[Scott takes a discussion from ten years ago and evaluates how it holds up today. He sent me this a while ago but we have had so many regular posters on here, it sat in the pipeline for a while -- Sorry Scott. If it makes you feel better I have one in the pipeline too (expect it Monday).]
For those of you unfamiliar, It was a little over 10 years ago that Gail Simone and a few of her fellow comics creators/fans noticed what they felt to be a disturbing trend in superhero comics, a trend they named ‘Women in Refrigerators’ after the event in 1994’s Green Lantern 54 where Kyle Rayner returns home to discover his girlfriend has been murdered and stuffed into his refrigerator by Major Force (Ron Marz would later defend this scene by explaining that, since the censors would not allow them to show the full picture, many assumed that she had been dismembered when, in fact, she had only been crammed WHOLE into the refrigerator… because that’s SO MUCH better). While often used as a blanket term to refer to any wrong done to a female character, it is more specifically linked with something bad being done to a female character who is close to the hero in some way for the purpose of a plot device, usually one that involves having the hero ‘undergo a baptism of fire’ of sorts or to ‘raise the stakes’ and force the hero to consider and, sometimes, cross a line that they normally wouldn’t cross.
To document this phenomena, they created this website which not only list all the female characters who have had atrocities visited upon them that range from being depowered to being raped or murdered, but also contains responses from various comics professionals (some of whom are the guilty parties in the abuse of these characters) where they will often attempt to apologize or, at least, defend/explain their actions (interestingly, Geoff Johns, who weighs in at one point on this subject is given kudos for his portrayal of the, at the time, newly created Courney Whitmore (Stargirl) whom Simone describes as “ a delightful creation… the kind of young girl character I’ve been hoping for.” So, despite our issues with him here on the blog, maybe there’s some stuff he gets right.).
Among the most common explanations/defenses given by creators seem to be the following:
1. It is not a question of bad things happening to ‘female’ characters as it is of bad things happening to ‘supporting characters’ and, since most lead characters in the superhero genre are Male, this leads to a disproportionate number of wives, girlfriends, mothers and elderly aunts who become cannon fodder for supervillains.
2. Just as many bad things happen to male characters as female characters, however, female characters are somewhat unique in that, with very few exceptions (Apollo in the Authority comes to mind and, if this story --co-published with the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse is considered canon, possibly Spider-Man), female characters are the only ones to be sexually assaulted or exploited in some way.
So my question is this: have we made any progress over the last 10 years? I know for a fact that one of the most egregious acts of this kind, the murder and rape of Sue Dibny in ‘Identity Crisis’ occurred during this time period (made only worse by the fact that she was murdered by another super-spouse who had gone crazy because she missed her husband). But, overall, does there seem to be an improvement overall in the treatment of female characters? I haven’t been a regular reader of new comics for well over ten years now (and I’m also pretty bad at picking up on gender issue stuff unless it’s pretty much pointed out to me) so I can’t really say myself so I’m really interested to hear what you guys think?
One excellent example that I can think of as evidence of times changing is Kitty Pryde’s fate in Whedon’s Astonishing X-men run. I posted this once in a Free Form discussion, but I have always felt that the end of Astonishing was a revision of Jean Grey’s fate in the Dark Phoenix Saga. While I do NOT believe it was Claremont’s intention, Dark Phoenix can easily be read as a pretty misogynistic tale: a woman inherits unlimited power, after being psycho-sexually-romantically manipulated her fragile mind cracks and, unable to control her rage, she destroys a universe; this ultimately leads to her destroying herself in order to protect the universe FROM her power (because she could, obviously, never control it herself). Now, given Claremont’s famous ‘feminist’ stance in comics, want to emphasize (mostly for Jason’s benefit) that I don’t think it was his intention to do this; but given his equal opportunity approach to introducing characters and concepts (‘is there any reason this character can’t be a woman?’) he merely chose Jean as a woman to be the host for Phoenix and his intention was that no HUMAN, male or female, could handle the power. Unfortunately, he did choose a woman and even I, who as I mentioned earlier usually has to have stuff like this pointed out to him, was able to see this particular interpretation on my own.
(Yes, Jason, I remember that Jean’s original fate was supposed to be a psychic lobotomy of sorts—or maybe that’s what Byrne or editorial wanted or something—and one could argue that, from a ‘women-in-refrigerators’ perspective, that really isn’t much better)
So this brings us to Whedon, no stranger to female empowerment. For those of you who don’t remember, at the finale of the series, Kitty uses her power to phase what is, basically, a giant bullet safely through the earth; in the process she saves the planet but becomes inextricably bonded to weapon (where she remains as of this writing). This is a rather clever inversion of the ending of Dark Phoenix; whereas Jean’s sacrifice required her to protect everyone FROM HER POWER, Kitty’s sacrifice is the result of her using her power in order to protect. This is foreshadowed as far back as the first issue when, explaining why he asked her to join the team, Scott notes, “Your power isn’t aggressive. It’s protective.” This would make the power (the one which saves the planet) a ‘feminine’ or ‘yonic’ one (Gender Studies People: am I using the terminology correctly here?). Also, when I originally pointed this out in the Free Form Comments, someone pointed out that the weapon Kitty is protecting against is, pretty much, a giant phallus (thanks to whoever that was).