In light of tomorrow’s discussion I wanted to get into the concept of “fridging” and what it means before answering a question brought up by what little we know of the in-production Ant Man movie. It’s also a trope term that pops up a lot in story discussions, which is what Trope Shark was designed to address. Fridging (or “stuffed into the fridge”) is one of those tropes nobody wants to see because it basically ruins a perfectly good character for less than perfect reasons. It’s also one that is at least at risk of being misused in the future if it isn’t already.
Comic fans already know this one but this article series is for those who aren’t fully aware of trope terms. In the 90s Kyle Rayner, a cartoonist from New York, was the sole Green Lantern due to too many events to go over here. He had a semi-girlfriend named Alexandra DeWitt, a photographer who was helping him learn his new powers as Green Lantern. However, others wanted the power that came from wielding a ring that can create solid light constructs and sent the villain Major Force to acquire it. He happened upon Alex and killed her. This wasn’t enough, however, as he also dismembered her and stuffed her into Kyle’s refrigerator, hence the original name of this trope, “women in refrigerators”. In fact, most of the victims of this trope are females.
(This also demonstrated the issues with the Comics Code Authority, who insisted that the dismembered parts not be shown. Otherwise, having her limbs removed and shoved into the lettuce crisper they had no trouble with. I’m planning discuss the CCA and the code itself in the future.)
The original name came from comic writer Gail Simone, who made note of the fact that this was becoming a regular issue for female characters being killed off or depowered not for the character but the character’s male counterpart who would now be extra driven for revenge or something. Or sometimes the female hero would be depowered or weakened for no good reason. It should be noted that men are not safe from that as well. For example, if you charted Superman’s power levels the line would look like the design for a mile long roller coaster. However, female characters usually get the short end on this one. (And if we’re honest a few other short ends as well. I’ll probably get into that tomorrow.)
From TV Tropes:
A character is killed off in a particularly gruesome manner and left to be found just to offend or insult someone, or to cause someone serious anguish. The usual victims are those who matter to the hero, specifically best buddies, love interests, and sidekicks. In some cases, the doomed character may be killed by natural forces or by a character who doesn’t have the intent to cause someone else angst — in this case, the intent comes from the writer, who wants to rouse strong emotions in another character.
While it is strictly true that Tropes Are Not Bad, this one, especially as a catchphrase, is often given a very negative connotation as it is all too often a hallmark of supremely lazy writing – using a dead woman as “cheap anger” for the male protagonist, and devaluing the life of a woman in the process, instead of giving the villain something actually interesting to do that can involve all three characters and more emotions than simple anger and angst.
Like I said, it’s mostly female characters who die for no other reason than to give a hero (usually a male) a reason to swear revenge or become a “better hero” in their memory or some such thing. The problem comes when that character is a good enough character to keep in the story as they can be an asset to the hero while still alive. However, the writer (or sometimes the editor, director, or producer) will insist that the hero needs some tragedy because they prefer the darker, brooding hero or the character being fridged is too fun a character when they want to do away with more light-hearted aspects of the series.
Now here’s a question I’d like to pose: do we count deaths as an origin story? Could Uncle Ben or Thomas and Martha Wayne have served a purpose other than “born to die” in order to make Spider-Man learn he had a responsibility to use his powers to help others or to convince Bruce to use his fortune to prepare a war on crime that the police couldn’t match? What about Damien, speaking of Batman? Damien Wayne (the son of Bruce and recurring love interest Talia) was intended to die at the end of his storyline but he ended up being liked by the writers and popular with the fans so he stuck around a long time and it’s possible he will return to his father’s side when the current storyline is done because characters the writer loves enough will never stay dead. Uncle Ben and the Waynes died to make their respective charges become crimefighters. Can we also say that most of Krypton (except for Supergirl, a few pets, and some criminals) were fridged to create Superman? I don’t think so in these cases. Damien appears to have a date with the Lazarus Pit (a series of strange pools that can resurrect the recently deceased but damages their minds) and it was only in later stories did Ben Parker or the Waynes get any kind of character development.
