Best Stored Cold, Not Served Cold!
Comic book writer Gail Simone started out writing Simpsons titles for Bongo Comics and before that she penned a humor column for Comic Book Resources. Her genesis essentially was the website Women In Refrigerators, which carried the theme that women characters in comic books were disproportionately used as victims of one sort or another. The title is based on the end-fate of the character of Alex, girlfriend of the then-new Green Lantern named Kyle Rayner. She was created to be killed as part of his origin. Anyway she was murdered by a super-villain and the corpse was stuffed into his refrigerator, hence the title. Obviously some damsels never get rescued from distress and their apparent pattern of disaster led to the relevant title. The general theory behind this supposed tendency is about one of misogynist or some other ideas, theories of causal circumstance ranging from hatred of women to plain sadism. The general dogma is that the comic book writers and their fans are primarily creepy and somewhat angry and creepy.
I don’t generally agree with these assertions. In fact I strongly disagree with the generalization made from the list of lady victims. Michael Hutchison theory is the most rational to me and in any case the most likely. Oddly it is also the most noble. Mr. Hutchison writes about this in the light of one of his favorite characters, Sue Dibny (wife of Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny) who was recently murdered in the first act of Identity Crisis.
It was very difficult for me to gauge the first issue, because it was quite moving and well-written… and, of course, it killed off one of my favorite characters and effectively mortally wounded the other, plus it was very hard not to take it on a p ersonal level since it trashed a LOT of great stories I wanted to tell that just won’t transfer to any other characters. But after a month I think I can look at it honestly and I want to speak about Gail Simone’s whole “Women in Refrigerators” ethos.
Obviously, the “W.I.R.” cry went up the day IC #1 hit the stands. For those of you who don’t know, the current writer of Birds of Prey gained some fame with her Women in Refrigerators web site which listed dozens and dozens of superheroines who have been killed, assaulted or lost their powers… basically saying that superheroines aren’t used for much else except motivation for the men. (Check out the web site sometime.)
I remarked on my web site, Dibny Dirt, how stunned I was that Ralph made it through the dark ages of the early 1990s without some writer knocking off Sue in a lame attempt to make Ralph a dark, violent character (and thus popular for the times).
The thing is, while I do agree that writers resort to killing superheroines far too often, I have to disagree with a lot of the analysis by Gail and the other commentators. It’s not primarily because of misogynism, or the sadism of comic book violence, or a fear of strong women. The plot is used because it strikes at the heart of what men cherish most. What’s more, superheroes are people of gallantry, like knights of old, and the protection of the fair ladies is a central part of chivalry. But more than a notion, it is a primal part of man’s nature: in simple caveman terms, “protect your woman” is a hardwired thought process. Modern ideals about equality, feminism, women not being weaker, etc., is all well and good, but you’re not going to breed a basic instinct out of men in a few decades.
It’s one of the main reasons I’m against women serving in combat. I know there are tough women capable of doing so, but then male soldiers have to go against every instinct they have in leaving a shrieking female dying of a gut wound. It’s hard enough to do that to a man. More likely you’d have guys taking unnecessary risks trying to save her and you’d lose more men to stupid heroics.
Kyle Rayner may have one of the most powerful weapons in the universe, not even vulnerable to the color yellow, but what he loves most can be easily mutilated. Hence the Woman in the Refrigerator.
If we lived in a matriarchal society where superhero comics were aimed at teenage girls instead of boys (okay, there probably wouldn’t be superhero comics, but work with me here), there would be TONS of plots about kids, babies, sidekicks and unborn children being placed in danger, killed, or harmed… because women are hardwired to care and protect them.
Thus, I’m not arguing that the plot of killing a dearly loved woman is automatically a wrong thing to do. It’s a bit overused, but I think it’s a matter of how it’s done. Too many good characters have been killed off for cheap effect, such as Katma Tui, Ice, Sarah Essen Gordon and Arisia. I think putting characters like Silver Sorceress on the same list, when she died gloriously and memorably, weakens the argument.
So, what do I think of Sue’s death? I think Meltzer is treating her just as a motivational device. After years of getting to know her as a character, the person who died in Identity Crisis is amazingly bland. (Today I picked up DC Comics Presents: Mystery In Space…and as a GUEST in an Adam Strange story by Elliot S! Maggin, I got to see the Sue Dibny I knew: witty and devious.) Sue’s lines consist of thanking Alfred for his assistance, a short interior monologue, begging for help over the radio before her brutal murder, and a few cries while being raped. Considering this is the last story she’ll ever be in, barring flashbacks and Elseworlds, it’s a miserable way to go out.
Crimson Fox and Ice had better deaths… and they didn’t have good deaths, but at least they put up a fight and got to show their personality before they died. Sue Dibny was a feisty, imaginative woman who could take care of herself, and she doesn’t bear much resemblance to the whimpering victim of Identity Crisis.
We can note the ultimate logic of what Mr. Hutchison is saying. The fact of the matter is that since the age of chivalry heroes have an inherent streak of that quality infused with them. Fans and imagineers of heroism can see their champions as protectors of the weak or the weaker. They defend the helpless. The role of men classically and logically even today is as protectors of our female counterparts. A man protects his wife or his girlfriend. As a matter of history the male became the hero and a sidekick as a matter of consequence is the main hero’s lesser. If that sidekick happens to be a woman than her role is primarily a reflection of the hero’s or she is there to provide a motivation or an impetus that the hero can react to or for. The lesser is there to be protected ultimately or to fall because of a lack. Either way the supporting character lives to provide a sort of impetus for the main character.
That’s all very well and obvious. The other thing that should be obvious and apparently isn’t (obvious) is that a woman’s death triggers a far different emotional response than a man’s death. If a writer wants that particular response then there is only one thing that he can or that he must do. That thing isn’t to kill the man.
Men eventually may be expected to sacrifice themselves. Somewhere within public coda it still exists that we do not, will not, and really cannot expect women to make the same sacrifices simply because they do not or should not have to. For many reasons the death of a woman is just more tragic.
On the other hand there are cases where the writer does indeed have an issue with women amounting to hatred, yet I doubt that is a fine descriptor of the tendency.