Fiction has a long history of sacrificing marginalized characters to further the arcs of privileged characters, but these days we have a name for that: fridging. Most of us understand that fridging is bad, but why is it bad? And once we understand that, what are we supposed to do instead? Glad you asked, because that’s what today’s episode is all about! We discuss better ways to introduce tragedy, how to make the audience care, and of course, how to define a sandwich. How is that last one related? Listen and find out!
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Obi-wan Kenobi, played by Alec Guinness not “Alan McGuinness.”
Generously transcribed by Bunny. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: This is The Mythcreant Podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is …
Chris: … and we have a returning special guest Fay Onyx, who is also a disability consultant for Mythcreants. Hi, Fay!
Chris: Do you want to tell us there’s a little bit about yourself?
Fay: Well, as you mentioned, I am a disability consultant. I also do a lot of writing about disability representation, one of which is on the Mythcreants blog.
Chris: Yes. We have, I think, hir “Five Common Harmful Representations of Disability” or something like that. We’ll link in the show notes. It’s a great post.
Fay: And I also have my own podcast called Writing Alchemy. The main project in it right now is an actual play series where people with disabilities play characters with disabilities. It’s basically a lot of light stories in general, where we’re basically trying to create some disability representation that’s really authentic.
Oren: Some really excellent fanarts come out of that by the way, or maybe it’s notes. Maybe it’s not fanart, just regular art. I’ve seen people do pictures of their characters and it looks great.
Fay: Well, there’s been a little bit of that, and there’s also a really adorable image of an owl bear that I did commission, because one of the longer arcs was the “Owl Bear Reintroduction Program” game. It was pretty adorable.
Chris: Okay. So this time we’re going to be talking about women in fridges, or really, avoiding the fridge. We thought about making a joke and then we decided that making some sort of meta-comment about people being the fridge was not a good idea for this episode.
Chris: So this is a very strange term, of course, in storytelling. We have lots of weird terms for tropes. So, just before the podcast, we last-minute looked up some history. Oren, do you want to give a little history of where this comes from?
Oren: So, the reason it’s called “women in the fridge” or “fridging” is because it originates back to a post that Gail Simone, the comic writer, made back in 1999. She was talking about the preponderance of female characters in particular (although, as we’ll talk about, it expands further beyond that) to be killed, depowered, or maimed in service of a male character. The specific incident that she was referring to, the reason that it has the “fridge” name, was a Green Lantern comic, number 54, in which the Green Lantern, one of the lanterns I don’t care about (Kyle Rayner, I think) comes home to find that his girlfriend has been killed and stuffed into a refrigerator by the very seriously-named villain, Major Force. Yeah, so that’s the part of the story you don’t hear very often. Major Force. It’s played as really gruesome and he’s like, “oh noooo, my girlfriend!” and he’s very mad.
Chris: It’s very serious. This dismembered woman who was put into the fridge.
Fay: Wasn’t she also a superhero in her own right?
Oren: Was she?
Fay: I thought that was part of why it was so frustrating. It doesn’t really feel right for like someone who was a superhero in their own right to just end up like that.
Oren: I don’t know. I don’t think so. So the character’s name is Alexandra DeWitt, and maybe she’s a superhero, but it’s just not listed on this Wiki page. All that’s listed here is being Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend.
Fay: Okay, maybe it was just that. Maybe people just really liked her.
Chris: Well, we can do on fact-check after and put it in the show notes.
Oren: Right. But I mean you’re not wrong, because after coming up with this term, Gail Simone made a whole list of women who had been fridged, and a number of them were heroes in their own right and they had either been killed, or lost their powers, or were seriously injured in some way. And the reason I think that the name “fridge” stuck around is that even if you don’t know the context, if you say something is “fridged,” that implies that it’s been put away out of sight and that it’s not important anymore. It just has a real ring to it. I think that’s why we keep using it, even though it’s actually referring to a very specific circumstance.
Chris: Fay, did you want to expand more on how this expanded to encompass a wider range of situations?
Fay: Yeah, basically the way I hear this term being used, is that pretty much any time that a marginalized character is killed in a way to enable usually a more privileged character to have some sort of growth or motivation result from it, that basically what’s happening is any growth arc of the marginalized character is being sacrificed for the growth arc of the privileged character. It often also involves removal of agency from a marginalized character. Sometimes they’re a hero in their own right. And it often also involves situations where there aren’t very many marginalized people that are meaningful characters in the work, and one of them is getting killed to do a growth thing for some privileged person.