I know we can include Jonathan Kent, who has a nasty habit of dying lately, leaving Martha a widow. It happened in Smallville and Man Of Steel, even though in original continuity John and Martha died together thanks to an illness they received while on an adventure with Superboy. Post Crisis (which took place after the Crisis On Infinite Earths event that rebooted much of the DC comic universe) and just before the New 52 (another reboot) John was killed again, with Martha alive, after an attack by some of Superman’s foes. (Yes, comic fans, I know the full story.) His death only happened to make Superman brood over his dad’s death. Johnathan Kent was in fact fridged. If you’ve read the Firestorm comic reviews I think we can make the case for Ed Raymond as well.
I’m focusing on comics because that’s where it all stems from but it happens in other medium as well. The problem with going to anything with actors is that actors leave a show and if they have no intention of coming back their character will be killed off. It happened in NCIS for example, when one of the cast decided to leave and so the writers or show runners decided to have her killed off by a surprise sniper bullet. You have Anakin Skywalker’s mother killed to add tragedy to the origin of Darth Vader and you can make the case for Padame dying as well, which also sends Luke and Leia to separate planets. TV Tropes contributor also suggest things like the horse from the Godfather movie or numerous Bond girls (including one that Bond actually married).
Sometimes character are fridged to bring themselves a tragic addition to their story. This is usually in the form of a female character suddenly having rape either happen to them or retroactively added to their history. It could be full rape or simply something so humiliating they might as well have been raped, an emotional rape at least. Going back to comics (where this trope more often shows up) Spider-Woman is stripped naked when captured by villains. (Oddly, this same comic was later reprinted as part of Free Comic Book Day with clothes drawn on her.) Black Cat was also thrown rape into her backstory while Carol was tortured in the days before she became Ms. Marvel as she was a fighter pilot and one time found herself crashed behind enemy lines. You could also make the case of child sexual abuse added to Spider-Man’s backstory, but this was for a comic to teach kids how to deal with being sexually abused by someone and young Peter got away from his “friend” before he got too badly molested, unlike the other three. So at the very least it isn’t the same level.
The problem isn’t the addition of tragedy but the reason for it and how it can damage or eliminate a perfectly good character. Longtime readers remember when I went over the case of Lian Harper, a little girl who was the daughter of Roy Harper, single father and superhero. She was killed off (and Roy’s arm removed) to give him more tragedy and because the people in charge didn’t want to write about a single father for really dumb reasons. Also the girl was cute and added some light moments to a story and we can’t have that any more. Unless you’re writing a Marvel movie instead of a DC one.
Then you have the characters who seem to be drawn to this trope like a refrigerator magnet. Kyle isn’t the only Green Lantern to have a loved one killed in general or by Major Force specifically. Then there’s the Hulk, who has plenty of dead lovers as both Bruce Banner and the Hulk to have their own section of a graveyard. Even kids shows aren’t free of this. Going over TV Trope’s entries I was reminded that Transformers Animated, the second most young kid targeted Transformers series (Rescue Bots being number one), had their version of Arcee with her mind wiped (and don’t get me started on Arcee’s comic treatment) to show TA’s Ratchet’s biggest failure during the war (that Arcee only had a toy as a Toys R Us exclusive) and another Autobot going through a horrific tragedy that nearly destroyed her but instead turned her into the psychotic (for a kids show) and half-organic Blackarachnia, working as both an issue for Optimus and Sentinel but also to give herself a dark past. That’s practically a double-fridging.
I brought up Uncle Ben and the Waynes earlier, so there was a time when this was simply an interesting backstory. In fact you can probably go back well before Kyle and find examples of this happening to women or even men as far back as cowboy stories or ballads. (Heck, I’ll make the case for the guy in Barry Manolo’s “Copacabana”.) However, it’s become a lazy attempt to make every character dark either from personal suffering or losing a loved one, the “Batmanification” of every hero, super or otherwise, they can. It was kind of lampshaded in The Last Action Hero when Arnold’s son was killed off in an earlier film. Female characters are often the hardest hit because in writers’ minds rape is something that happens to women or the big hero male has to save or avenge the lady or brood about her death. Males 18-34 are often the target audience for DC and Marvel now. While men can be on either side of the refrigerator door that death is rarely about affecting the lady hero unless it happens to her and even if it was the trope is about killing off or damaging a perfectly good character to darken the hero and it needs to stop. Especially to the womenfolk. No wonder there aren’t that many women reading superhero comics today.