responses contained arguments for or against the use of death or injury of female characters as a plot device. A list of some responses from comic book professionals is included at the site.[10] Marz’s reply stated (in part) “To me the real difference is less male-female than main character-supporting character. In most cases, main characters, “title” characters who support their own books, are male. […] the supporting characters are the ones who suffer the more permanent and shattering tragedies. And a lot of supporting characters are female.”[11]

Ohhhhhhhhhhh good point. That totally makes it all right then. It’s just because men are always the main characters, who matter, and women are always supporting characters, who don’t. Obviously that’s perfectly healthy and fine. Obviously women just are less than men – less real, less there, less complicated, less filled out, less significant, less everything. On the mattering map they are a little dot down in the corner.

Sarkeesian has a bunch of damsel in distress tropes at a tumblr.




  1. frogmistress says

    I often complain about how many movies star male characters whose mother has died. I have heard in response, multiple times, “well, it’s the worst thing you can do to a boy.”

    Honestly, I think it’s worse for the mother. :/

  2. Glendon Mellow says

    Since then and thanks in part to creators like Gail Simone comics have been working on getting better. Still far from perfect, but comics the last 10 years have seen a rise in a variety women superheroes, gay superheroes and people of colour.

    I highly recommend Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel to everyone I can as an example of an amazing comic. The lead hero is a woman, the writing is top-notch. I just dropped off two issues at our daycare for the teacher’s 7 year old daughter this morning.

    Gail Simone had detractors at the time but I think overall has successfully shifted the needle in superhero comics. When crap stories like that appear, they get called out quickly.

  3. says

    The unimaginative hacks will claim to be “progressive” by swapping the genders (women heroes, dead boyfriends) or having same sex couples (more dead women, the implication that gay people “brought it on themselves”).

    Death of characters can be a plot device, a motivation for a character, an event meant to shock the reader or make them care about other characters. But in the case of commercial comics, it’s solely about selling copy – gratuitous violence in search of gratuities.

  4. says

    “To me the real difference is less male-female than main character-supporting character. In most cases, main characters, “title” characters who support their own books, are male.

    And they never asked, “Why is that?”

    @3 the only time I saw it used effectively *for me* was in Watchmen.

  5. kevinalexander says

    Death of characters can be a plot device, a motivation for a character, an event meant to shock the reader or make them care about other characters.

    Another reason to kill off the character is that the writer has run out of things to say about someone he can’t relate to and can’t develop because he never took the time to try to understand.

  6. says

    Re: killing off a character

    There is sometimes a character of the kind sci-fi & fantasy author Jane Fancher calls “the Man In Black”. This is a character that was created as part of the supporting cast but who, in the process of writing, becomes so big in the story’s universe that their continued presence may start to threaten the intended plotline. Not many options are open to the author: either get rid of the annoyance by killing off that character or sending them outside of the story… or else change your plot and center it around the newcomer! If the writer can manage it, the too-important-to-stay-a-sidekick character gets to have their own story in another book, film or series. This is how for instance Torchwood burgeoned out of the Doctor Who universe, by centering the new series around Captain Jack Harkness, too interesting and complex to be just a secondary character.

    I doubt it applies to Green Lantern’s girlfriend (more likely a product of lazy storytelling by someone who didn’t question their cultural assumptions) but I would suspect that commercial writers are more likely to kill off that kind of Man In Black than rewrite their story to accomodate them. Too much time and effort for what they are payed, and it distracts them from the contract they have to fulfill.

  7. latsot says

    Sorry to nerd everyone all the way out but in the Star Wars novels Legacy of the Force Luke’s wife is murdered *because* she’s Luke’s wife. She’d been a proper, strong character in her own right who constantly took the piss out of and often bettered Luke, but her fate was pretty much sealed. She had to die and her death had to be nothing but a plot device to make Luke and his son angry

    In my defense, I am an insomniac. I listen to audiobooks to help me sleep, alright. Leave me alone. But anyway this is a great example of the trope. Stop looking at me.

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