Chris: And I do think a lot of times it is a form of exploitation, where a marginalized character is being used in a way that is in service to privileged people. And marginalized people who really want representation have to watch as a character who could be great representation for them is suddenly taken away, usually in a very inglorious manner.
Chris: And to be clear for listeners who want to know where the difference is: is the death senseless? Did they have any chance to fight or react? There’s a huge difference between a character that takes that heroic last stand for a cause they believe in and dies in a result, and a random bullet that kills off Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She wasn’t even the target. The death means nothing. She didn’t play any part in that. You know, I’m not sure that it being a heroic death makes it not fridging entirely, but there are definitely different levels of how much it’s a problem or not a problem.
Fay: I think the removal of agency from the character that’s killed is a significant aspect of it, because it’s also sending this message about who has agency. It’s kind of reinforcing stereotypes about, especially in the case of women, women being helpless. So even if they’re a hero normally, suddenly they’re helpless for the convenience of this plot, and they’re killed so that they can motivate some guy.
Oren: To try and figure out what exactly is fridging and not fridging, I think we would benefit from taking a page from sandwich discourse. So, what is a sandwich? Is a fridge character a sandwich, is what I’m saying – no. So basically it’s a case of a bunch of interconnected associations. The presence or absence of any single one of them doesn’t dictate whether or not it’s a fridging, but having a number of them at high levels makes it much more likely to be viewed as fridging. That’s what we’ve been talking about. We’ve been talking about a marginalized character, especially a marginalized character in a story that doesn’t have many marginalized characters with whatever that specific trait is, losing agency, and motivating a male character. Those are your three main factors. It’s possible to take one of them out but have it still feel like a fridge death. If I had a team of all white dudes and one black woman, and early on in the story that black woman has a super heroic death where she saves the city or something, but then the rest of the show is about the one white dude being sad that she died, that might still feel like fridging even though she had a heroic death. You could step back and still see why people would interpret that as fridging.
Chris: Right, because it was the lone marginalized character and it was clearly in somewhat in service to a more privileged character, which I think is why, if you want to reverse the marginalized-privileged dynamics of this, it works much better. Cloak and Dagger had a reversal of this in, I believe, season one. They literally fridge a white male love interest to benefit a woman protagonist and they just put him straight in the fridge. It was clearly a reference.
Fay: They literally put him in the fridge?
Chris: They literally put him in the fridge. They literally fridge him.
Fay: Oh snap!
Chris: She came home to find him in her fridge just like the original, Green Lantern.
Chris: Yeah. It was clearly a callback. But those kinds of reversals work just fine because they work against the power dynamics. We’re punching up. We’re not punching down. And so I love that moment.
Oren: Yeah, I mean, for the most part, killing off a more privileged character is just not a big deal in terms of whether or not someone is going to be hurt by it, because we got plenty. All right, we got more white dudes for that came from, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.
Fay: So I did want to bring up an example. The question that comes up is, how do you make tragic events to motivate your character or in their backstory without doing this? And I think one example that I thought mostly worked pretty well, although it has some problems, is the death of Harry’s parents in Harry Potter. There are some gender dynamics that aren’t great about how that went down where the dads all being heroic and the moms all begging – not into that – but overall, they actually do have heroic deaths. They died to accomplish something very meaningful and they accomplished it. They save their kid’s life and they provide him with lasting protection. And I think one of the things about making those deaths meaningful was the fact that Rowling pulled in non-death related sources of tragedy, because there’s a lot of things that can happen in someone’s life that aren’t death that are tragic and the main thing that she pulled in was that Harry was raised by abusive parents. So his abusive aunt and uncle and his parents absence in his life are a big part of his character because he doesn’t have loving parental figures. And so you feel this absence, and then you get to know his parents’ friends and other people who also miss his parents. So by pulling that in, in the way that she did, it made it into a tragedy that had a big impact on Harry in a way that makes sense. There’re a lot of kids that are adopted in media where it’s like, “I don’t know why you’re obsessing over your birth parents because you have this great loving family” and realistically kids raised in super-awesome loving families aren’t necessarily going to feel like there’s this massive hole in their life where their birth parents were. Like, they might be curious, but if they have a genuinely awesome, loving family, it’s not necessarily going to be a massive hole in their life.
Oren: Certainly. It would lead you to ask why.
