‘Women in Refrigerators’: An Oral History

The incident that named a trope.

Gail was irritated. A hairdresser and lifelong comic book fan in a small town on the Oregon coast, Gail was annoyed at yet another comic story in which a writer chose to turn a hero’s loved one into a plot device. A few years earlier, Green Lantern Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alex DeWitt had been brutally murdered and her body stuffed into Kyle’s refrigerator for him to find, thereby motivating him into a Revenge Rage of Vengeance, and Gail was starting to notice a pattern. It happened that Gail was a regular participant of an obscure comic book fan message forum, so she raised the question among her friends there: “how often have we seen this story before, and why is it always a woman?” The search for an answer became a website that turned Gail’s question into a verb. Today, not only in comic circles, but in genre fiction, television, animation, gaming, and film, certain plot points are commonly referred to as “fridging.”

The hairdresser from Oregon is today Gail Simone, one of the industry’s top comic book writers and a fan favorite, and the “obscure comic book fan message forum” was the Unofficial Kingdom Come Board at “Jonah’s Page of Crappy Links,” the  precursor to Comic Book Resources, which for about 20 years was the best comic news and fan site on the internet. It’s been almost 20 years since the Women in Refrigerators site was created, and pop culture academia continues to discuss fridging. The phenomenon continues to occur in various media, sometimes as a deliberate reference, often as a subversion or gender-flip, sometimes as an inside joke for fandom, but most often just as lazy writing.

A character is fridged when she (or, as is becoming more common now, he) is the victim of a horrific tragedy solely to advance another character’s plot-line. Some people will cite pretty much any injury or violence toward a female character as an example, but it’s pretty easy to spot the difference between a tragic scene and a fridging:

When Supergirl dies heroically in order to save the universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths, it is her own choice, she goes down fighting, and she is mourned, honored, and remembered for it; when Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon is shot, kidnapped, tortured, and presumably sexually abused, in The Killing Joke, she is a passive prop, a victim used and discarded without a second thought. We see her father’s and Batman’s responses, but not hers, and there is no concern shown for her once the villain is captured. As soon as her role in the plot was done, she was tossed away. Supergirl sacrificed herself, but Barbara was fridged. (Of course the great team of Kim Yale and John Ostrander later fished her out of Alan Moore’s wastebasket and rehabilitated her into the wonderful character Oracle, but that’s another story.)

I was reminded of WIR recently when a friend behind the scenes tipped me off that there would be a fridging in an upcoming episode of a superhero show, and thought it was high time somebody documented the origin of the term and site, at least somewhat beyond the bare-bones detail to be found at Wikipedia. As it happens, I know pretty much all the people who were involved in the site, and was present during some of the early discussion, so I invited them to participate in an online roundtable discussion.

The first generation of participants there eventually began collaborating on stories and evolved into a group that self-mockingly referred to itself as The Pantheon. I joined Cabout a year later, by which time a lot of inside jokes, jargon, and relationships had developed. I’ll try to explain them as they show up.

The primary developers on the site, according to Wikipedia, were Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, Rob Harris, Gail Simone, Beau Yarbrough, John Bartol, but there were several others involved to varying degrees; F. Chong Rutherford, Stephen Cmelak, Brian Joines, Greg Dean Schmitz, and John Norris most prominently. Others, such as Antonio Santa Cruz Polanco, Paul Teel, Katherine Stanton, Shawn Feakins, Kevin Wilson, and Craig Hamilton-Smith, were peripherally involved as members of the community. Some of the Pantheon members went on to work in comics or related fields, but I was able to gather some of them for a brief discussion a few months ago.

Here’s a run-down of the main participants:

Gail Simone – Best known for her work on Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl, Gail also wrote Deadpool for a bit, and is currently writing Plastic Man for DC and Domino for Marvel.

Beau YarbroughBeau is a journalist in Southern California. His coverage of education scandals and political shenanigans in the Inland Empire have brought him a measure of acclaim and some awards.

Rob HarrisRob passed away in 2004 from a sudden illness. He was a research librarian, collector and participant in various fandoms, and as a young teen, created a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes (Nightwind) as part of a contest.

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey (AKA “Merl“) – Merl is a noted academic in Great Britain, as well as a pioneer in the field of online comics.

