The world of superhero storytelling — the most powerful, myth-making pop culture force on the planet right now — has an imbalance when it comes to gender representation. Though we just got the gift from the gods that was Wonder Woman, Hollywood has a long way to go in diversifying its parade of white, male, straight superheroes.
The Refrigerator Monologues, a collection of interlocking stories by Catherynne M. Valente (with accompanying illustrations by Annie Wu) about the women who have been “fridged” as part of a male superhero’s story, is not only a sharp and biting critique of that lack of diversification, it’s an example of the wealth of storytelling that is possible when you look outside the narrow identity boundaries mainstream superhero storytelling almost exclusively limits itself to.
“Origin stories are like birthday parties,” one of the narrators in The Refrigerator Monologues laments at one point, “very exciting and colorful and noisy, but in the end, they’re all the same.” This book is not an origin story; it’s one form of salve for the many redundant elements we get in mainstream superhero storytelling. Its main source of inspiration may be the way female characters are too often treated in superhero storytelling, but its frustrations are broader that that, and they are angrily, cleverly sprinkled throughout this refreshingly rageful reading experience.
What is fridging? If you’ve never heard of the term, it’s the storytelling trope that sees someone a main character loves killed, maimed, abused, raped, etc. for the sole purpose of emotionally torturing and motivating that main character to do something. More often than not, the character being brutalized is a woman and the character being motivated is a man. Comic book writer Gail Simone created a whole website called “Women in Refrigerators” to list all of the women in comics who have been “depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator.”
Some recent on-screen examples include both Lance sisters in Arrow and Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Even when fridged women don’t get straight-up murdered, their lives are defined by their relationships with the male superheroes. When they suffer, that suffering belongs to Peter Parker. When they love, that love belongs to Oliver Queen. There’s no complexity to their existences. They belong to the men in their lives. (Luckily, we also have Legends of Tomorrowin the CW superhero universe, which gives Sara her very own ship in the brilliant Season 2.)
But that’s enough talk about stories that are not the excellent Refrigerator Monologues. While the book is undoubtedly informed by its superhero context — and comic book readers will be able to spot the Gwen Stacy, Harley Quinn, and Alexandra DeWitt characters amongst the tales of woe — it is a story, much like the female characters who inhabit it, that can stand on its own.
The Refrigerator Monologesis set in Deadtown, the place people go when they die. Doomed to an eternal afterlife where they must wear the same clothes they were buried in and love the same people they died loving, the citizens of Deadtown have a culture all their own. Every night, the Hell Hath Club, a support club of women killed because of the men who loved them, meets to tell each other (and, by extension, us) their stories.
In less-deft hands, this wonderful concept could have fallen flat, a retelling of stories we already know. However, Valente imbues each section with a vivid, specific voice. This work was never simply about telling the stories of female characters; it was about letting these female characters tell their own stories, giving them a chance to explain how they feel about the trauma and tragedy they have endured. By eschewing a traditional narrator and/or protagonist and switching the voice of the segment to the character whose story it is, Valente gives them the opportunity too few stories have before.
And these stories are good. There’s Paige Embry, a super smart scientist who accidentally gave her boyfriend superpowers before being thrown off a bridge by his nemesis. There’s the all-powerful Julia Ash, who can exist in multiple timelines at once, and who still manages to be a footnote in some dude’s story. There’s Pauline Ketch, the one who fell in love with the crazy Mr. Punch during their time at the asylum, only to be murdered by him.
Wisely, Valente doesn’t try to save these characters. Terrible things happen to them, just as they so often do in the comic book stories we know and love. The stakes of the storytelling haven’t changed. These female characters simply get to be characters rather than ciphers, they get to be the most important characters in the story of their own deaths.
“I was just a prototype,” Paige tells us, “the Act One conflict who had to go so the story could grow a little more gravitas. Some days, I’m okay with that. But some days? Some days I want to rise up out of the dark, rip open Kid Mercury’s throat, and drink back every drop of my 2.21% solution, my fault, my mother, my quicksilver, my speed, my strength, my story.” This book is one of those days.
The Refrigerator Monologues is available to buy via Amazon. I highly recommend it.