The recent release of a “women in refrigerators” supercut is an infuriating reminder — as if you needed one — of how female characters are (under)utilized and (under)valued onscreen. Katie Rife, writing for the AV Club, pithily explains: “After comics writer Gail Simone coined the phrase back in 1999, ‘women in refrigerators’ has become shorthand for female characters forced to suffer through rape, torture, and even murder just to give their male counterparts convincing motivation and/or emotional depth. (Because, y’know, ‘justice’ means nothing until your girlfriend gets raped.)” The inspiration for Simone’s phrase originates in a Green Lantern storyline where the villain murders the superhero’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, then leaves her body for the Green Lantern to discover.
It is unfortunately not at all difficult to brainstorm many, many manifestations of the “women in refrigerators” phenomenon. As the supercut illustrates, there’s a bevy of examples to choose from. The trope is ubiquitous. Female characters are constantly being used as little other than conduits to channel reactions in their male counterparts. When they aren’t present to incite male desire, female characters are often made absent — AKA killed off — to surface a more emotional side of the male character. They aren’t so much people as they are hollow provocateurs — be it of lust or, in this case, deep, deep emotions and consequent brooding or righteous vengeance. They simply don’t matter as individuals (and are often indistinguishable from one another because so little effort is invested in giving them a sense of identity). What matters is how they affect the male character and his narrative arc. The female characters themselves are expendable. And hey, if there’s a sequel, they can just cast a new love interest to replace the dead one.
We know this. We know this all too well, actually. Still, the “women in refrigerators” supercut is a powerful example of just how common laziness and sexism prevail when it comes to crafting female characters and their storylines.
In her piece on the AV Club, Rife asserts that “widespread awareness” of the trope “hasn’t done much to curtail its use, partially because it’s an easy out for writers and partially because ‘raising awareness’ means nothing on its own.” I question Rife’s assumption that “women in refrigerators” has reached the point of “widespread awareness.” In fact, I would argue that killing and torturing female characters as a means to offer their male counterparts more dimension and/or a reason to exact revenge has become so common, so normalized, so inevitable that most audiences fail to register the existence and perpetuation of the trope.
In this context, raising awareness does mean something on its own; once you hear about “women in refrigerators,” you can’t help but notice it often and across media. And it’s important to notice it — it’s important to notice how many female characters are treated with so little regard, and arguably contempt. At this point most people, regardless of their stance on it, realize that many (if not most) female characters are hypersexualized and objectified, but it seems that fewer recognize the pervasiveness and power of the “women in refrigerators” plot device.
Nevermind how reductive and offensive “women in refrigerators’ is. It’s weak storytelling. It’s a disservice not only to female characters, but also to the male ones — why does a woman need to be raped or murdered to explain, justify, or account for a man, you know, having feelings? Don’t erase/obliterate female characters to give their male counterparts depth — just give men depth in the first place. And so, I propose a radical suggestion: let’s give female characters more to do than cause the male protagonist boners and/ or tears. My guess is that fewer of them will be raped/tortured/murdered as a result. Until then, here’s a supercut of some of the more egregious instances of “women in refrigerators.”