Women in Refrigerators
August 20, 2002 6:14 AM   Subscribe

Women in Refrigerators looks at the disproportionately grim fates of women superheroes and sidekicks in comics, relative to their male counterparts. Be sure to check out the responses from comics authors and readers, including a well-thought attempt to put it in the context of the medium.
posted by mkultra (21 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
First post for me here, so please be gentle.

I have been reading comics for years, and I have all but quit now, largely due to the high number of juvenile, sexist comics out there. Sure, there are some gems, like Grant Morrisons New X-Men (I'm talking among superhero books here), but if you flip through the monthly Previews catalog, every other page features some scantily clad heroine in some outlandish garb...

Women have been getting screwed in comics for years, and I think it's largely because it is a male dominated medium, catering to adolescent male fantasies. I should know, I was their prime audience. Comics that are created by women are great and refreshing, but unfortunately are still in the minority.
posted by quibx at 7:04 AM on August 20, 2002

That's a really good question.

I'm going to have to go with quibx on the fact that comics are dominated by males. The ridiculous proportioned comic book women are ample evidence of this (although the men are ridiculously muscle-bound too, so maybe not).
posted by insomnyuk at 7:16 AM on August 20, 2002

Okay . . .

Robin (dead)
Batman (parents murdered)
Superman (homeworld destroyed)
Wolverine (subject to uncontrollable rage, memory loss)
Bucky (dead)
Uncle Ben (murdered)
Spiderman (Uncle murdered)
Iron Man (heart attack, paralysis, alcoholism)
Spawn (dead)
Captain Marvel (the original, for the record, dead)
Professor X (paralysed)
Human Torch (original, dead)
Capt. America (encased in ice for 30 years)

Broad strokes of adventure and tragedy are what comics are all about. If everyone were doin' fine, who would read them? Find me a comic book character that hasn't had some pretty f'ed up things happen to them.

"Locked in werewolf form for awhile, needs major therapy?" "Just plain messed up?" C'mon, what about Beast, trapped in an ape-like body, periodically covered in fur, reduced to a drooling moron by a super villain. The Thing, eternally covered in orange rocks, fer chrissakes? Is this not tragedy?
posted by mikrophon at 7:24 AM on August 20, 2002

Uncle Ben (murdered)

Thank god we still have these delicious rice dishes to remember him by!
posted by MrBaliHai at 7:38 AM on August 20, 2002

Interesting link. I like Sequential Tart for the female perspective on comics (or info on comics in general).
posted by JoanArkham at 7:45 AM on August 20, 2002

. . . and now that I've looked at the Respondent List, as mkultra suggested, I've seen that everyone from Erik Larsen to Barry Windsor-Smith made the same point I tried to. Sorry.
posted by mikrophon at 8:01 AM on August 20, 2002

mikrophon, I think you're reaching. I do, however, love the inclusion of that most fearsome of superheroes, "Uncle Ben." (Form of: crusty, disciplinarian uncle!) Denying that comics have long been a male bastion is a little like trying to argue for the aesthetic merits of the Pinto.
posted by Skot at 8:01 AM on August 20, 2002

A logical extension of the male-dominated nature of spandex books that I didn't see anyone here or there explicitly address (though I didn't scrutinize that site) is that the weak underbelly of predominately male, hetero heroes are their female loved ones, superpowered or otherwise. I don't think that the ill fates of superheroines necessarily bespeaks misogyny outside of the fact that the women are supporting players in stories with male protagonists, a role which necessitates tragedy (as has always been the case with second-stringers in melodramas).
posted by blueshammer at 8:18 AM on August 20, 2002

(as has always been the case with second-stringers in melodramas)

Indeed, the Star Trek expendable crewman is a perfect example of this. It must be a big in joke with them too, I've seen it done so many times.
posted by insomnyuk at 8:23 AM on August 20, 2002


man, if i saw a book with this cover on the shelf, i'd pick up 3 copies.
posted by jcterminal at 8:31 AM on August 20, 2002

I'm gonna go reread Pussey now.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 9:08 AM on August 20, 2002

insomnyuk: Indeed, the Star Trek expendable crewman is a perfect example of this. It must be a big in joke with them too, I've seen it done so many times.

It is- they're the "Red Shirts". Galaxy Quest had a hilarious running joke about it.

mikrophon, I think there's a big difference between, say, Batman's parents being murdered (which drives his character) and Captain America being incased in ice (which was a convenient narrative device that is now largely forgotten).

