Monday, March 01, 2010

Women in Refrigerators 10 Years Later

[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).


Casey Malone said...

Spot on interpretation of Astonishing. With that, the redemption of Cyclops, and the return of Colossus, it's shocking how much that accomplished. Especially when Morrison, a writer I like a great deal more than Whedon, had pretty visible trouble with the X-Men.

I'm not sure the last ten years have been that much better to lady characters... Though the indignities have gotten a little more subtle than being stuffed into a fridge. Here are some from the top of my head:

Black Cat - In the Kevin Smith mini-series, the character was re-written in such a way that her major motivation for becoming Black Cat was rape.

Cassandra Cain/Batgirl 2 - Batgirl was a really strong character that, after DC's "One Year Later" jump spent a lot of her time being manipulated by men or her motivation focused on male characters... mostly Deathstroke.

Stephanie Brown/Spoiler/Robin 4/Batgirl 3 - This one is tricky... Tim Drake's ex-girlfriend, she gets promoted to the new Robin mostly as a way for Batman to manipulate Tim after he quits. In order to earn Batman's approval, she kicks off a plan to fight crime, but screws it up so badly that she ends up starting a gang war in Gotham City that leads to her being tortured and killed by Black Mask. Despite the fact that she died, and was a Robin, she never gets a "memorial case" in the Batcave... The hardcore (see: Scans Daily) fans were so upset by this treatment that eventually they brought her back to life and made her the new Batgirl... but I think that took about 8 years of complaining by fans for DC to even admit that they maybe mistreated the character.

Chris Sims also writes about some real problems with Wonder Woman and Star Sapphire (specifically as they relate to Blackest Night) here:

(Even though I agree with him, Rucka's run of Wonder Woman, Gotham Central, and Queen & Country are some of the best comics with female leads I've read this decade. Actually, I can even drop the female lead qualifier and still feel that way.)

Supergirl - She's generally presented in a highly sexualized way, despite that she's a 16 year old girl. In her very first story she spends a lot of time getting manipulated by Darkseid.

I know there are more examples, because I remember being disappointed or outraged on a fairly regular basis about this stuff over the last decade, but these are the ones that sprung to mind immediately.


Casey Malone said...

Whoops, second line is supposed to say "that Whedon accomplished".


scottmcdarmont said...

Good point about Stephanie Brown, Casey!

Speaking of Female Robins... how does Carrie Kelley's depiction in The Dark Knight Strikes factor in?

Graham's last post featured a link to a cartoon that parodied Miller's inability to write women who were not prostitutes-- or at least dress that way-- Carrie Kelley came to mind as a good example. However, in the final chapter of DKSA she is brutalized by the mutated former Robin... whose name just happens to be 'Dick'

KAW26 said...

Though I don't recall who pointed out the phallic nature of 10-mile bullets, it should probably be mentioned that Watchmen also has a triumph of the yonic (space squid) over the phallic (missiles).

Am I the only one annoyed that our terms for resembling genitals come from different languages? Someone should write the linguistic relationship guide Women are from Sanskrit, Men are from Greek.

scottmcdarmont said...


Actually, now that you mention it, I believe someone pointed out the Yonic V. Phallic in Watchmen in the previous discussion is well.

My feeling is that we should do away with all pretenses and call them 'PeePee' and 'HooHa' symbols.

Geoff Klock said...

Scott -- Quote of the week, and also AGREED!

scottmcdarmont said...


Thanks, that's what I call them when explaining them to my Lit. classes.

Peter Farago said...

KAW, no need to be annoyed.

"Phallic" is actually Latin, not Greek, and it turns out that there's a Latin word for "vaginal", too.

...that would be, "vaginal".

Jason said...

I would like to point out that back when Geoff did a blog posting asking for people to post some of their favorite rhymes from songs and poems (he did do this, right?), I posted a great couplet from a "Modern Major General" parody meant to be sung by Xena the Warrior Princess:

"My armory is brazen but my weapons are ironical./My sword is rather phallic but my chakram's rather yonical."

Also, John Byrne co-plotted the Dark Phoenix saga. I blame all the misogynistic aspects of that story on him. My proof is that Claremont sans Byrne did a lot of great stuff with female heroes, including all the major developments with Kitty Pryde throughout the 80s (without which nothing Whedon did with the character would have meant anything at all, blah blah blah, sorry, wasn't planning on doing this rant again ...!)

Whereas Byrne sans Claremont gave us this stuff:

James said...

Claremont sans Byrne.

Anonymous said...

The new female Hawkeye in "Young Avengers" had sexual assault in her backstory to explain why she learned her fighting skills.

