Personal Agency and Women in Refrigerators

“But to malign writing for killing women when killing said women is a way of giving them the ultimate praise, of saying they’re the most important part of the life of a given character, hardly seems to be sexism to me. If anything, it is merely guilty of being an overdone plot device.” – Neal Bailey

Ok, so I’ve heard the argument that killing, raping, maiming, whatever a character as motivation for another character is actually a compliment to them because it shows how much they are loved before, but this goes a step beyond. The above quote is from a blog post. “Women in Refrigerators” is a phrase coined by Gail Simone and refers to the trend in comic books where female characters are killed or assaulted and seriously disabled somehow in order to provide a motivation for the male heroes in their lives.

I’m not going to argue that attacking the loved ones of a hero provides him or her a strong motivation, but I do have to wonder what villain in their right mind would possibly want to make a superhero that mad at them. I mean, seriously, do you really want a grieving husband or wife with superpowers coming after you? Really? That might deserve being thought through a little more before you actually attack his wife or her husband. But it’s motivation, and from the writer’s point of view, that’s the important point. I get that. And there can be times when it works. They may have had Joker shoot Barbara Gordon as incentive for Batman to hunt Joker, but she’s become a better character for it having happened. That event isn’t remembered as being about Batman, it’s remembered as being about Barbara.

And that’s the key point here. Women are people too and their motivations and hopes and dreams are their own. Yes, just as men are motivated by what happens to their wives, girlfriends and mothers, women are motivated by what happens to their husbands, boyfriends and fathers. Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem to matter. Female heroes rarely have family members stuck in refrigerators. And when the men do, it’s often forgotten after a few issues (Ralph Dibny may have morned his wife until he joined her in death, but more often it feels like the writers have forgotten the incident even happened a few issues later).

If a woman is her own person, even if she’s just a background character we never got to know, it can never be the “ultimate praise” for her to be killed to show that she’s the most important part of someone else’s life. Yes, it is possible for someone’s death to be the most meaningful thing that ever happened to them, but that involves them owning their death. It’s not that the person has to exactly choose to die, but they are personally ascribing meaning to their own deaths when they die (think of saints, dying for their beliefs with God’s name on their lips). These women aren’t given the chance to do that and have no ownership over their fates. They are victims, period.

Think about the way that sentence is phrased. How she feels about him is irrelevant. It allows for a woman to be killed for a man who adores her and considers her the most important part of her life, thus making her death the “ultimate praise”, when she doesn’t even like him or know who he is. Obviously, this isn’t the typical case. But the meaning of someone’s life, even a fictional character’s life, can’t be what they mean to someone else. What do they feel? What do they want? They must have dreams, ambitions, wants of their own. They are people and even the most minor of characters should be assumed to be the center of their own story.

Again, this doesn’t mean that they can’t be attacked or provide motivation, but it does mean that we can’t treat their deaths as existing only for the hero who is left behind. Every character has the potential to act, not just be acted upon, and suggesting that the best a woman can hope for is to be loved best by someone else takes all of that away from her. Even if we never see her own life, never see her act individually, it should be assumed that she can and does do so. She must have other people in her life, other things she does (a job, hobbies, etc.). To do otherwise is to draw a paper cut-out, not a character, and that is a disservice to our hero.

I would say that this attitude is pretty disturbing, and when only female characters are seen this way, it is indeed sexist. But it doesn’t have to be. This would be just as bad were it applied to male characters being killed to prove that they’re the center of someone else’s world, too. And if it were only applied to male characters (as it appears to be only applied to female characters here, although I don’t think the author means it that way), it would be sexism that way. But sexism isn’t the problem here, it’s lack of allowing for human agency and understanding that no one can exist solely to be part of, even the center of, someone else’s world and be considered a fulfilled human being. Being loved is important, but you need to be a person and have some kind of agency too. Otherwise you’re a doll.

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