John Bartol – John is an executive at Microsoft.

 

Kinetix of the Legion: Depowered, repowered, grew a tail, switched to magic, mindwiped, turned into a monster, forgotten.

Goodbrey: I think for WiR I mostly just contributed a couple of covers and maybe the logo design?

Yarbrough: The logo design was Merl, for sure.

MacQuarrie: Given the recent, shall we say, temper of the times regarding gender relations, I think a revisit of the site and its place in comics (more properly, pop culture) history might be appropriate.

Yarbrough: You can find the site at lby3.com/wir. As I recall, I and Fred (?) did a lot of the compilations. But a ton of people were involved.

I deeply regret agreeing to let her have her text in pink, but what can you do?

Wikipedia says it was created by “Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, Rob Harris, Gail Simone, Beau Yarbrough, John Bartol.” We are described as “a group of feminists and comic book fans.” Huh. I guess if this doesn’t feel like a feminist issue to me, that might make me a feminist.

Bartol: We all earn our feminist cred in different ways, Beau… 🙂

Gail’s letter is a good start and the Reactions link at the bottom expands the work the rest of us did once it spun up. My main recollection is fuzzy about the initial CBR conversations. I remember they were nasty, we did a lot of Todd smiting [“Todd” was the Pantheon term for trolls], and the strong reactions were impetus for the work we did that became “Reactions”…

Gail’s letter, explaining the purpose of WIR.

And oh that Gail… One or two conversations about finances and learning to play the guitar, and suddenly I was “financial whiz, guitar-player”. I wish!

Norris: I love how Wikipedia has everyone involved’s occupation and has me listed as “fan”. 😀

Wilson: I was around at the time and might have been involved but if I was it was only tangentially and I really don’t have any detailed memories of any of it. I probably just offered suggestions of other examples of fridging.

Norris: This was back in the AOL days and I contacted a number of pros with her original statement and got responses. Back then I sent most of the responses I got mostly to Rob or directly to Gail but I don’t think I have any of those old correspondence since again it was all through AOL or AIM. I did some of the page updates as well on the site.

Polanco: Yeah. I only recall being able to contribute with a name of a character, Gail wrote to everyone.

Norris: Ive been saying for a while the WiR site needs an update but never knew which direction to go.

Yarbrough: It’s successfully become part of the cultural conversation (long ago). I kind of like it being a time capsule from the late 1990s. It looks like the era it was created in.

Norris: I meant content update, I’d never change the look. I can see the benefit of leaving it as is as well. I like the time capsule thought. A snapshot of that time and reference point to how far we have(nt) come.

Hamilton-Smith: I was involved in the CBR conversations and made some suggestions, but was unable to contribute more fully at the time, which made me sad. As for the time capsule nature of WiR, I’d leave it as is. The sudden and long overdue expansion of the subject in the public consciousness may very well lead WiR’s original intent off into weird and exceptional tangents, so if we were going to do such a thing, we may as well truly treat it as a sequel, WiR2.

Teel: The Reenfridgening.

Polanco: I thought this had happened in State of Insanity [a free chat site that I’m not linking to because most of it is cybersex now; Gail hosted a comics chatroom there at the time], not in CBR.

Hamilton-Smith: Both. We did the kibbitzing in SOI, and opened it up in CBR for comments, whereupon major Todd bashing ensued to keep the peace.

Polanco: Todds were utter droolcups.

Teel: What happened to us, guys? We used to smite them SO HARD.
But now they’ve won.
They got CBR. They got vast swaths of the whole internet.
Now they got one of their own elected to the US presidency.
And the Pantheon just stood idly by.

Yarbrough: I smite Todds for a living, Paul. I think the one standing idly by is … you.

Teel: Until the Toddiest Todd who ever Todded gets smitten, I am sharing blame.

Wilson: Smiting Todds is a young nerd’s game, Paul. A new generation of Todd smiters was supposed to arise, but they became Todds themselves.

Feakins: Yeah I recall mostly talking about it on SOI. And i seem to recall emailing John about the defrosting factor when the first backlash responses started to happen. But yeah details are hazy.

And man I remember todds…

Bartol: Yep, I quote you in one in of my pieces in the site!

