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  • Writer's pictureEllis Barthorpe

Women in Refrigerators

Why is cinema so obsessed with putting female characters in the fridge?

Some spoilers lie ahead for the MCU, Fast & Furious, the DCEU and Gladiator

Yes, you've heard that right; 'Women in Refrigerators' is a real term used to describe a particularly weak plot device used in storytelling.

The term describes a device that sees a woman in a film, TV show, game, comic, e.t.c. be killed, injured or assaulted with the sole written intention of moving a male character's story forward. The more general term for this unwarranted sacrifice is 'fridging'.

In 1999, a comic book enthusiast Gail Simone created a website coined Women in Refrigerators, after discussing comic books with friends online. Specifically, the term came from the comic Green Lantern vol.3 #54 (1994) in which the title hero comes home to find his girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, stuffed into a refrigerator after being killed by Major Force. This removed her as an actual fleshed out character and instead turned her into a plot device to move said hero forward.

Now, fridging in any form is seen as lazy writing, but it's still found its way in to some of the biggest films of the 21st century.

The one that has sparked most conversation in recent years has been Deadpool 2, which kills of Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) in the first act of the film, leaving Deadpool depressed and eventually then motivated to "do the right thing" and avenge his deceased girlfriend. Deadpool joins the X-Men because it's "what Vanessa would've wanted". At that point, he's just using her to motivate himself to fight and kill. Vanessa becomes a woman in a refrigerator.

Fast & Furious 4 kills off Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), an exhilarating, boisterous character in the first action sequence - to motivate Dom.

Thor: The Dark World kills off Thor & Loki's mother Frigga (Rene Russo), giving the brothers motivation to work together.

Even Gladiator kills off Maximus' wife and son to let Maximus have something to avenge and fight for, though in this example the sacrifice is a fleshed out part of the story and Maximus is presented with other things to motivate him.

The term isn't in as much circulation as the 'damsel-in-distress' trope, but it's essentially creating the same problems: a female character that only exists for the male character's story. Mario needs to rescue Princess Peach from the castle, Princess Peach is given no character development, she is simply a damsel-in-distress (of course this was rectified in the new animated movie).

When fridged, a woman is reduced to little more than a plot device, making her character seem somewhat meaningless before.

Sometimes, it's not just a female character who's fridged, but a loved one i.e. Batman Begins and many other Batman origin stories. Even John Wick's dog is fridged at the start of his franchise. But now, critics are starting to see black characters be fridged to motivate a white character's story forward. Brian Tellerico questioned in his review of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier that they may have fridged Battlestar (Clé Bennett). Although this character's death motivates a villain's arc, it eradicates the relevance of his own character progression, merely making him motivation for his white friend. So still now writers are using fridging as a weak plot device.

Arguments can be made that sometimes it's just a part of the story, but that's something different. In Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, the lead recounts the death of his wife, and although her death does motivate him on his next quests, her character was not relevant before we met the protagonist. Although she does exist for plot movement, she is part of an exposition drop.

An additional detail, explored by John Bartol is the 'Dead Man Defrosting' plot device. Bartol reacts to people who claim that "men have it bad too" (eye roll), claiming that men always seem to end up okay. Bartol argues that sure Superman dies in the comic and in fact in the DCEU, but he comes back, inspires new heroes, grows in strength and is still a hero (he even turns evil for a short stint and is still forgiven). He was a dead man, but he defrosts.

Hal Jordan as Green Lantern in the comics goes crazy and murders millions of people, but after committing a self-sacrificing suicide to save Earth, he is forgiven. The mantel is picked up by another, and the Green Lantern lives on.

So often does the mantel get passed in fact; just in the MCU we've had male characters like Captain America and Vision live on in the form of another. Yet when Thor passes his name on to Jane Foster (somewhat reluctantly), she doesn't even make it to the end of the movie. Although this is all part of her arc, it's still supporting evidence to back up the 'Dead men defrosting' theory.

In addition, She-Hulk, Kate Bishop and Jane Foster are all heroes learning their skills from the men who came before them. And yes that is improving, with an upcoming MCU film featuring three Captain Marvel-adjacent characters as the three leads, but still the 'Dead Man Defrosting' approach is present. So why are men allowed to defrost whilst women stay stuffed in the fridge?

Well, whether it be comic books, James Bond or almost every Christopher Nolan movie, it's men that are fridging women historically as they find their male characters are more interesting. Often, male characters write their male leads to be something they wish they were, and their female characters as something they want a woman to be in their own life.

A similar discussion is had with 'The Bechdel Test': a device for detecting gender imbalance in movies, which highlights whether two female characters converse about something other than a man or having children. Just familiarising ourselves with the word fridging could lead to next-to-no use of the device, as has been the case for the most part with The Bechdel Test.

Fridging just feels cheap when it's used to make women characters expendable. When you consider the sexism and misogyny that has riddled Hollywood for so many years, it's about time we eradicated this lazy plot device. Not every woman in comics or blockbuster film or TV have suffered these life-derailing or ending events, but there are far more examples than there are exceptions.

When the death of a woman is really about a man, that is fridging; and I bet now you notice it everywhere you look!

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