Out of the frying pan into the fridge?

The world of comics has become a lot more female-focused in recent years. So why, asks Debra-Jane Appelby, are woman characters still put at risk to spur male heroes into action?

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. character Rosalind Price (Constance Zimmer): soon put on ice. Photo: Marvel/Disney.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. character Rosalind Price (Constance Zimmer): soon put on ice. Photo: Marvel/Disney.

Never mind ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’ (attrib. various since the ancient bloody Greeks): nerd culture still has a problem with sticking their women in the refrigerator. Not literally, I hope, but literarily.

I have been enjoying the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since its debut in 2013, for the way it complements and extends the films of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) as well as for its many more fan-focused nods. But mostly because of its portrayal of strong female characters with agency and growth and leadership. Skye/Daisy, Agent May and Bobbi ‘Mockingbird’ Morse to name but three. Ass-kicking, computer-hacking, jumbo jet-flying, stick-wielding, earthquake-inducing superheroines holding their own in the brave new post-Avengers world.

Even better, season three introduced another strong ‘older’ woman in Rosalind Price, played by the excellent Constance Zimmer, an is she/isn’t she good guy/villain ambiguous head of the government task force hunting down the ‘Inhumans’. Price even got to have a bit of a romance with lead character Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson, right up until the point she was ‘fridged’ at the dinner table, leaving me yelling at the TV and threatening to dump the series for good.

Perhaps I’d better expand on this whole ‘fridge’ thing for non-comic book fans. ‘Women in Refrigerators’ is a trope or recurring theme, first coined by comic book writer Gail Simone. It was in reference to an issue of DC Comics’ Green Lantern in which the eponymous hero comes home to find his girlfriend has been murdered by a supervillain and her body broken and crammed into the fridge.

Green Lantern finds his girlfriend in the fridge

One unexpected downside of American-style large fridges.

Needless to say our hero was devastated and motivated to revenge. Good on him, you might say. Hmmm.

The real problem here is that the use of violence and abuse towards women in comics, books, TV and movies merely in order to ‘motivate’ a male character is rife. Simone began a list in 1999 after the image from the Green Lantern book rang a bell. Still online and occasionally updated, the list (here) is in no way exhaustive and, as you can see from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is by no means a thing of the past.

Even if you are not a fan of comics or are dismissive of them as an art form then know it is not just comic books and super villains. Think about the vast majority of action oriented movies, classic and modern, from Death Wish through to Gladiator. Need to give a bloke something to get him out of his armchair to fight the bad guys? Nuke his wife and kids, that’ll do it.

As if the whole ‘damsel in distress’ meme isn’t bad enough, no, real motivation only comes from the brutality of torture and murder of female characters that are never fleshed out but included merely as collateral damage to motivate the macho hero. Like in Collateral Damage (2002).

And even if you are one of the many who do not regard comic books, or ‘graphic novels’ as the grown-up friendly term goes, as an art form or even relevant, a great many young boys and girls do. What we are teaching these young girls is that a great many of the heroes presented as role models can be so easily rendered tortured, raped, de-powered or just plain dead in order to make the male hero a bit more miffed at the bad guy.

“Need to give a bloke something to get him out of his armchair to fight the bad guys? Nuke his wife and kids, that’ll do it.”

Another thing is, it’s lazy. Marvel is currently doing great work in all mediums, with heroes of all colours, creeds, genders and sexual orientations, including the new Captain Marvel, Thor, Ms Marvel, Spiderman, etc. All great, all inclusive, all strong and bringing more people into the culture all the time.

So why, THREE SEASONS IN to a show which gets better with each outing, do you need to resort to this laziest of motivational tools to get your hero off his arse to finally hunt down and finish off the enemy once and for all? It’s almost as if they wrote themselves into a corner, had a meeting on how to get out of it and decided, “Oh, let’s fridge the old bird!”

Maybe I’m cynical but maybe I’m not. We have to remember that not only are all these ‘great strides forward’ still in the minority, with women (half the population and still viewed as a ‘minority’, go figure) often way more expendable, but that women and minorities are barely represented on the creative side.

And even though, like everything else it’s ‘getting better’ it IS TWO THOUSAND AND SIXTEEN for pity’s sake. You only have to witness the internet backlash any time a woman (or other minority character) is pushed to the fore, such as with the new Star Wars films, eliciting instant cries about ‘Mary Sues’ and ‘Social Justice Warriors’ ruining Geekdom for the boys.

Like with most things, people are resistant to change and blokes don’t like us encroaching on their domains. Remember the furore over the all-female remake of Ghostbusters?

Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter): a heroine, not a motivational subplot. Photo: Netflix.

Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter): a heroine, not a motivational subplot. Photo: Marvel/Netflix.

Anything and everything is seen as a thin end of some wedge or another but there’s always hope. It may come from Marvel itself. As with Star Wars, both are now part of the Disney empire. The home of princesses past and present. But the present ones are more likely to get into the game and kick some butt than swan around singing to teapots about Prince Charming being charming.

And Star Wars is leading the way with another lead female in Rogue One to add to the fabulous Rey and Marvel is taking names on Netflix with Jessica Jones and Fox with Agent Carter.

In fact, spoiler alert, in the last season of Agent Carter our heroine had to deal with the (almost) death of a love interest (she got him back) and the show finished with the (likely) death of another regular male, all-American hero type guy.

Likely because it’s a cliffhanger, and when it comes to male heroes dying in comic book stories, there is a ‘trope’ for that too. It’s called ‘Dead Men Defrosting’; you see, when a woman is killed to motivate a dude, she is gone, gone, gone. When a dude is killed off, quite often he comes back, quite often, stronger than before.


How do characters on the other side of the moral divide fare? Hannah Dunleavy hails the rise of the three-dimensional female antagonist here.

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Written by Debra-Jane Appelby

Loud, Yorkshire, opinionated, techno-geek, trans-woman comedian with a fondness for excessive culinary pleasures and too little exercise.