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What are Women in Refrigerators?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Women in refrigerators are female comic book characters who are injured, killed, depowered, sexually abused, or otherwise tormented as a plot device. Typically, the harm to these characters is designed to elicit some sort of reaction from a male comic book character, such as a desire for revenge. Discussion about women in refrigerators was sparked in 1999 by writer Gail Simone on a website, also called Women in Refrigerators, and this issue continues to come up in comic book circles today.

The term is derived from an issue of the Green Lantern in which the title character arrives home to discover that his girlfriend has been murdered and stuck in the refrigerator. When Simone compiled her list of mutilated, dead, or otherwise damaged female characters in comic books, she intended to use the list as a starting point for discussion. Simone suspected that “it's not that healthy to be a female character in comics,” as she explained in her introduction to the list, and she wondered why this was. The list elicited a huge response, ranging from positive commentary from comic book writers to raging invective from other members of the comics community.

Simone and many other female and feminist fans of comic books have long wondered about the disproportionate share of grisly fates which seem to befall female characters. Women in refrigerators may propel a plot in some way, but such fates seem much less likely to happen to male characters, raising questions about sexism in comic books. Furthermore, when male characters are killed or injured, they often come back just as healthy as they were before, or sometimes in a better state, in a phenomenon called “dead men defrosting.”

While there certainly are female superheroes and powerful female characters in comics, far more female characters come to nasty ends than male characters. When examining women in refrigerators, many people have asked whether the same events would have happened if the characters had been male. Women in refrigerators are often stripped of their powers in the literal and metaphorical sense; female heroes lose their superpowers, while other female characters are sexually abused or otherwise tormented. This doesn't seem to happen to male characters very often, and when it does, it's more significant than a momentary plot device for a brief story arc.

One of the most notorious examples of the women in refrigerators syndrome is Spiderman's girlfriend Gwen Stacy, who dies when she is thrown off a bridge by the Green Goblin and Spiderman tries to save her, accidentally breaking her neck in the process. Numerous other examples along with analysis can be found on the Women in Refrigerators site. Some comic book authors have begun to address the issue, criticizing women in refrigerators as poor plot devices and embracing strong, independent female characters who are every bit as important, and intact, as the men.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By clintflint — On Jan 25, 2015

@irontoenail - Would we really though? Most of the time when there is a female action hero, they seem to be motivated by danger to their kids rather than to a male partner.

And the whole thing is quite a large cliche in general. You can have a perfectly good action movie without including a loved one in mortal peril, let alone one killed or tortured in order to provide a grim back-story.

By irontoenail — On Jan 24, 2015

@KoiwiGal - I actually think this is more about the fact that we need more female lead characters in the kinds of movies where this happens. Men watch more action movies than women, so men are used more often as the main character. The main character needs motivation for action and conflict, and that means someone close to them is probably going to end up suffering.

I don't think females are suffering because we want to see females suffering. I think if there were more female lead characters we'd see an equal amount of boyfriends and husbands in fridges.

By KoiwiGal — On Jan 23, 2015

This isn't just a problem with comic books. Video games, movies and even books often have this same trope, where a woman will be killed or otherwise incapacitated (such as through kidnapping), in order to provide impetus for a man to start an adventure.

It's the same thing when they have action heroes who lose their wife and kids in a terrorist attack or whatever, and then consider their crusade to be "personal".

It all dates back to that tired old trope where a woman is used as the bait instead of as a real character, except that everyone feels they have to be gritty and they do that by harming the female characters.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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