“Women in Refrigerators”: Depictions of Abuse in Media


In 1994, the comic book Green Lantern #54 was issued. The storyline involved one of the versions of the titular superhero, Kyle Rayner, coming home to find that his girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt had been killed by the villain Major Force and stuffed inside a refrigerator. This gruesome incident is what motivates the rest of the plot.

This issue went on to become rather infamous when comic book writer Gail Simone (author of several comic books including Birds of Prey for DC Comics and Marvel’s Deadpool), included it in a list of instances in comic book history where fictional female characters were “killed, maimed or depowered” in particular, in ways that treated the female character as a mere device to move a male character’s story arc forward, rather than as a fully developed character in her own right. Simone and her colleagues were trying to make a simple point – “If you demolish most of the characters that girls like, then girls won’t read comics. That’s it!”.

The trope is now called ‘Women in Refrigerators’ after the Green Lantern issue mentioned above. However, the maiming of women was not just limited to stuffing them in refrigerators. Other high-profile comic book instances include the critically acclaimed Alan Moore Batman comic “The Killing Joke” that had Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, raped and left paralyzed by the Joker, just to get her father, Commissioner Gordon, turn to “the dark side”. Even the recent movie, Deadpool 2has been accused of using “fridging” to further the plot.

Today, this trope is not only common to comic books, although it is of particular abundance in that circle. It is not very difficult to think of our own regional movies where a woman’s rape or abuse is used asmotivation for the development of other charactersrather than an opportunity for real reflection on abuse and its nature.This is a harmful narrative that devalues and sensationalizes rape and abuse. It reduces female characters to props, waiting to be manipulated in the right way to provide the right motivation for the hero, and ensure some “superhero-esque” showdowns. It is seldom that one finds the abused women, or the victims take agency in this case.

This is not to say that rape and abuse should be off-limits in media. Quite the contrary. What the “women in refrigerators” trope warns against is the depiction of abuse as a plot device instead of an actual storyline andthe depiction of abuse for the sake of shock value or drama. Additionally, it does not mean that the media and movies that satisfy this trope are inherently bad. What is being discussed through this trope is the scope for better portrayals of stories of abuse in media and better perspectives on this harrowing topic. We have reached a point where in media, female-led narratives are becoming increasingly popular and as critical consumers of media, we must be aware of whether the media we consume could be improved to have a more inclusive experience.

Circling back to the origin of the whole issue, comic book and geek spaces are rather infamous for being largely male dominated and rarely inclusive of women. Women in comic book and game industries have to work harder to get the recognition that their male counterparts receive. They are often belittled or not considered as adequate as the men in the industry. Incidents like Gamergate controversy highlight how female game developers and women in gaming spheres are affected by the misogyny that prevails within the community. With this in the background, it is even more frustrating when the few women that do make it into the pop culture depictions are “fridged”.

It is not surprising that most, if not all, of the stories that come under this trope were written by men. And therein lies the crux of the whole issue. The only way to get more varied perspectives in our media is by ensuring diversity in writers’ and directors’ rooms. Men in film have done a fine job of depicting women and their problems in the media, but storytelling can benefit only from differing perspectives and views on the same issue. To excel,art requires a blend of different views on the same issues. Art of any kind gives agency to those who create it. It is only natural that depictions of abuse could be rectified from a female voice or two at the creators table.

The ‘Women in Refrigerators’ trope is a natural microcosm of the problem of the homogeneity that exists in writers’ and directors’ rooms. Better stories come from varied voices and perspectives. We, as consumers, need to push for better stories, and better stories come from more diversity.Rape and abuse are extremely sensitive topics, but that does not mean that we should shy away from depicting them on the screen. On the contrary, we should push for nuanced, well-rounded takes on these topics that do not serve as lazy plot devices or cheapen it to sensationalist tactics. Stop “fridging” your female characters. Start giving them the agency to tell their own stories.

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