The topic of this first women write about comics blogamafest is Women in in Refrigerators, 13 years later. (Subtitle: the freezerburn.) I tackled a lot of what I think about WiR previously, so today I’m going to talk more about what other people think. And then I’m going to tell you what I think again, because I don’t shut up.
In August of 2009, Natasha was appearing in three books: Captain America, Invincible Iron Man, and Thunderbolts. In August of 2009, Natasha was captured in each one of them by the same Norman Osborn. And in August of 2009, quite a few people cried refrigerator.
Think about that. Women in Refrigerators struck such a vital nerve that it assimilated into the geekspeak. We have a shorthand for “women in comics are constantly run over by the bus of male narrative"— we can just say fridged, and people will understand. That’s an amazingly powerful thing.
The flipside of that is that people cry refrigerator, they invoke a powerful trope without thinking about its context, and it becomes a meme more than a critical vocabulary. Here’s the thing about superheroes: they punch things. People get punched. Danger is the genre’s middle name. A woman isn’t fridged just because she’s captured, and female characters need to triumph over impossible odds just like their dudelier counterparts, and sometimes, that shit is going to get bloody. To say otherwise is to cultivate a myth of feminine fragility. I once had an argument with a man about ladies getting bloody noses in his comics. At first I thought he was complaining about the visceral violence of it, how unsettling it was when that violence was applied to women. But then I realized he was just complaining because it made them un-hot.
To me, there are really three things about fridging that become apparent in the rear-view mirror:
- Women suffer status-quo altering acts of violence in stories that aren’t about them.
- There’s a sexual element to the constant threat of violence when ladies are involved.
- This kind of thing? It happens a lot.
So let’s measure those refrigerators.
Natasha: Just tell us what you want, Osborn, so we can turn you down and get back to our cells.
Of all the "Captured by Osborn” scenarios Captain America Reborn #2 was the least objectionable. It happened as a mid-arc setback, because the heroes went on fighting valiantly against well-delineated, impossible odds. We know the male lead would have suffered the exact same fate, because there he is, suffering the exact same fate. This single incident of distress happens as part of a longer meta-narrative that has Natasha help defeat the bad guy ultimo with a score of assembled Avengers, and regular readers of Captain America have seen Natasha save the day more than once.
In short, this is not the fridge you are looking for.
Invincible Iron Man #17 was quite a bit worse. Natasha appeared here mostly for movie quota special collectors issue purposes— she certainly didn’t do any spying. For most of the arc, she was mean to Maria Hill, then she got both herself and Hill captured. Rather than fighting their way out, both überspies are rescued by Pepper Potts. Despite Natasha and Maria’s repeated claims of impossible odds, the only villains they face are nameless HAMMER agents, the Big Bad Osborn and B Villain Madame Mask were reserved for Tony Stark and Ms. Potts respectively.
But I don’t think this is a refrigerator, either. No lasting character damage— not much in the way of character, period. Contemporary reaction to the arc was, “why was Black Widow there?” The hindsight is 20/20 reaction says, wow, Natasha and Maria should just make out already.
Osborn: Get these women out of my sight. Ship Romanova to a HAMMER interrogation unit. I’ll attend to her myself.
Scourge: And Gold?
Osborn: Bring me her head. I’m thinking of having it mounted in my office. Oh, and Scourge…?
Osborn: Be sure to film it. I’ll want to review the footage later… when I’m alone.
Melissa and Natasha were the heroes of Diggle’s Thunderbolts run, in the sense that they were the good guys, the people the audience was meant to root for. They were not heroes in the sense that they got to stomp the villain. What they got was captured, sexually threatened, and rescued by men. There’s a special element of missed opportunity with this one, because the finale of the arc seemed to suggest the story might continue, with the women getting the chance to avenge themselves. But this was the final arc Diggle wrote on the title, and when Jeff Parker took over, the new Thunderbolts roster had no women on it at all.