Stanton: This isn’t exactly WiR, or constructive, but over the years I’ve gotten into the habit of checking up on the well-being of female characters that I’ve liked (also known as “is Lois Lane alive and/or relevant this year?” litmus test).

This past weekend, for example, I was randomly curious about the main female characters from the pilot episode of Arrow… Apparently, Oliver’s mom: dead. Laurel (Dinah) Lance: dead. Oliver’s little sister, Thea: was comatose for half a year, but now is sorta OK? …Bleah.

Characters joke about fridging these days. Icemen #9.

The most recent issue of Iceman [#9] directly referenced fridging, and there was widespread online discussion of Vanessa’s fate in Deadpool 2, showing that Women in Refrigerators is still relevant.

In the nearly 20 years since Women in Refrigerators went online, it seems that some of the most egregious examples have been deliberately rehabilitated. Two of the most prominent examples are Carol Danvers and Kara Zor-L/Karen Starr, AKA Captain Marvel and Power Girl.

Prior to WIR, each of them had been subjected to a variety of injustices.

Carol Danvers: depowered, brainwashed, raped, extradimensional pregnancy, powers changed, depowered, mindwiped, repowered, exiled from Earth, alcoholic, and finally, redemption and a movie.

Carol Danvers: After acquiring super-powers, Carol immediately became a victim of retcon-itis, a condition in which publishers can’t figure out what to do with a character, so they do things to her. In Carol’s case, each change of status was accompanied by a change of name and costume. First she gets her DNA scrambled with that of the alien Captain Mar-Vell, becoming Ms. Marvel (primarily to secure the trademark). After joining the Avengers, she gets kidnapped to another dimension and brainwashed by a supervillain, who impregnates her and returns her to earth with no memory of what happened, bewildered as she goes to term in a matter of hours, and delivers a son who quickly grows to adulthood to become the villain who fathered him. Carol, believing she is in love with him, departs to his extradimensional home with him. Later, when she returns to earth, she has her powers removed and memories wiped by future X-Man Rogue; her memories (but not her powers) are later restored by Professor X. She pals around with the X-Men until another alien race (the Brood) experiment on her and give her a new set of powers, turning her into Binary. After some time with a band of space pirates and other adventures, Binary loses her new powers and reverts to her old Ms. Marvel powers, goes back to her old costume and renames herself Warbird, rejoining the Avengers. She is immediately revealed to be an alcoholic. A few more bouts of depowering/repowering pass before she becomes the Captain Marvel soon to be seen in the upcoming movie.

Power Girl: Depowered, made Atlantean, vulnerable to pointy sticks, repowered, world restored.

Kara Zor-L: Power Girl started out as the Earth-2 version of Supergirl, with the little inside joke that the artists kept gradually making her boobs bigger to see how long it took for somebody to notice. After Crisis on Infinite Earths, she was rewritten to have a magical origin tied to a third-tier character called Arion, a sorcerer from Atlantis, with the side-effect of greatly reducing her powers. She later lost and gained powers as the mood took the writers, underwent a mystical pregnancy that resulted in a rapidly-maturing son who turns out to be a supervillain who eventually disappears and is never mentioned again. (That sounds familiar…) During her Atlantean phase, she is vulnerable to unprocessed natural materials… like sharp sticks. Eventually, post-WIR, DC figured out that constantly fiddling with her origin, powers, and costume was not helping, and finally said to hell with it and put her back to what she started out as. She’s been a popular character ever since.

There are a few other characters that have been through the wringer in similar ways, but fortunately, Gail & Co. put writers on notice that sloppy lazy plot contrivances inflicted on women were going to be noticed and called out, with the result that the publishers are no longer so quick to jump to this particular trope anymore. For that, we should say thank you.

5 Comments

  1. I remember in JSA Geoff Johns has Arion say no, Kara is not an Atlantean and that he lied as a favor to her real mother … and we never got a follow-up. I’ve often wondered what he had in mind though yes, glad she’s back to Kryptonian.
    While it’s not in the same league as Power Girl or Carol Danvers, Steve Gerber did his best to make Valkryie useless during his run. First he establishes she’s physically incapable of hitting women, then he keeps throwing her into fights with women. As I really liked the character, I found it most annoying.

