We’re All in the Fridge

In light of recent television events, especially what happened this
Wednesday, let’s talk about Women (and Men) in Refrigerators.

The
term “Women in Refrigerators” and subsequent tropes was coined by comic
writer Gail Simone (@GailSimone) in 1999. It was specifically about a
panel in a Green Lantern comic when then Green Lantern Kyle Rainer
returned to find his girlfriend had been killed by one of his nemeses
while he was offworld and he returned to find her body stuffed into a
refrigerator. Gail coined this term as a way to point out a lazy trend
in the comic’s industry where the hero’s girlfriend is killed for shock
value and whose death serves as a means of motivating them. Aka making
their death all about Character X and turning the other character into a
prop. Despite the term, “Women in Refrigerators” can actually be
anyone, male or female (though more commonly female, and even more
commonly a love interest) who is killed to further the story of another
character.

Even as they die, their death is not about them. It is
about the hero, be they male or female, that they are dying for. Their
death is the ultimate disservice to them as a character, reduces them to
being a prop to further the narrative’s goals, and is almost purely for
shock value. Let me be frank, it’s a cheap gimmick on the part of the
writer(s). Where they ask the audience to sympathize not with the
character who has died, but with the character who has suffered the
loss. They make Character B’s death all about Character A. Even in their
final moments, they are usually concerned only about the other
character. Often this constitutes the worst excess in misogyny and
chauvinism as culturally women are expected to sacrifice everything
including for the men in their lives.

Let’s shorten it up.

A woman in a refrigerator is one who:

  • Dies for shock value

  • Whose death is used to motivate the hero

  • Whose death is rarely heroic, but rather shocking and gruesome.

  • Who the narrative places no focus on, even when they die

  • Commonly resulting in the Death of the Hypotenuse because the author murdered their way out a love triangle.

Basically, if your heroine says something along the lines
of: “I’ve always loved you, Character A, but I know you’re in love with
Character C and I just want you to be happy!” as her last words on her
deathbed instead of focusing on the more important parts of her life and
the other people she cares about then you’ve probably got a Fridging.
When you’re using the death to prop someone else, you’ve got a fridging.
When you’re treating your female characters as disposable props, you’ve
definitely got a fridging.

A fridging happens when you make a death all about someone who didn’t die and their character development.

If
you hate the term “fridging” then you should because it is exceedingly
common and the trope results in some of the trashiest and most offensive
fiction writing. It’s right up there with “Bury Your Gays”. In fact,
they share similar shelf spacing in terms of intent. Both treat the
dying characters as disposable and use their deaths rather than their
lives as a means of promoting a narrative about the other class.

“It
was only after his gay son was dead that Frank realized the extent of
his own homophobia and valued his son’s existence, leading him to
change.”

“In the death of long time ex-girlfriend, superhero Roly
King finally received the blessing to pursue the hot tech genius
secretary that he’d wanted all along.”

“In the death of his wife
at the hands of his nemesis, ex-psychopathic mass murder Felix decided
to pick up the knife and return to a life of murdering the murderers.”

Your
story is promoting the idea that the only way these characters have
worth is in A) Memory and B) Someone else’s pain. They do not have any
value unless they’re dead. They can only be valuable in the memory of
others and what they push them to do.

It’s disgusting,
disrespectful, and ultimately heartbreaking in ways that have nothing to
do with the story being told. It continues to play into the narrative
that if you are a minority then you must sacrifice yourself for the
majority who care nothing for you and only your death, not your life,
matters. In life, you are degraded. In death, a hero quickly forgotten.

“Why do I have to die so you can learn your lesson?”

And
don’t kid yourselves, guys. For purposes of storytelling, this trope is
an incredibly attractive one and as soon as we all decide we can’t fall
prey to it then that is the moment we will. Part of being a writer is
recognizing what you’re telling, to control the flow as it controls you.
You get to decide how a character dies, what you choose to focus on,
and what will be remembered. It’s not that death is inherently bad, it’s
not that you can’t kill off women or minorities in your fiction.

It’s how they die that matters, it’s the way you set up their death, and it’s the death you choose to give them.

There are no rules.

So, how do you avoid the Fridge?

Avoiding
the Fridge is actually remarkably easy but it’s also difficult because
it requires time, attention to detail, set up, and a willingness to
stick to your guns. Ultimately, the best deaths are the ones that the
author earns. They structure the subplot around it, they lead up to it,
they tell it very carefully, and they open the trap door in such a way
that’s worthy of the character they’re sending off. This is especially
true if it’s a main character.

A good death is one that you build
toward, even when it seems surprising. Believe it or not, a good death
is actually narratively satisfying. You conclude their story. It feels
good and not because certain subsets of your audience hated the
character and wanted them gone or because you no longer had a use for
them so they could be sacrificed. It’s a conclusion and, unlike in real
life, a good one satisfies.

You’ll hear the arguments from fans that “it’s death, it’s not supposed to feel good.”

That’s
real life. In real life, death is often sudden and unfinished. It
leaves us stunned, angry, and wanting more. It feels unfair. We’re angry
because someone bright and beautiful has been lost to us. There is no
going back. They’re gone and they’re gone forever.

While art often
imitates life when it comes to fiction, death is actually cathartic. It
carries with it a sense of completion. It can have everything initially
that the above real life represents, but in the end it satisfies. It’s
supposed to. This is why tragedies are ultimately emotionally satisfying
in their conclusions. They’re sad, but we know they couldn’t have ended
any other way. The story has built towards that, it fulfills its
promises made to the audience and the character. You knew it was a
tragedy and you understand why it ends the way it does. (And if you’re
wanting someone to die because you think they’re a villain and they
deserve it or they’re standing in the way of a ship, I’m sorry. That’s
petty. That’s on you. That’s not what I’m talking about in terms of good
storytelling.)

Grief itself is entirely selfish.

The moment of death? That’s all about them.

Good deaths take work. Fridging is lazy storytelling.

Be the former, not the latter.

Tell good stories.

-Michi

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