Coincidence? Almost definitely. The end of Diggle’s Thunderbolts was rushed to all hell as the creative team left to do Daredevil. More coincidence: in each of these stories Natasha played little-to-no part in her own rescue. Even more coincidence: Bucky Barnes had a part to play in each of these stories, even the ones he’s not in. Maria Hill only approached Natasha as a means to get to her boyfriend, Norman Osborn promised to her in Thunderbolts to figure out where Bucky was. Again, Natasha was one of (and probably the) key member of the Diggle-era Thunderbolts. Bucky never appeared. But when Natasha was tied up and angry, Osborn wanted the dude-not-appearing-in-this picture more than the woman actively defying him.
Look, in Thunderbolts, the ample amounts of personal courage and cunning she’d displayed were undercut by walking straight into Osborn’s nonsensical just as keikaku. (Trans. note: keikaku means plan.) They were further undercut when she didn’t save herself, when Osborn revealed her as merely a pawn in his more important battles with more important dudes, and by not allowing Natasha and Mel the chance to avenge themselves, the narrative confirmed that.
But wait! This all happened in the context of Dark Reign, aka subtitled bad guys win and that’s the point. But even within the doom and gloom of Dark Reign, many heroes got their own shining moments of badass. (Nick Fury and Pepper Potts come to mind just in the issues that I’m scanning!) More disturbingly, Dark Reign was Warren Ellis’s Thunderbolts blown up to event-size. Songbird was the moral cornerstone of that series, and the one left behind when the whole thing went big time. Natasha Romanov, playing a part in three high-profile Dark Reign storylines, was confined to the text-only backups no one reads in Siege, the story of Osborn’s inevitable downfall. Melissa Gold, being the hero of the story Dark Reign was spawned from, did not appear in Siege at all. Written out of her own book, she had no place to even cameo.
Steve Rogers was dead though Secret Invasion and most of Dark Reign. But he played a starring role in Siege— the panels of his claimed-again shield flying towards Osborn’s helmeted head are probably the most frequently referenced panels of the don’t miss mini. And the truth is, that’s what readers wanted to see. That’s what would sell. And that’s the catch-22, because women’s narratives don’t sell, and are therefore expendable. But likewise, women’s narratives are expendable, therefore they don’t sell. Simone maintained that the point of Women in Refrigerators has always been: “if you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won’t read comics. That’s it!”
Women in Refrigerators is defined by its context. Barbara Gordon was fridged because she was paralyzed and sexually humiliated (if not worse) in a story that was in no way about Barbara Gordon. She reduced naked pictures and collateral damage in Jim Gordon’s private hell. But when Yale and Ostrander spun the story around, when they turned Barbara’s injury into a story of her own cunning, determination, and inner steel, they created the Oracle character many were sad to lose. That is the power of context.
There’s more context in the numbers. A lot of the power of Women in Refrigerators came from the length of the list, the grisly ends women have come to over and over again. Marvel cancels a low-selling title, nothing out of the ordinary. But when they axed X-23 (and Ghost Rider) they were left with zero (0) female leads. I don’t want to cry fridge and let loose the dogs of war, but I think that added up together, these stories become worse than the sum of their parts. The little stuff, it adds up, and if you’re not careful it can swallow up the good. You don’t need grisly murder and sexual threat to undermine a woman’s narrative, you just need to show her as consistantly less-competent than her male counterparts. That’s the true horror of Women in Refrigerators— even if we took away plot device deaths and Alex DeWitt’s strangled corpse, female characters would still have ample room to be treated as second class. Unplug the fridge, and you’re still left with last month’s electric bill.
Here’s some final context: the Natasha-gets-captured litany occurred during the ramp-up to Iron Man 2. This was a character Marvel was trying to promote, not trying to stuff into the refrigerator. How do you think they did?
Scans from Captain America: Reborn #2, Invincible Iron Man #17, and Thunderbolts #135.