November 16th 2009
A woman’s place is not in the refrigerator
Several of my recent posts have addressed the issue of writing female characters, with me defending the position (which I do generally believe in) that it isn’t quite the minefield some people fear. Having said that, it occurs to me that I’m being a bit disingenuous: there are certain pitfalls that can ensnare the unwary writer. So consider this the first in a series of unknown length about easy traps to avoid.
The title of this post refers to one of the most egregious tropes, Women in Refrigerators. The name, coined by comic book writer Gail Simone, derives from a specific issue of the Green Lantern series, wherein the hero comes home to find his nemesis has killed his girlfriend and, yes, stuffed her corpse into the refrigerator. While that use of a major household appliance may be unique, the pattern isn’t: a female character is killed (or tortured, or raped) in order to motivate a male hero.
It’s particularly common in movies, whose limited run-time makes the shorthand very appealing to scriptwriters. All you need is a brief prologue in which we see Our Hero with his smoking-hot and devoted wife — sometimes with bonus kid — who then dies senselessly and sets him on his path of vengeance. But it shows up in narrative media all over our culture. And, like many such tropes, the problem isn’t that it ever happens; the problem is that it’s a pattern. One which routinely treats women as the objects of violence, and as plot devices manipulated in the interest of a man’s progress.
Let’s be clear here: you don’t have a Woman in Refrigerator every time a female character dies, nor even every time one dies and a man in her life chooses to do something about it. The real issue is agency, which we can shorthand as the ability to make meaningful choices, to take meaningful action. If the woman dies fighting for a cause she believes in, she isn’t in the refrigerator. If she uncovers the villain’s secret and is killed to keep her from telling, she isn’t in the refrigerator. It doesn’t even have to be noble; if she makes a stupid mistake and gets herself dead, I still don’t think it’s part of this trope. The point is that her death has a context related to her own actions. She’s a character, not a pawn sacrificed to push someone else’s story forward.
This trope is infuriating enough when the pawn in question is some throwaway blonde hottie whose entire characterization consists of her blonde hottieness. It’s a hell of a lot worse when I connect to an interesting and engaging character, and then the Hand of the Author comes down and chucks her in the trash for no better reason than to give the male protagonist some angst.
(And yes, it generally is a male protagonist. The heroine-side equivalent is that — wait for it — she’s been tortured or raped. Generally not murdered, though, unless you’re setting up some Crow-style back-from-the-grave vengeance.)
This? Is lazy writing. As most cliches are. And in this case, it’s lazy writing that feeds a sexist substratum of thought which says women exist as adjuncts to men, they can’t be meaningful actors in their own right, and they are the natural victims of violence. Which is, y’know, not something we should be perpetuating.
Find other ways to motivate your hero. Give your female characters some say in their own deaths. I guarantee you I’ll find it 600% more moving than Yet Another Woman in a Refrigerator.
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Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.
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