Women in Refrigerators

The fridge in question.  Also, Kyle Rayner's costume is the 2nd lamest Green Lantern costume.

The fridge in question. Also, Kyle Rayner’s costume is the 2nd lamest Green Lantern costume.

As you may know, I like comic books. On occasion, I like controversies about comic books as well. There was a pretty good controversy in the mid-to-late nineties, following a Green Lantern comic (#54, for those interested). In that comic, the Green Lantern Kyle Rayner comes home to find that his girlfriend Alex has been killed and stuffed into a refrigerator by a villain named Major Force. It’s a shocking scene of violence, but the most shocking thing about it all is that this sort of thing happens to women in comics with some frequency.

In 1999, Gail Simone assembled a partial list of instances of senseless violence against women in comics. She started the website Women in Refrigerators and invited commentary from friends and authors of comics. Since 1999, Simone has gone on to become one of the most influential writers in comics. WiR is a fascinating site, and part of what makes it so fascinating is to read the responses from (mostly male) comic book authors. I would tend to group the responses into two categories. The first category I’d call “Effective”. Here is an example of an Effective response, from Dwayne McDuffie:

Interesting site. Of course you’re correct. It bothers me that I’m responsible for something on your list (the depowering of Captain Marvel). I have an excuse, it was to prevent her from looking like such an idiot (she was damn near omnipotent, and she always lost fights. I felt I had to depower her to continue to portray her as competent. Of course we see how *that* turned out). But the truth is, my work on her still fits the pattern. Maybe your page will embarrass enough folks in the industry that we’ll start considering everything we’re saying when we do stuff like this. Or better yet, maybe more women will be inspired to take the reins and write some female characters who aren’t plot devices to complicate the hero’s life.

Keep up the good, if somewhat gruesome, work.

On the other hand, there are lots of ‘Less Effective’ responses. Here’s one from Joe Quesada, but there are many others:

I think it’s sad and terrible. I think that too many creators got on the “Bad Girl” bandwagon and did nothing but pander and exploit their own creations. To be honest, many creators that I’ve talked to solely created those characters to be exploited and exploitative. Now mind you I don’t see this as a gender thing as much as I see it as a genre thing. Everybody is out for the quick buck and too many are too lazy to try to come up with something original. I know it’s scary but if tomorrow’s hot comics are about one-legged Mongolian dwarfs, than you can be sure that more than one respected creator will be jumping all over the concept but will claim to be giving it “their spin.”

So that’s the bad news…

The worst news is that it’s a million times worse in other parts of the entertainment field, mainly because there is more money involved and fewer morals.

What makes one response Effective, while another is Less Effective? Note that both of the responses think that Simone’s list highlights something important and terrible. Both of the authors would probably consider themselves to be on Simone’s side in the controversy. Neither appears to be arguing that women are actually being portrayed really well. But you can clearly discern a difference in the approaches, and you can probably guess which authors actually care about the issue. Another interesting observation is how many male authors had never thought of the problem before, but having responded to WiR, now actually take women in comics seriously. It’s as if even the attempt at empathetic response tended to trigger an increased sensibility and a likelihood to effect change.

Anyways, this is just about comics.


  1. Holy crap, this is amazing.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m guessing there is a third category, of those who double down and deny that there is even a problem.

  3. N. W. Clerk says:

    Is the violence portrayed in Brian Evenson’s writing equally pernicious?

  4. Kristine says:

    N.W. Clerk: yes and no. Evenson’s stories are sometimes violent and misogynist and deeply, deeply disturbing, but the violence there has the virtue of not being casual or thoughtless.

  5. Makes me want to pick up a McDuffle comic and see how he’s doing. Also, thanks for pointing out WiF.

  6. McDuffie was a good author (he died in 2011). He is one of the most prominent african-american comic book authors. Tracy, you have already probably seen his stuff. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwayne_McDuffie

  7. Oh wow… yeah, didn’t realize. It also contextualizes the thoughtful effectiveness of his response. Thanks.

  8. This is an incredibly meaningful post for Latter-day Saints. The last couple of sentences of your post regarding empathetic responses are the key message here. When confronted with criticism about the way women, ethnic minorities, or other clearly- or non-clearly-defined groups of members of the Church are treated, our answer should always be, “Yes, that is a problem. We can do better, and need to do better.”

    This is especially true for people who are not “members” of the group. The response of comic creator Mark Millar is especially salient in this context. When asked about the problem of violence and humiliation women are victims of in comics, his response (per WiR) is “As regards the female characters thing, I’m afraid I think it’s giving male creators a bum deal. The list does read pretty shocking at first until you think of everything the male heroes have gone through, too, in terms of deaths/mutilations/etc. Granted, the female stuff has more of a sexual violence theme and this is something people should probably watch out for, but rape is a rare thing in comics and is seldom done in an exploitative way.”

    In other words, this male, when asked about violence toward women, said, “Oh, but the men have it really tough, too.”

    This sentiment strikes very close to home in many familiar LDS settings.

  9. The PangWitch says:

    I don’t see a woman or anything remotely human in the refrigerator. What am I missing? it looks like maybe mattress parts painted blue? Maybe I’m missing some previous context to get what I’m looking at

  10. That’s scary.

  11. They had to edit the picture to comply with the Comics Code.

  12. Clark Goble says:

    I suspect the real issue isn’t the violence but the fact women in comics tended to not be the focus. As such they merely became plot vehicles. The lazy approach is to put someone a protagonist loves in danger or worse kill them in some way. This then sets up the classic rescue or revenge plotline.

