As a woman who reads comics, I meet a lot of people who are shocked by the depth of my obsession. There is a stereotype connected to comic fans and it usually involves dorky guys who have barely ever spoken to a girl. One reason for this fallacy is that comics are, for the most part, geared towards a male audience. The main characters are male, the women wear revealing clothes and the plots tend towards gritty action and violence.
Obviously there are comics that are the opposite of this fallacy, and there are women, like myself, who enjoy reading stories full of explosions and guys kicking ass. But the biggest problem with some of these comics – indeed, comics in general – is an issue that has led to many women steering clear of the genre. This is the consistent mistreatment of female characters, also known as Women in Refrigerators.
Classic comics were built on specific tropes, one of these being the Damsel in Distress. The hero always needs a pretty girl to save from the bad guy, going back to the first ever superhero comic, Action Comics 1. Lois Lane was being hassled by some gangsters, so Superman needed to rush in and fly her away. But over the decades, the depths of the distress grew to epic proportions. Heroes’ girlfriends were being tortured, mutilated and even killed to add drama to the protagonists’ stories. Even female heroes were not immune to this.
In 1999, comic fan and future creator Gail Simone coined the term "Women in Refrigerators" to describe this phenomenon of injuring, killing or otherwise depowering women to further male plots. The name comes from a 1994 issue of Green Lantern when the Lantern at the time, Kyle Rayner, came home to find that his girlfriend had been killed and stuffed into his fridge by a villain.
What began as a discussion between friends online turned into a rather controversial debate within the industry. Simone and a group of her fellow fans created a website with an extensive list of characters that fell into “WiR.” Some of these included the Hulk’s wife Betty Banner, who had been “abused, changed into a harpy, suffered multiple miscarriages” and is now dead. Another character is Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, who was “mind-controlled, impregnated by rape, had powers and memories stolen, cosmic-powered then depowered” – SHEESH! The list is fairly unsettling and it isn’t even complete.
Many in the industry responded defensively to the site. One point made was that these instances were mostly ones in which the supporting characters suffered, be they male or female. There is a history of injuring and killing male sidekicks for a similar effect on the protagonists going back to the ‘60s and the trauma on Captain America in the aftermath of losing his partner Bucky.
But whatever the reasoning behind these instances of “WiR,” it was clear that women were being consistently mistreated. The debate has raged over the last 13 years, but creators have made a conscious effort to not fall into misogynistic tropes. Simone herself has gone on to create some of the most diverse and beloved series in the last decade. Birds of Prey, her long-running title at DC, is an all-female team full of women who were on the “WiR” list, including the paralyzed Barbara Gordon and the second Black Canary, a survivor of mutilation and torture. Under Simone’s care, these heroes (and many others), have grown and thrived.
Comics may have their share of sexism and stereotypes, but there are also scores of series that transcend to something great. Long story short, if you’re reading something that doesn’t sit well with you, there’s always something better out there. And don’t be afraid to go online and make your opinions known. It led to Gail Simone being one of the most celebrated writers today – I’m certainly having fun with it.