The title of this post, "Women In Refrigerators," is a reference to a comic book cliche. When Kyle Raynor became Green Lantern, one of the things that happened in the book was his girlfriend was killed, dismembered, and shoved into his refrigerator. The event came seemingly out of nowhere and served no discernible purpose that could be achieved any other number of ways without the shocking, pointless killing of a female character. In 1999, Gail Simone took to the Internet and discussed with friends how a disproportionate number of plot devices are used on female characters (such as Jim Shooter's story where Carol Danvers is raped by Immortius' son and gives birth just in time for Avengers #200), and they started referring to such pointless violence delineated along gender lines intended to shock as "women in refrigerators syndrome." The very funny Kieth Giffen goofed on this in Ambush Bug Year None #1. Ambush Bug is shopping in an appliance store, and asks the sales person if they have any refrigerators without women already stuffed inside them.
I have been working on a new Sound Waves piece that I might make into a promo poster or computer wallpaper, and it got me to thinking about stuff. Specifically, women and their roles in comic books or comic book style stuff. In just the past month, we've had....
1) See this? This is the currently being developed resin statue of the Wasp (a.k.a. Janet Pym) from the Avengers. There was actually a lot of debate over how to depict her ass. Wrinkles like she's wearing tights? Or the "spray painted on nude" look? I mean, there was a LOT of debate over this. If you wonder why comic fans are seen as maladjusted horny loners, here's Exhibit A.
2) Speaking of the Wasp, Jim Shooter has been telling people he never intended for Hank Pym to be a wifebeater. He claims that he wrote the script so that Hank had thrown his hands up in frustration and accidentally hit the Wasp, but the artist changed it to a backhand blow that cemented Hank Pym's reputation as the most hated character in the Marvel Universe. (I don't buy it, I've seen Shooter do enough revisions to history that I don't trust any of his behind the scenes stuff.)
3) And, of course, Scott Adams and his moment of chauvanist stupidity.
There is a long, long history of entertainment viewing female characters as incidental. In movies, women's roles tend to be the uninteresting girlfriend, the even less interesting wife, the bitch, or the slut. What they are in the story is not defined by their characters but by how they relate to the male character either at the center of the story or the male character they are attached to who is friends with/mixed up with/whatever with the male central character. (Pop quiz -- other than Princess Leia and Aunt Beru, how many female characters can you name in the original Star Wars trilogy?) When it comes to comics, however, casual disregard on bullshit grounds surfaces a lot easier. Why? Film and TV is a collaborative effort. With so many people involved, in production, acting, distribution, selling, etc., such things get forced down for fear that they are wrong or will cost advertiser revenue or any number of reasons. Comics? A lot fewer fingers are in those pies, so questionable depictions find it a lot easier to surface and be presented as entertainment (the rise of the "bad girl" for male titillation and its obsessive fandom was brilliantly skewered by Steve Gerber in one of the last Howard The Duck comics he wrote before he died, when Howard found himself possessed by the "Doucheblade").
Now, the bright side is, this makes it easier for better depictions of women to make it into comics. I have gotten a lot of positive emails about how I depict women, especially Holly in Stress Puppy (one woman said she liked that Holly didn't have "breasts of doom"). However, that's only for depictions. Getting them out to the public? That's a whole other matter. My movie, Firewater!, was rejected by one distributor because, if I'd put a set of tits in there, he probably could have sold it. That was his only comment on the matter. The lesbian romance that develops between Amber and Becca in Head Above Water probably could have gotten me lots of ink if I had depicted it as hotly sexual (and drawn the women as voluptuous vixens at the mercy of their sex drives instead of how women really look and nervously exploring this unexpected development between them), I'd probably wouldn't have to self-publish it. Rhapsody and Melody? I have nightmares of them being turned into lolis and the accompanying sexual cliches that go with them.
But this is what publishers are looking to sell to the general public. It's not so much that sex sells so much as the objectification of women sells. Consider that Hank Pym was having a mental breakdown when he struck Janet. He has done everything he can to try and put the incident behind him, complete with creative teams trying to present him as heroic and atoning for his horrendous act, and he is still a wifebeater and the loser of the Marvel Universe. By way of contrast, Peter Parker, when he was being mind controlled by the Jackal, struck a pregnant Mary Jane. A few issues later, things were back to normal, the two snuggling together, and not a hint of what happened.
Maybe it's because the Peter Parker incident was ignored. The status quo is that Parker is a good guy, and everyone in the series relates to him as that. The status quo in the Avengers is the Hank Pym is a loser (after The Siege, Pym tried to reform the Avengers, and Iron Man basically took leadership from him. Pym asked why considering he was the one who regathered the team. Iron Man told him, "Three words -- You're. Hank. Pym."), so any detail that affirms that status quo is used. And that means Parker is forgiven for beating his wife, but Pym will never be. Mary Jane isn't traumatized by Parker hitting her. Janet was, but Hank worked to regain her trust, and she's been trying to help Hank move past this (she didn't do it right away, but he did prove himself to her). The only difference is Hank has slowly regained her trust. Parker never really lost MJ's trust. Which is not how domestic violence works.
Men have all kinds of motivations to become heroes in comics. Women? It comes down to two things -- death of a family member, or being raped (the current incarnation of the Huntress has both of these, with her mob family killed by a rival gang and then getting raped). Now, the thing is, and this is the scary part, that these things are selling. There is a sizable portion of the audience that is perfectly fine with women being presented for their entertainment in this way. I've commented before how comics seem to have a giant, "No girls allowed" sign out front. With only certain exceptions (Birds Of Prey, written by the aforementioned Gail Simone, Mayday Parker, and a few others), women do not fall outside the four roles mentioned up above (Rogue and Gambit's romance went from believable and heartbreaking to her treating him like a chump and him taking it, no hint of the depth and underlying regard she had for him). iCarly on Nickelodeon also has the characters using their feminine appeal to get the boy smitten with Carly to do all kinds of grunt work for them. If content providers only provide what sells, then what does that say about the people buying it?
Comics are a wonderful medium. And they have an extra layer because far more personal visions can get out there unimpeded and, if you're smart, you can be a success a lot easier than you can in other media. My casual run-in with a Sound Waves fan who couldn't wait to show me off to her daughters who also loved my books proves that. But it's a double edged sword. Just as the good can get out there, so can the bad.
And what's really sad is the good gets marginalized while the bad gets exclusive deals and profit participation.
It's not just the characters who view women as incidental. The creators, the publishers, the audience, the merchandisers, everybody does. More's the pity.