Chris: I think the other nice thing about having what I would call an “off-screen loss,” where it usually happens before the story begins like it does Harry Potter, is that when you have a marginalized audiences who are looking for representation, at least you’re not setting up an expectation only to dash it. Not that it means that you shouldn’t have representation for them at all, you know, somewhere, but at the same time it is upsetting, really upsetting, for people to see that happen. Whereas if the characters already dead, at least you’re not setting people up for disappointment in the same way.
Fay: I think that’s a really good point. And I’d also suggest that the pulling in of other sources of non death-related tragedy can really enhance tragedies in general. One of the things that I noticed is that sometimes it seems like a lot of media doesn’t really dig into the full reality of what a tragic thing actually is, and when that happens, they feel like they need to just heap on more and more deaths or something, because they’re trying to make you feel something. But they’re not actually making the audience feel much, because they’re not really exploring what the tragedy really is. And I think that’s one of the things that was done well in Harry Potter, because there’re so many elements that are brought in to explore the tragedy. Harry gets to see his parents through magic. He gets to meet his parents’ friends. He has abusive relatives who raised him. Pulling all those elements and really exploring their implications is what makes it feel tragic, much more than just heaping on lots and lots of stuff.
Chris: Those concrete details and implications, and seeing that loss ripple out and what it means for the character’s life – that makes it feel so much more real.
Oren: This is why the death of Harry’s parents generally feels a lot more tragic than the death of Batman’s parents. There are million Batman stories out there, so I’m sure there are some where they play this more, but in the various Batman films and even the animated series that I enjoy, it’s like, “Yeah, Bruce’s parents died, and I guess he’s Batman now.” And that’s basically the end of it. He can talk about his parents being dead if he wants to, but it doesn’t seem to be a particularly interesting part of the story.
Chris: I’d also like to say that when we’re talking about marginalized characters, what the character is remembered for can also mattered. I think one of the problematic patterns I’ve seen a lot with missing parents that have died before the story happens is that the mother is never known for anything other than being kind and pretty and the father is known for doing amazing things, like making an invention or being the king. And so if you’re looking back on this character you’re trying to interrupt these problematic patterns where marginalized characters are disempowered and not given any agency, remembering that character as doing cool stuff should be part of that adding of agency.
Fay: Right, which is where the death of Harry’s parents – Oh no – the death of Harry’s parents would have been even more meaningful if there had been a little bit more about his mother and his mother accomplishing stuff.
Oren: I think she had very green eyes. That’s a trait I remember about her. They mentioned that a lot.
Chris: Yeah. She’s definitely an example of the pretty mother issue.
Fay: Yeah, and also if when we went back in time and heard Harry’s parents right before Voldemort kills them, if his mother had just been a little more defiant and like, “I’m not letting you have my baby!” I would have really appreciated that. It would have been really cool for her love that ongoing protects him to have been more of a defiant tigress, sort of, “MY baby!” versus the sort of pathetic pleading thing that she got.
Oren: Plus, there’s a really obvious thing they could have done. I’m just kind of confused that it wasn’t. So we actually did establish that Harry’s mom is really good at charms. They mentioned that. And in Harry Potter, we don’t really know what charms are because the magic system is super arbitrary. But if you told me that the thing protecting Harry, which meant that Voldemort can’t touch him, was a charm that his mom put on him, I would believe you. You don’t have to bust out this old magic nonsense.
Chris: Or a charm that maybe did require her to sacrifice her life. And that’s why people aren’t doing it all the time.
Fay: Like, if she knew what was going to happen, that would have been really cool.
Chris: She’s like she knows that this protection charm requires sacrifice. This is a situation in which it makes sense. Voldemort is almost certainly going to kill her, but maybe if she uses it she can save Harry and then later we don’t have to explain why so many other sacrifices people are making don’t have an effect.
Fay: Right! Only this once!
Chris: Granted, we still have the Deus Ex Harry in the seventh book to think about, but you can’t have everything.
Oren: What can also be useful, if you want to go with loss specifically, is looking at losses of groups of people. This can often be very, very effective. Battlestar Galactica is my go-to for that one because you have all these characters and all of them have lost their homes, and a lot of them have lost family, and a bunch of planets got nuked, but we didn’t see specific characters. There weren’t specific characters who got fridged. It was the entire solar system, and that created tragedy that motivates most of the show, for good and bad, and it doesn’t feel like it’s falling into the same tropes. They could have done the same thing with Leia in Star Wars, but for some reason she was remarkably okay with losing her planet. It’s like, Luke is sad Obi-Wan died and Leia’s like, “Let me comfort you, Luke. I’m fine. Don’t ask what my problems are.”
Fay: “Yeah, I just lost a father figure I knew my whole life and the entire planet of everyone who raised me.”