    If the only problem in comics was this lazy writing it’d be one thing. But frankly the mysogyny in comics went much farther than that quite regularly. Thankfully both DC and Marvel have been trying to clean this up a lot. Certainly it’s undeniable that the writing in comics is much better now than it was in 90’s across the board. Not just with regards to this cheap “women as object” violence but just complexity of characters in general. Now not everyone likes this. Some people want camp, simplistic plots tied to various threats to the hero they overcome. But in general I think the format’s becoming better.

    I’m not sure what it is about the 90’s. I think the lesson people learned from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was that “adult” meant hyper violent, “dark” and even more sexualized than what we saw in the 60’s and 70’s. It didn’t mean more complex or deeper characters. (Although that sometime did happen)

    Even among figures typically seen as famous for adding depth and complexity there are problems. For instance this week there’s a controversy over a variant cover to Batgirl that is a homage back to the old Alan Moore The Killing Joke. That series was considered one of the peaks of the Batman writing. Yet it makes use of a lot of these same tropes against women (arguably done even worse) to set up a revenge plot.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    Scott, Mark Millar said some really horrific things along these lines. Especially as justifying rape. He just wants the villains to do something horrible to make them villains. So he just picks up horrible things from our culture and has them do it. Effectively he’s adopting the old classic structure of hero/villains from the 50’s and 60’s but just changes the evil acts to something we see as evil (rather than the campy silly “evils” of most villains of that era) The problem is that he seems completely unable to see the contemporary social meaning of those acts. He’s just so deaf on the issue that he can’t seem to even fathom what the problem is.

  14. The PangWitch,
    You’ve evidently never seen a REAL woman, then.

  15. John Mansfield says:

    The first Flash comic I read back in 1979 ended with the murder of Flash’s wife, Iris. (cover)

  16. Scott B. says:

    ^^and John Mansfield became a serial killer, so PROOF.

  17. When confronted with criticism about the way women, ethnic minorities, or other clearly- or non-clearly-defined groups of members of the Church are treated, our answer should always be, ‘Yes, that is a problem. We can do better, and need to do better.’

    Not so. Such an approach presumes women, ethnic minorities, and so forth are presently mistreated in the Church. Such a global presumption is error.

  18. Ji, it’s not a faulty presumption, nor is it a global one. The mistreatment of women and minorities in the church, both historically and in the present day, is not even presumed – it is known. Of course not all are mistreated, but many are. Seriously, peddle your stupidity someplace else.

  19. But thanks, though, for proving my point.

  20. Scott B. says:


    It’s partly (maybe even mostly) my fault for not articulating myself better, but let me try again–relying on the context of the post itself (that of effective and less-effective responses, and empathy):

    Suppose you are approached with such a claim–that some group of people are being mistreated, are unhappy, are offended, etc… Whether you believe there is a problem or not, whether you intend to change your behavior or not, whether you have any intention whatsoever to even lift a single finger towards the cause being brought to your attention, there is zero upside to 1) getting defensive, 2) denying the problem’s existence, 3) belittling or downplaying its seriousness, or 4) any other response that basically says, “No.”

    In contrast, offering empathy has exactly zero downside, and–as the post indicates–often triggers significant upside. Expressions of empathy–even if skepticism must be filtered out–are always appropriate, and can only help both the harmed and the people (intentionally or otherwise) causing the harm.


  22. Scott B. says:

    Further, ji, you’re just wrong anyway. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that women are treated PERFECTLY in the church, and that this is–just between us–completely factual and there is no dispute to be had. And yet still, a group of women approach us and say, “We’re being mistreated, we’re unhappy with how A, B, and C work, and this is a big problem.”

    Despite our knowledge that A, B, and C are working perfectly–and that these women are simply misguided and wrong–it is still correct to say “Yes, that is a problem. We can do better, and need to do better.”

    The reason is that you’ve misunderstood the problem here–which is that the church is an environment in which those particular women don’t feel welcome or treated well. Surely, as an institution, we want our buildings filled with people who feel valued, correct? Why would we ever want something else, right?

  23. Scott B. says:

    Short version: the truth of the point is illustrated by considering the alternative: “No. Your hurt feelings are not a problem. I can’t help you, and won’t try.”

    That is obviously NEVER the right answer.

  24. “a global presumption that…ethnic minorities…are presently mistreated in the Church is error.”

    Contrast this statement with those of President Hinckley in the Priesthood session of the April 2006 conference.

    “Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this.”

    Racism still exists in the church. Those who have a different color of skin are still mistreated in the Church. Why else would President Hinckley specifically address the problem in General Conference?

  25. And, apparently ji’s last comment, which I in part quoted, has been removed. But it’s pretty much just an echo of his earlier comment…

    I saw some racism in the wards on my mission, and thought to myself how grateful I was that that didn’t exist in the U.S. Then I came back to the U.S., and realized I was wrong. It did exist in the U.S. I moved to the Midwest, and saw a few members of the church exhibit blatant racism there. I’ve seen it in the Mormon belt too, mainly aimed at Hispanics (and, by some older church members, at African Americans). We can close our eyes and pretend it doesn’t happen, but it does. It’s still a problem. There’s still a lot of room for improvement.

  26. Angela C says:

    How can you write this post without a h/t to the Veronica Mars season 1 ender that was a h/t to women in refrigerators? Good post.

  27. Aw snap! I forgot.

  28. I thought this was going to be about Weird Al Yankovic’s epic “Livin’ in the Fridge.” Alas, once again Steve has deceived me in order to make me consider the wrongs that are all about me. Truly, he is “wise, yet harmless.” Scott B., on the other hand, is clearly his sock puppet.

  29. C’est la vie.

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