Women in Refrigerators

alexandra dewitt

Women in Refrigerators (or WiR) is a website that was created in 1999 by a group of comic book fans. The website features a list of female comic book characters that had been injured, killed, or depowered as a plot device within various superhero comic books. Also, the site seeks to analyze why these plot devices are used disproportionately on female characters.

The term was coined by comic book writer Gail Simone as a name for the website in early 1999 during on-line discussions about comic books with friends. It refers to an incident in ‘Green Lantern’ in 1994, written by Ron Marz, in which Kyle Rayner, the titular hero, comes home to his apartment to find that his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, had been killed by the villain Major Force and stuffed in a refrigerator.

Simone and her friends then developed a superheroines which circulated the Internet over Bulletin Board Systems, e-mail, and electronic mailing lists. Simone also e-mailed many comic book creators directly for their responses to the list. Respondents often found different meanings to the list itself, though Simone maintained that her, ‘… simple point (had) always been: if you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won’t read comics. That’s it!’ Some correspondents reacted with hostility at the creation of the list and assumed a radical feminist agenda on the part of Simone. Several comic book creators indicated that the list caused them to pause and think about the stories they were creating. Often these responses contained reasoned arguments for or against the use of death or injury of female characters as a plot device. A list of some responses from comic book professionals is included at the site.

Ron Marz’s reply stated (in part) ‘To me the real difference is less male-female than main character-supporting character. In most cases, main characters, ‘title’ characters who support their own books, are male. […] the supporting characters are the ones who suffer the more permanent and shattering tragedies. And a lot of supporting characters are female.’

Some fans argued that many characters, regardless of gender, eventually return given sufficient importance in a storyline or fandom popularity. Thus, second and third-string characters (and not first-grade leads) are more likely to be killed off permanently regardless of gender. Sidekicks in general also tend to be singled out frequently. The deaths of Robin II and ‘Captain America’ supporting character Bucky were often cited as an example of this trend in online discussions. In response to that line of reasoning, content editor John Bartol wrote an article, ‘Dead Men Defrosting,’ in which he argued that when male heroes are killed or altered, they are more typically returned to their status quo. According to Bartol, after most female characters are altered they are ‘never allowed, as male heroes usually are, the chance to return to their original heroic states. And that’s where we begin to see the difference.’

Though the original list and website exist now as an archive, the term ‘Women in Refrigerators’ continues to spark discussion in comic book fandom on the Internet. The term and the website continue to have an impact on the comic book subculture.

Author Perry Moore connected ‘Women in Refrigerators’ with the concept of gay death and suggested that a similar correlation exists for superheroes who are (or are alleged to be) gay or bisexual.

Women in Refrigerators Syndrome describes the use of the death or injury of a female comic book character as a plot device in a story starring a male comic book character. It is also used to note the depowerment or elimination of a female comic book character within a comic book universe. Cases of ‘Women in Refrigerators Syndrome’ deal with a gruesome injury or murder of a female character at the hands of a supervillain, usually as a motivating personal tragedy for a male superhero to whom the victim is connected. The death or injury of the female character then helps cement the hatred between the hero and the villain responsible. Kyle Rayner is a particularly cited example of this case, due to the common tragedies that befall women in his life.

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One Comment to “Women in Refrigerators”

  1. Hmm, reminds me of the controversy surrounding how minorities are disproportionately killed off in movies and television. I always assumed it was because supporting characters are the ones to die, and that they are typically cast as minorities because the makers are disproportionately white guys who just assume the lead characters should be white too.

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