  2. M-Wolverine

    I was a little confused by this one. Seemed like it was an oral history, then a roundtable that mentions Gail Simone, but doesn’t actually have any comments from her? Maybe I’m missing her bolded name. But then it seems like Carol Danvers and Kara Zor-L make a comment, bolded and all. Or is all that just a continuation of Stanton’s last comment, and not a bookend to the beginning?

    I think the ever changing thing with those two characters is that they’re really not characters. Just costumed women. Up until maybe very recently, what was their personality? What were their quirks, what made them individuals? They were women and they were….feminists? Shocking 70’s and 80’s male writers didn’t handle that well. (Of course, in the case of these characters, it doesn’t excuse them for handling them in some of the most WTF?! moments in comics history). Carol Danvers has always been kinda boring, which is why Marvel’s push to make her Marvel’s #1 female hero has always seemed strange to me. Other than the fact that she has Marvel in the name and doesn’t have the movie rights owned by Fox currently. Other than being made “angry” by writers they don’t have a lot to fall back on. Captain Marvel has mostly been a costume. A horrible Captain Marvel sexist knock off costume. And then a pretty darn cool looking sexist costume. They’ve salvaged her look some recently, but it’s not great. I have hopes for the movie because Brie Larson could add something to it that has been lacking on the page for most of her history, because she’s great. But no one could really tell that she lost her personality to Rogue, because she never really had one to lose. And the fact that Rogue never really changed how she acted (other than maybe being more heroic…which has never been explored – is Rogue only heroic because she stole Carol’s life?) shows there wasn’t a personality to conflict with Rogue’s internally.

    Recent, and usually female, writers have done a bit better with her, but she’s still generic super hero 101 stuff, from costume, to powers, to big blonde look.

    Power Girl isn’t even just a knock off of a male hero but practically just a clone (other Earth) version of an established hero. As long as Supergirl is around she has no reason to exist. So naturally writers try to do things TO her because they have no idea what to do WITH her. Which makes for some awful storytelling. While the origin is juvenile, I didn’t mind her being a big girl as long as the drew her as a BIG girl, and not a Barbie doll. Big bone heroes should be out there too. The problem is that silly peek a boo window, that one writer finally gave a really cool justification to that helped at least give a reason to the blatant sexism, in that she had a hole where the S Shield would go because she didn’t feel worthy or really part of this world. So they could have kept the look but classed it up a little by then putting a shield shaped patch over it…plain red, white with just the outline, whatever, that would have emphasized the point, kept the basic traditional look, but morphed it away from a 13 year old’s fantasy.

    That tragic inner self doubt behind all the bravado could have been a hook for the character. But it seems most of her history she’s just angry Supergirl. With some God awful Justice League of wherever costumes in there.

    But that’s a lot about just them. More my perplexed nature of why the companies made these characters a thing when there are so many more interesting female characters at both companies. But I remember the list when it first came out (can’t believe how old the Internet has been really accessible), though I can’t remember if when she started writing I remember Gail as the person who founded WiR or that connection was made later. All I know is I’ve yet to find anything she writes that isn’t at a minimum very readable, and is often really, really good. She’s made a lot of second and third rate characters very interesting, and has shown it’s about the writing, because you can make those kinds of characters interesting without having to fridge them. (And I still think her Deadpool is underrated in the pantheon of Deadpool runs).

    1. Dredd

      I think our confusion about the participants in the actual discussion is due to the way Jim presented things. In the last paragraph, he gave a list of main and supporting posters on the original WIR site and discussion. He ended that with “but I was able to gather some of them for a brief discussion a few months ago.”

      He then went into explaining more about Gail and 4 other main developers of the original site, right before the quotes, which makes it look like he was showing who was in the discussion. I initially didn’t notice Gail wasn’t part of the discussion, because I was too busy trying to figure out how someone who was listed as having passed away in 2004 was part of a recent discussion.

  3. M-Wolverine

    Ugh. You really have to wonder about someone who professes to love these characters since he was a child and then says “hey, wouldn’t it be cool/edgy to do THAT to her?” Have to wonder what issues one is working through to think that was ever a good idea. Hell, I wouldn’t even treat Dr. Light that badly, no more beloved characters like Sue and Ralph.

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