Women In Refrigerators is a website created in 1999 by known comic book writer Gail Simone. She got the name from a Green Lantern comic in which a love interest, Alexandra Dewitt, was killed and stuffed in a fridge for the simple purpose of motivating the male lead, Green Lantern. She and her friends were noticing a pattern: the sheer amount of women in fiction who are raped, maimed, or murdered for the sake of a man’s character development or story. Originally the term referred to comic book storylines only, but in the two decades since, the term – most commonly known as “fridging” – has been expanded to refer to any medium. It appears most egregiously, in my opinion, in video games, but can be found in any medium. Here is, for example, a supercut of fridging in movies.
(Please note that TV Tropes include any character who suffers to motivate another character; in its original form, and in the way most people use it, it refers specifically to female characters killed for the sake of male characters development. When it’s men, it is mostly often more accurately referred to as “dead men defrosting”. Feminist Frequency has an excellent video about this entire subject.)
Think about it. How many heroes in video games have wives or daughters who were killed or raped, leading them on a rampage or to seek revenge? How many time is men’s motivation, their call to action, the suffering of a woman? This is a mark of lazy writing, true. But what it really is, is a mark of the sexism in our society.
I once read an article (which I cannot find anywhere, but I did find another one that mentioned it) that pointed out that it wasn’t only that women were hurt for men’s development; it’s also that women aren’t treated the same way when it comes to backstories and motivations. Women are not only more likely to be permanently damaged or dead than the men, especially in comics, where the men come back to life or miraculously heal while the women very rarely do; it’s also that in their backstory, it isn’t that men but the women themselves who are tortured or raped. That is, in order to create a suitably tragic backstory for men, the writers hurt one or more of the women in their lives; in order to create a suitably tragic backstory for women, the writers also choose to hurt the women.
This came up for me recently (well, last summer) when I tried to make my way through Red Rising. Despite the many recommendations I got for the book, I was dismayed to find that no one had warned me about the fact that the plot is kick started by a woman getting herself killed in order to motivate the male lead into action. Again, this is lazy, sexist writing, and it frustrated me to the point that every time I try to pick it up and continue reading it, I can’t help but think about this blatant fridging. (It’s also, as far as I can tell, blatantly a rip-off of The Hunger Games, but on Mars, which doesn’t help at all.)
When I brought it up in a conversation on discord, the people there responded with astonishment. Not only had they not thought about it, they couldn’t imagine why I would find it appalling or offensive. I don’t blame them for not noticing it. It’s so common, it’s hard to point it out. But when you do, you start seeing it everywhere. You realize stories you enjoy, maybe even love, are sexist. But we live in a sexist environment. We cannot ignore the sexist connotations of a trope. Things exist in context, and context cannot, and should not, simply be discarded when convenient.
I believe, more or less, in Death of the Author. We shouldn’t rely on paratext in order to understand the media we consume. But that doesn’t mean that when we interpret a text, we need to lay it completely bare, look at the text alone, and ignore the fact that it exists in the context of a wider environment. In fact, it is impossible to read a text without having our own paratext (in the wider sense) bleed into what we read, because we are human, and have a tendency to look at things a certain way. A gay person will look at the same text differently than a straight person, because they have different life experiences and therefore different biases. Similarly, a person with a degree in literature is most likely going to read a book differently than a person who never went to high school, because one is probably going to have a knowledge of literary theories the other does not. (Probably.)
So I believe in Death of the Author – to an extent. Books belong to their readers. You don’t have to believe anything JK Rowling has said about Harry Potter outside of the actual text of the books. But just the knowledge of what JK Rowling has said about the books is going to color the way you read the books. And similarly, you can’t say “but it serves the narrative” regarding fridging. It might, in fact, serve the narrative. But it exists in the wider context of a sexist society that likes to see women hurt. It exists in the wider context of a sexist trope that leads to seeing women as objects. It exists in the wider context of women deserving better.
From Deadpool 2 to Crimes of Grindelwald; to The Killing Joke; to Into the Spiderverse; to The Last of Us; to Bourne; to Game of Thrones. Fridging is insidious, pervasive, unavoidable. It is lazy writing in a sexist society. It’s time we took our female characters just a little more seriously.
So dear writers, stop friggin fridging.