Oren: It’s fine. She’s recovered. She bounced back. She worked through it. Whatever.
Fay: Well, and Luke’s more sad about Obi-Wan than his parents who raised him as foster parents.
Oren: Look, neither of them is played by Alan McGinnis. I’m not going to get too sad about them.
Fay: I think Star Wars is an example where it’s kind of deintensifying the losses in order to keep it lighter as an action movie. But I do think there is an aspect of, if you’re going to do that, you gotta be a little more careful about when you have your characters grieve and who’s comforting whom.
Chris: Yeah. This definitely shows the power dynamics of the situation where it’s all about Luke.
Fay: Leah knows he’s the Chosen One.
Chris: So, depending on what you need for a story, a fridging can accomplish several different things. I mean, we talked about giving a tragic backstory and motivation, and so different solutions can provide different parts of that depending on what’s important. I do think that, while damseling can also be problematic if not handled well, it is more flexible and it’s easier to make it not quite so sensitive. It works extra well for motivating characters because there’s a specific thing that the protagonist has to do: they have to go rescue somebody. And the other thing is that you can give the captured character agency. It’s easier to do that. Maybe yeah, they get captured, but then what happens after their capture? Maybe they actually escape and the two characters meet in the middle. In season 3 of Buffy, there’s an instance where Willow is captured by the villain and she spends her time actually using her presence in the villain’s headquarters to find out really important information that Team Good needs. So it’s easier to give a character agency of some kind during this process. And because it’s not permanent, because we’re not permanently limiting a character, it’s also a little bit more flexible which person gets damseled. So if you do have a main character who is more privileged than a side character, your main character can get damseled and the side character can come to the rescue. Meanwhile, your main character can also have agency. So I just think that it’s not as tragic, it’s good for motivation, and it’s just generally more flexible. You do want to watch that those agency dynamics when you do it, but I think that in some cases it can be a really good replacement.
Oren: It’s also helpful to focus on things that actually happened to the character for whom you want the tragic backstory – or maybe not even backstory, but the tragic story. You can have bad things happen to them and then use that as drama or motivation or whatever you need this tragedy for. You get stuck in the Upside Down for a season, then you can deal with that in the next season or what-have-you. That’s a bad thing that happened. It didn’t make that character not a character anymore. And now you’re making it part of their arc instead of sacrificing someone else’s arc for their sake.
Fay: I do have a list of different non-death tragic things that you can do to characters.
Oren: Oh yeah?
Fay: Yeah, it’s going to get dark.
Chris: Okay, let’s do it.
Fay: So basically, there’s a lot of different kinds of losses that, again, if you actually explore in depth, can be a really big deal. So: losing a home. Being forced to leave your homeland. Losing a job or income source, especially for someone who’s already low-income, can be a really big deal. Losing something you spent a long time working on or having something meaningful destroyed or taken away. Lost relationships, so whether they’re ended or there’s a force separation or a geographical distance. Also in terms of just things that are very difficult: Isolation, whether it’s social isolation or being physically isolated. Bullying. On the minor end, Social embarrassment can be really hard. If you actually get into what that feels like, it can be really hard.
Chris: Yeah. My concern was some of those is, how easy is it to make a reader who has never experienced anything like that before get how psychologically devastating it is? That’s what I worry about with some of those depictions, but everybody has different levels of “This is how important this is to me,” and this is maybe the time to really bring light to this issue.
Fay: Yeah, and the next set: oppression. Persecution. Abuse. Physical or emotional violence. Torture. Pain. Imprisonment. I think your point is really good that they can be harder to explain to people why it matters and to get it right, and I think that’s your point. Why do people use death as a go-to? Because everyone has lost someone and so there’s a little bit of a more immediate identification, whereas if someone hasn’t experienced abuse, how do you make that real in a way that’s realistic and communicates to people what that’s like?
Chris: It really varies, but I think when it’s big and it’s violent and somebody is getting physically hurt, we have a cultural understanding of how bad that is. But I think when it comes to more psychological forms of violence, should I say, and that kind of emotional abuse, I think there’s just too many people who don’t have any frame of reference for how damaging that is to a person. I personally as a writer would not be confident in my own ability to make them understand. And maybe that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not possible, but what you don’t want is a depiction that people pass off or see wrong in a way that lowers sympathy for people going through this or anything like that. Because that would be real hard.