The bigger issue, I think, is one of proportion. I read comics fairly extensively, and I think you'd be harder pressed to find "stable" female characters than male ones. It's somewhat a reflection of a larger trend in media that women can't be successful in both their professional and personal lives (you'll never see a male Ally McBeal). It's also, as has been pointed out, a demographics issue.

But as to demographics, why pander to them? Is Buffy a fluke?
posted by mkultra at 10:09 AM on August 20, 2002

Anything I might want to say on the actual issue has been said by the various respondents listed on the site. I just wanted to mention that Gail Simone is actually an excellent writer. If you come across any of her stuff besides this website, give it a read.
posted by tdismukes at 10:41 AM on August 20, 2002

mikrophon, I think you're reaching.

Not really. I haven't been a comic reader in years, but I recent got Batman: The Ultimate Guide to the Dark Knight from the library. It has mini-biographies of all the major characters in the modern Batman mythos. Just about everyone has been fucked over by a writer looking to throw a "twist" into their story. Batgirl is paralyzed, yes, but she's doing just fine as Oracle now. The second Robin, meanwhile, was outright killed. Even Batman had his back broken, and was out of comission for a year.

Another one on her list is Black Canary (tortured, made infertile, depowered). But her partner, Green Arrow, was also killed. The Flash was killed. Superman was killed. I think they have all be revived, but you see my point.

I agree with Gail Simone's point: the women in comics are often vicitized just to throw some spice or motivation into an otherwise bland story. But I also agree with mikrophon -- you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in Metropolis who hasn't had a tough time of it.

Where's owillis? I'm sure he could give us the Superman rundown.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 11:10 AM on August 20, 2002

Hoooo mama. On the flip side of the plate, here's some good, female-centric comics that do feature "stable female characters" -- Action Girl; Blue Monday; Charm School (the rest of Elizabeth Watasin's work is way good as well); Patty Leidy's "Zero Hour" (sorry, no linkage...); Gloomcookie; and Artbabe. Now, that's off the top of my head -- and, personally, the ones I like to read. But I'd be more than happy to discuss female characters in, say, "Sandman" (the Neil Gaiman incarnation) -- while it centered around a male character, the female characters in the series were no shrinking violets, either. Note that the majority of what I've listed are from "independent" publishers -- Slave Labor Graphics, Fantagraphics, Oni Press, et al. There's lots of good books out there that don't involve overly-muscled superheroes...feel free to explore...

And, by the way, what does everyone think of the Powerpuff Girls?! :)
posted by metrocake at 11:17 AM on August 20, 2002

Nancy Collins and Joan Hilty, to name a couple, suggest that the "but guys get screwed too" argument may be a bit lame.
posted by Skot at 11:19 AM on August 20, 2002

Well, if you look at Superman - Jimmy Olsen is the ultimate victim. Originally Lois Lane was always in peril, but since about the '70s she tends to get the better of Superman (although the story just doesn't work if she isn't "rescued at the last minute").

I don't doubt that female characters have been in subordinate roles, but I think this has everything to do with the demographic. I'll honestly admit that in my younger comic-collecting days I would balk at a comic where the girl is the hero.

But then, there have been some female-derivative comics that are more fun than the original - for instance, She-Hulk (and not just because she's a 7ft tall amazon though it doesn't hurt).

Nowadays when a female character comes along and she's automatically weaker than the guy - I think most comic readers see this as lame. I personally like Ass Kickin' Women.

Gravity defying boobs are here to stay though.
posted by owillis at 11:22 AM on August 20, 2002

For those who have been saying that male superheroes got it tough, too, this page on the WiR site addresses that point. Also an interestig read.
posted by kayjay at 7:29 PM on August 20, 2002

Neil Gaiman single-handedly redeemed all women in comics by casting Death as a female for his Sandman series. The mini-series "Death & the High Cost of Living" covered any bad karma for several decades of sexist garbage in the medium.
posted by ZachsMind at 9:15 PM on August 20, 2002

Neil Gaiman single-handedly redeemed all women in comics by casting Death as a female for his Sandman series.

While I think NG is about the best writer out there, in pretty much any genre, I wouldn't go so far as to say that he single-handedly redeemed all women in comics. One swallow does not a summer make.
posted by kayjay at 9:53 PM on August 20, 2002

owillis - Gravity defying boobs are here to stay though.

Of course. Even comics have to be somewhat grounded in reality.
posted by NortonDC at 6:24 PM on August 21, 2002

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