(This article contains spoilers for “Deadpool 2” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”)
In 1999, famous comic book writer Gail Simone created a website called Women in Refrigerators in reaction to instances of “fridging” among female comic book characters. The term “fridging” originated from the violent murder of Alexandra DeWitt in one issue of the DC series “Green Lantern” in which her body was stuffed into a fridge for Kyle Rayner (Green Lantern) to find. Thus, according to TV Tropes, the word’s definition typically refers to “a character [who] is killed off in a particularly gruesome manner and left to be found just to offend or insult someone, or to cause someone serious anguish.” However, it has also been expanded over the years to mean “any character who is targeted by an antagonist who has them killed off, abused, raped, incapacitated, de-powered, or brainwashed for the sole purpose of affecting another character, motivating them to take action.”
In most cases, this phenomenon affects female characters in order to provoke a reaction from a male protagonist, making it a very gendered trope. These characters also typically serve as the protagonist’s love interest or an important family member, like a daughter. An instance of this can be found in Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” when Barbara Gordon is shot by the Joker to affect her father Commissioner Gordon, while indirectly impacting Batman, her father figure. In this way, the trope plays into a male character’s failure at archetypal masculinity since he does not function to protect the women around him who are supposed to rely on him under this gender model.
Comic books and their representative movie counterparts often play into this trope in order to drive their male heroes forward, make them grow stronger, and lead them to defeat some new threat that has wronged them. This was true for the previously mentioned “Green Lantern” issue, and it has also served as an integral part of other superheroes’ stories. One major event in Spider-Man’s history, for instance, is the death of Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker’s girlfriend at the time, which was portrayed in the film “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Another dramatic example of this is the comic book series and film “The Crow,” which centers its plot around the brutal murders of both the protagonist and his fiancée, Shelly. When Eric, the protagonist, is resurrected, his mission becomes a quest for revenge on those who killed both him and Shelly.
All of this is not to say that male characters cannot also be fridged. Some of the most famous superhero origin stories involve the death of a man. Both of Bruce Wayne’s parents, not just his mother, were killed and served as his motivation to become Batman. It was not Aunt May but instead Uncle Ben who was murdered and became Peter’s inspiration to fight crime as Spider-Man. Men can certainly be “fridged,” but unlike women, they become role models or inspiring figures with their deaths rather than helpless, tortured damsels. The reasons behind this phenomena primarily affecting women may be due to ideas of female disposability or the perception of women as natural victims for violence. Gail Simone’s site is not called People or Men in Refrigerators, after all, but instead Women in Refrigerators.
In a world where comic book fans are increasingly less accepting of “fridging” in stories, recent comic book movie adaptations, like “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Black Panther,” have not relied on this trope in order to motivate their protagonists. Rather, they have featured strong female characters like Valkyrie, Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri in its place. Additionally, each film features an instance of the protagonists’ respected fathers dying, reflecting the previously mentioned concept of “fridged” men being role models. However, both Odin and T’Chaka are revealed to have made terrible, flawed choices in their pasts, showing how they are not the perfect inspiring figures they are initially made out to be. And though it is heartening to see these improvements, “fridging” has not disappeared, but instead it has begun to take on a new form that may be deemed more acceptable by current audiences.
This trend involves female characters not only being “fridged” but also having this process reversed and undone. “Defridging” has appeared in the recently released “Deadpool 2.” Vanessa, Wade’s primary love interest, is killed by a stray bullet before the opening credits even have a chance to roll, with said credits even commenting in surprise and anger on her death. This event drives Wade forward for most of his actions in the movie, leading to him even intentionally trying to let himself die in order to be with her again. However, in the closing mid-credits sequence, Wade goes back in time and stops Vanessa’s death from ever occurring.
By backpedalling on its own use of fridging, “Deadpool 2” attempts to use Vanessa’s death to develop and motivate Wade while at the same time avoiding any backlash by seemingly resurrecting her in the end. This strategy doesn’t appear to have worked out entirely, considering articles like one on The Mary Sue criticizing the incident still as a definitive case of “fridging,” but it was still an attempt all the same.
Even films that haven’t come out yet are possibly engaging in this brand of “fridging.” “Avengers: Infinity War,” another fairly new film, “fridged” Gamora by having Thanos, her supposed ‘father figure’ and abuser, kill her in order to gain the Soul Stone from sacrificing the one thing he ‘loves’ most. This was implemented as a plot device and character motivation for both Thanos and Peter Quill, Gamora’s love interest, so that both are consumed with grief and Quill can get mad enough to wreck the plan that would have stopped Thanos from succeeding. The implications that Thanos, who abducted and abused Gamora for most of her life, truly ‘loved’ her are a troubling enough aspect of the movie even beyond the “fridging.”
While Gamora was not brought back to life in the film, fans and theorists have tried to justify the “fridging” by believing that the sequel to “Infinity War” will resurrect her. Some of the most popular proposed methods are that Gamora is actually the Soul Stone or residing within it herself, or that the Time Stone will be used to go back in time to bring her and other characters back to life. If these or other theories regarding Gamora’s “defridging” turn out to be true, this, like the “Deadpool 2” incident, would feel like the movie studios are trying to “have their cake and eat it too.” They want that death and turmoil for their male characters while escaping trouble for the “fridging” by making it appear like it never really happened.
But it did. They both did. In classic “fridging” terms, each recent example fits the mold. These female characters were killed to advance the stories of their surrounding male characters, whether they get brought back to life eventually or not. Given comic book films like “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Black Panther,” “Wonder Woman,” and the upcoming “Captain Marvel,” let’s hope that this trend does not move forward further but instead moves away from the notion that female pain and death is a deep and inspirational plot contrivance.