Oren: It’s also worth considering that one of the reasons death is so common as a device for these sorts of things is that if a character dies, then the story is obviously different. The audience’s experience is different, because that character is not around anymore. And that’s why, for the most part, if the character is ever resurrected, we consider them to have not really died because for our purposes, it’s basically the same. You can show how these other things change the story, but it’s not as easy. And you can end up with situations like The Sword of Truth, where the main character gets tortured for an entire chapter, and after that it’s like that basically never happened. It’s just more challenging if you don’t have the immediate change of like, “Oh, that character I liked is gone. That changes my experience of reading the story.”
Chris: Torture is a really hard one because we have so many stories misdepicting torture and making it, like, a protagonist gets tortured and then they’re fine. And you know, I think that there could be a lot of value in communicating the real effect that torture has people and how horrible it really is. But it’s going to be an uphill battle at first because stories have gotten people so used to dismissing it. I think.
Fay: So the main point here is that there’s just not enough models for depicting trauma effectively and most of these things do cause trauma, and there’s just not as much skill and experience that we have with understanding and depicting trauma effectively as a culture as a whole that a lot of these things are just so much harder to depict effectively.
Chris: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely the case with a lot of these items, where we’re in a huge state of neglect about the psychological components of a person’s health. In having a tragedy that is physical in some way is usually pretty easy for people to understand. And it depends, of course, on your story and how much time you have and what you want to put your focus on, but in a lot of movies I see, the storytellers are usually going for a really quick effect. They’re kind of lazy about it. They don’t want to take the time to make somebody understand something, they just want to do it. And this is something that I criticized recently – lazy depictions of bullying, where we talked about how every movie has to have the protagonist bullied at school for some reason. And the bullying is never harassment. There is physical bullying, of course, but most bullying is harassment. The bullying is really harassment. It’s always like somebody grabs somebody and physically assaults the kid and then we never hold the school responsible for all those things. The storytellers are going for a very specific effect that point in the story and don’t really want to have to deal with all of those implications. So it’s just depending on what you use for your tragedy, making more or less work for yourself, trying to bring it across in the right way, and make readers feel it in a way that feels like a compelling tragedy but also isn’t overly unpleasant for people.
Fay: Right. And the even harder thing – can you use trauma and also keep your story light? That’s another level of potential challenge. How do you, if you’re going to depict these things more realistically, not make it super intense for your audience if you want to keep it lighter?
Chris: Well, the off-screen loss, I should just say. Sometimes maybe we do want to have the person already dead when the story begins. We’re not going to go into and super detail if it’s a light story. That’s a valid choice, but that’s not going for the huge “I’m not going to choose a tragedy” whole bunch.
Oren: So, we are getting close to the end of our time. Fay, do you have any final thoughts on avoiding the fridge you want to give before we are done here?
Fay: A couple things. I did want to say, since we talked about depicting trauma, that I would give a recommendation of one thing that does depict trauma in a lot of different ways in a lot of different characters extremely well, which is The Bright Sessions. It’s an audio fiction series. So, since y’all are podcast listeners, you can check out The Bright Sessions. It does start light and get really intense. But one of the things about it is, the characters basically have superpowers that interweave with various aspects of mental health and one of the premises is that trauma is connected to getting super powers. And so, a lot of characters have different depictions of trauma and how it affects them in an ongoing way and how it interweaves with the way their superpowers work.
Oren: Sounds neat.
Fay: It’s a really well done and extremely well-researched series. And then the other thing I wanted to quickly come back to is if you are going to kill marginalized characters, one thing I would also really recommend is making sure you’re not killing off the only representation of a particular group. So don’t kill off your only person of color. Don’t kill off your only woman protagonist. And also to just be aware that there are certain groups that even marginalized characters die more. With queer characters and trans characters in particular, there was a time when there couldn’t be a queer or trans character that didn’t die. That’s a history thing. And so I would just generally avoid killing those characters because of that history, especially trans characters, but yeah, just in general. Recognize that history of the only depictions they had were forced to end tragically because that was something that was required by mainstream culture.
Oren: All right. Well, that’s a good lesson to end this on. It’s just important to keep in mind because when you kill a character, you’re not just killing a character in a vacuum. You know context exists. As writers, it behooves us to know about it.
Fay: Yeah. Definitely.
Oren: Thank you for joining us for this episode, Fay.
Fay: Well, thank you for having me. It’s a bit more of an intense subject matter, but I think it’s really worth talking about.
Oren: For those of you listening at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. But before we go, I just want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Then we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally, brand-new, Danita Rambo who lives at therambogeeks.com. And we will talk to you all next week.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?