Inertia in the Supreme Power series had a sexual assault in her backstory as well. As a superhero she is a bitter, man-hating psychopath.

Dove (Dawn Granger) was sexually assaulted by Hawk I while she was in a coma. This was written by Geoff Johns.

I'd say things have become much worse in the past ten years, not better.

Jason said...

Thanks for the link, James.

Yes, indeed, deeply DEEPLY misogynistic. Shame on Claremont.

Especially when Claremont married her off to the Black Panther. No, wait ...

scottmcdarmont said...

This brings up an interesting double standard in superhero comics:

The worst thing you can do to a female character is have them be sexually assaulted.

The worst thing you can do to a male character is sexually assault a female character that he cares about.

scottmcdarmont said...

This brings up an interesting double standard in Superhero comics:

The worst thing you can do to a female character is have them be sexually assaulted.

The worst thing you can do to a male character is to have a female character he cares about be sexually assaulted.

James said...

Jason: The panels in the article are both from Claremont comics, no? So, in the interest of balance, Claremont sans Byrne also did some not-so-great stuff with female heroes.

scottmcdarmont said...

Just read the Byrne thing... man, dude has ISSUES.... at least Claremont was TRYING to do some positive stuff.


For the record, refresh my memory: who wanted the psychic lobotomy ending to Dark Phoenix and who decided in the self-sacrifice angle?

Joe Gualtieri said...


the pyschic lobotomy wasn't the actual intended ending to overall Phoenix Saga though, just Uncanny #137.

Claremont's intention was to have Magneto offer to restore Jean's power in #150 (which still wound up being a key issue, but for a very different reason), and have Jean turn it down.

The second "What If.. Phoenix had Lived" (#32-33) story from the early 90s uses that version of events and the scene of Jean momentarily having the Phoenix power again and then turning it aside, despite not being written by Claremont* or drawn by one of his collaborators is one of the more powerful moments in the Claremont oeuvre.

Now yes, Jean Grey is still depowered in this version, but she's ultimately shown as triumphant, for having the strength of will to resist the temptation Magneto offers her.

*Claremont's credited as a plotter on the two issues.

James said...

Thematically it's the same ending then, isn't it? Either way the crazy women realises that she cannot be trusted with power - the only difference in the alternate take is that she isn't killed for it.

neilshyminsky said...

As a gender studies guy, I can tell you that no one says 'yonical'. Vaginal or feminine, depending on your preference and politics, yes.

Jason said...

Peter David has commented that when he had the Hulk get raped in "Future Imperfect," nobody seemed to be too bothered for some reason.

I can't believe no one seems to find that couplet funny but me.

Graham said...

Well, for every writer taking big steps forward, some writers are taking huge leaps back...

scottmcdarmont said...


I didn't say Yonical... but is 'Yonic' not a proper gender studies term? Has it been replaced by vaginal symbol? Because I do have oh so much fun getting my students to guess what a 'Yonic' symbol is....

neilshyminsky said...

I think that my slip-up was telling - no one uses yonic OR yonical. :)

I think that its being archaic has something to do with its disuse. Freud's language also had a lot of influence on gender studies, and Freud contrasts the phallic with lack, not with the yonic. And when gender studies folks use phallic as a descriptor, it's with Freud's meaning in mind - its origin is incidental.

scottmcdarmont said...

Interesting Thought:

Ok, we can all agree that the double standard I mentioned before is pretty much true in Superhero comics, but could this be a reflection of the fact that, since most comic writer's are male, that this is a reflection of our own perceptions/fears.

We assume that the worst thing that can happen to a woman is being the victim of sexual assault, also, as males, when we think of 'what's the worst thing that could happen' to us, we think of someone we care about being assaulted (in the worst imaginable way) without us being able to stop it. That is, at no point, do we think of ourselves as being raped as being the worst thing that could happen to us (as men) and, arguably, having the assault be directed at someone close to ourselves is even worse. Most likely, this has to do with male typically being seen as handling the role of 'protector' with superheroes just being an exagerrated version of that... so, the worst thing you can have happen to a superhero, the ultimate protector, is have him fail to protect.

Does that make any sense? Mostly just thinking out loud here...

Sham M said...

I'm actually surprised no one has brought up the Killing joke and the treatment of Barbara Gordon. She was shot, stripped and photographed as a means to injure another male hero and promote a reaction from her father. I guess one could argue there is no reason the Joker could not have done the same to Jim Gordon and tried to drive his daughter mad, while at same time injuing Batman. Food for thought.

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