28 Oct 2011 09:10 am

A Word About Women in the Refrigerators

Yesterday, I said on the the current page of Blue Yonder was a shot against Women in the Refrigerators, but I realized some might not be familiar with Women in the Refrigerators. Women in the Refrigerators is the name of a website/theory/trope by Gail Simone, the fan-favorite hits of comics like "Secret Six", "Birds of Prey", and most recently, "Batgirl". "Women in the Refrigerators" purports that many female superheroes in comic books are physically or mentally killed, injured or maimed in a variety of perverse ways. The website features quite a list to back up its statement, even if the list is more than a little old at this point.

I believe the theory of "Women in the Refrigerators" is only effective if it asks to what ends these events occur in the character's development. It's not really constructive to complain whenever a female character stubs her toe in a comic. Unfortunately, there's not the case with many of the examples in "Women in the Refrigerators", as often characters gruesomely dispatched simply to push the male hero into berseker mode or push them further off the deep end. That's the frustrating thing - that many female superheroes are generally maimed not for the sake of their character development, but instead another (apparently more important) character's development. Don't believe me? Look and see how many characters on the list fit the profile. Batgirl. Black Canary. Jean. DeWolfe. Karen Page. Katma Tui. Mockingbird. The mother of all cases is the website's namesake, referring to rookie Green Lantern Kyle Rayner's girlfriend, whom he later finds stuffed in his refrigerator by supervillain Major Force.

The most prevalent counter-argument to "Women in the Refrigerators" that male characters in comics are abused just as much as female ones. There is some truth to that. Both Dawnstar of "Legion of Superheroes" and Angel of "The X-Men" have been possessed and had their wings cut off (its generally not a good idea to have wings in a comic book). Both Hawkgirl and Hawkman died in "Blackest Night". Both Ms. Marvel and Iron Man were at one point alcoholics. But on the other hand, I don't think Iron Man had his "powers and memories stolen, cosmically-powered then depowered" and been mind-controlled on top of it. In fact, I'm just going to come out and say it: I don't know of too many male superheroes who have been raped. Female rape is played straight as an emotional trigger in comic books. Male rape is usually played for laughs, like what happened to the villainous Herr Starr on the pages of "Preacher" (think Deliverance).

Of course, simply ratting off every bad thing that happens to every women in comics is something of a oversimplification. Tragedy does provide the root for outstanding character development, if not transformation altogether. The most visible example is Oracle. After former Batgirl Barbara Gordon is shot by the Joker, she reinvents herself as an unstoppable intelligence broker in the DC Universe while still being a hand-to-hand combatant worthy of Batman . . . all from a wheelchair. Another character I like is Kate Bishop of the Young Avengers. Before she was even a superhero, she was physically assaulted (and by implication, raped). To prevent it from happening again, she trains and trains. When she is taken hostage during a wedding, she not only manages to save herself, but also the rookie heroes trying to save her. She doesn't have any superpowers - and she's not even 18. Good character development can result from bad things - terrible things - on the four-color page.

One of the recent episodes of "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" got me thinking about the double-standard. The opening had Batman tied to a rocket with government agent Steve Trevor. Batman works to free himself, but Trevor doesn't even move - he just sits there and waits for his girlfriend Wonder Woman to show up and save him. The sequence ends with Wonder Woman flying away with Steve Trevor in her hands, who gleefully waves to Batman. Batman's deadpan response? "What does she see in that man?" While its true Batman and Wonder Woman make a far more interesting couple (as seen in Justice League Unlimited), it occurs to me watching Steve Trevor play the damsel in distress - and be rescued like one - seems awkward. We'd be more comfortable watching the roles reversed - Wonder Woman as the damsel in distress and Steve Trevor riding to her rescue with a rocket-pack. This is why the counter-argument against "Women in the Refrigerator" falls apart. The double-standard against women in comics isn't simply institutional, but also psychological and emotional, and these roots for harder to overcome.

One of my favorite shows - "Chuck" - airs its final season today. Perhaps one of the things I like about it so much is that the two leads Chuck and Sarah are depicted as equals in their own way. Sure, Chuck saves the day more often than not (the show is called "Chuck" after all), but we've seen episodes where Sarah wipes the floor with dozens of goons when Chuck is in danger. More to the point, both Chuck and Sarah are flawed, well-developed characters. If you want to beat the double-standard towards female characters in comics, this is the solution - not Superman rescuing a helpless Lois Lane, not Wonder Woman rescuing a helpless Steve Trevor. Two characters rescuing one another. That's the measure of a truly equal - and truly human - standard.

(That's it for this rant. Tune in for another Blue Yonder next week)

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