Have you ever heard the term fridging? It is a trope that, put most generally, refers to the brutal death and/or harm of a usually female character solely to motivate the male protagonist. That is not to say that using death in a story is always wrong, or that the death of a character must never motivate another, but that stories are not real life and nothing within them is random.
In this case the trope of “fridging” a female character is used more as a shortcut to let a male character do bad things without tarnishing their hero’s reputation than serving any main plot point. As TV Tropes notes, this gruesome death is meant mostly to insult or cause anguish to someone, and is the hallmark of “supremely lazy writing” that is used to get the hero from Point A to John Wick as soon as possible.
The term fridging can be traced back to one female character, a cookie-cutter stereotype of a comic book girlfriend named Alexandra DeWitt.
Stop me if you’ve heard this backstory before: Alexandra “Alex” DeWitt is a headstrong woman who works for a newspaper, who’s interested in the male protagonist romantically but holds an on-again, off-again relationship with him because she thinks he’s immature.
But when Kyle Rayner finds a power ring, Alex heroically puts that hesitation aside and helps him design a costume, learn his newfound powers, and defeat his first villain. They even (mostly) get together for real. How nice for them! Kyle’s reward is a long career as an awesomely powerful Green Lantern.
Alex’s reward is to be murdered, mutilated, and stuffed into a refrigerator for Kyle to find when he comes home — the literal, grotesque origin of the term “fridging.”
And the worst thing about her death was that there wasn’t anything truly shocking about it happening, especially not to her character archetype, just that the manner hadn’t been used before. Especially in comics, it is a dangerous thing to be close to a hero, particularly a woman close to the hero. How many superheroes keep their identities secret out of fear of something happening like what happened to Alex? In comic book universes, the proof is more than there to justify their paranoia.
Alex DeWitt was just the latest in a long line of superhero significant others killed, tortured, mutilated, or raped to push their hero’s to tortured, dark actions. It’s the poster woman of lazy writing at all stages — and was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Comics writer Gail Simone responded to DeWitt’s death by crafting the Women in Refrigerators website in 1999, listing female characters who have met “icky” ends in an attempt to try to figure out why this trend exists. “It’s not healthy to be a female character in comics,” Simone wrote, before going on to insist she is neither editorializing nor trying to assign blame, but rather trying to figure out why this plot device was so pervasive.
This type of rhetorical device has existed forever, back to Homer and beyond when threats to female characters drive men into a frenzied, overly violent reaction. It’s present in the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Aeneid, Beowulf, and so on. If comic books are modern-day myths, and heroes like Green Lantern are the modern-day Hercules, then it makes sense for the storytelling devices to be used as inspiration as well.
Again, tropes are not inherently indicative of bad writing. The modern understandings of tropes, which can mean anything from a literary device with recurring use across different works or a cliche, isn’t quite what the term originally refers to. Things like allegories, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, oxymorons — those were tropes, and it is no wonder with those siblings that we began to associate the building blocks of stories with the technical devices of storytelling.
Some of those building blocks, while technically adequate for moving a story along, have aged poorly or have become prevalent enough in pop culture that serious discussion is merited — fridging is the example I’m exploring here, but it could easily be the Black Guy Dies First or Bury Your Gays — and then hopefully cause conscious cultural change for the better.
In Alex’s case, thanks in large part to writers and comics fans like Simone, there is something of a silver lining. Alex herself has been brought back off and on in the Green Lantern comics, and a few notable instances include an alternative universe version where she was chosen as Green Lantern with Kyle fridged instead, and then as a Black Lantern during the Blackest Night storyline. Alex’s death has also spawned more than a decade’s worth of criticism. The work to consciously bring attention to this problematic trope hopefully has also helped some characters survive the short-cut writing that killed her, or at the very least given them a more interesting death than “it’ll make the hero sad.”
But even today, writers, and especially writers of Green Lantern, have not quite entirely learned to stray from fridging female characters. There was an incident where Kyle Rayner, who must be starting to seriously distrust kitchens at this point, thinks he comes home to find his dismembered mother in an oven, but it was just a mannequin outfitted to trigger his PTSD. The term has definitely entered the conversation around pop culture tropes.
In this monthly column, I’m going to try to Open the Fridge as much as I can, profiling the characters who have been fridged, what happened, and their legacies. This trope began with comics, but like superheros it is everywhere in movies, tv shows, and books too.
The characters who get treated as “disposable” to the story tend to be women or marginalized, and deserve to have their lives be just as meaningful to the story as the protagonist’s.