How to Kill a Refrigerator

by Sigrid

Spoilers! This essay contains spoilers for Villains United, the Secret Six limited series, and the ongoing Secret Six title.

Not everybody gets to create a cultural trope. But in March of 1999, Gail Simone put up the Women in Refrigerators website in order to publicly discuss a concept talked about among her friends, and a comics industry folk term was born. “Women in Refrigerators,” or WiR, was and is used to explain, justify, browbeat, defend, or even merely discuss a number of feminist issues in superhero comics. It’s a hot button term, it’s a conversational framing device, it’s true, it’s false — all of these things and none of them. It’s 2009 as I write this. The WiR trope has shaped my adult consumption of comics. I have spent years looking for, waiting for, the times to change. I think, finally, they have. I think Women in Refrigerators can no longer be presumed to be a default fate of female characters in comics disproportionate to their numbers. And I think Ms. Simone put the headstone on her trope when she created The Secret Six. Beginning with the publication of Villains United and continuing through the Secret Six limited series and into today’s ongoing Secret Six title, Gail Simone has made a team that treats women and men the same. This tattered group of villains exemplifies gender equality in comics.

I don’t have data or graphs or charts. I don’t have percentages of “women killed pointlessly in graphic ways” vs. “men killed, ditto.” What I have to bolster my belief is an assertion I made in 1993. Sitting at a table in the Macalester College Student Union, smoking and waving my hands while playing endless games of Hearts with my compatriots, I remember declaiming that “I’ll know queers are accepted by mainstream culture when movies stop treating us as so damn precious.” It was 1993 and the politics of ACT-UP and Queer Nation were all the rage at Macalester, along with pop culture, media studies, homegrown grunge bands, and getting laid. Going to see the latest GLBT films and then critiquing them in front of women I wanted to get to know better was practically my major. But my comic book roots always assert themselves. I went on to say, “and it’s not just gays and it’s not just movies. We need more strong women characters in comic books. I want to see a lesbian villain! Who’s not white! When minority groups are treated in comics as if they were the same as white guys, that’s how I’ll know I’m not a fringe element anymore.

I’ve held to that view. I’ve held to it and refined it. I don’t want the exact same numbers of men and women in comics — I want the sex of a character to be appropriate to the story at hand. I don’t want all the women to be saints, or all the women to be smart, or all the women to be strong. I want women in comics to be scattered across the range of ability, ethics, and character. I want women to be hurt and killed about as often as the men are, in comics, and for reasons that are important to the plot at hand. Superhero comics tell violent tales. Everybody gets punched in the face, everybody gets their costume shredded. What I wanted in 1993, and what I want now, is for the costumes of men and women to get shredded for similar reasons and with similar values of cheesecake, sex, vulnerability, and objectification.

In DC Comics’ Secret Six, Gail Simone has done this. One of the most common measures of objectification is nudity. In this comic devoted to the exploits of a team of supervillains, the re-imagined and very buff Catman loses his clothes about as often as any of the female characters. Certainly more than Scandal, the daughter of Vandal Savage, does, even though her outfit is mid-riff baring to begin with. But Catman — oh, my. He’s portrayed slouching around in semi-tight cotton jersey gym shorts and nothing else, for no real reason other than he’s a hot, sexy, nearly-naked man. Scandal, at least, gets naked for plot reasons or to have sex with her girlfriend-and-former-Fury, Knockout.

And let’s talk about the sexuality of the Six. It’s long, long been a “truth” of comics that heroes kiss for love or romance, villains kiss to threaten and own, and black sheep or redeemable rogues kiss because they like kissing. In Secret Six, our villains just like sex. And the kinds of things that turn them on are . . . varied. The sort of thing one might find in a Savage Love column. This, according to the Super Sekrit Code Of Sexual Desire and Bad Guys means that they are villains. Good Guys are not fetishists. Good Guys, in comics, do not form erotic attachments to hats. Or surgery. But both the men and women are portrayed as actively pursuing their sexual satisfaction. Everybody in the Secret Six wants to get laid, my friends. Everybody.

Conversely, both the men and women of the Six succumb to romance. Scandal and Knockout are deeply in love. But former-Bat-villain Bane has a perverse and deeply romantic (possessive, stalker-y, over-controlling) love for Scandal. Deadshot has a family. Catman keeps falling for the women he works with, in addition to wanting to knock boots with the nominal good guys — Huntress catches his eye, for instance. And both the men and women are devoted, unfaithful, bitchy, sweet, and homicidally jealous in turn. When Deadshot sleeps with Knockout, Scandal tries to take him out.

Note, if you will, that Deadshot, Knockout, and the intervening Catman are all naked. Scandal is clothed, armed, and smashing both Deadshot and Catman in the face. It begs the question as to what, precisely, the audience is supposed to objectify in the scene. The naked men? The naked woman? Or the clothed, vengeful, murderous Scandal Savage?

When it comes to death and maiming the Secret Six are also gender-balanced. The Mad Hatter is “killed,” for the usual comic-book-main-character value of killed. So is Knockout. Deadshot’s family is threatened. The whole team is poisoned. Everyone double-crosses everyone else. Bane is tortured.

Bane is tortured, interestingly, to further Ragdoll’s storyline. This, this is the traditional complaint of those who rightly point out that WiR plots are demeaning and dismissive of women — that the women who are hurt and killed are injured merely to make a male character’s story move forward. In the current arc of Secret Six (the ongoing title, not the six-issue limited series,) Bane is kidnapped, crucified, and tortured in order to blackmail the team — but also, and especially, to get to Ragdoll. Both Bane and Ragdoll are male. The instigator of the torture is an enigmatic villain know as Junior.

Junior, it turns out, is Ragdoll’s sister. Yes. Sister.

Secret Six has it all, then. Equal objectification of men and women. Violence, death, and maiming in equal measure. Gorgeous female antagonists, like Cheshire, and hideous ones such as Junior. Scheming male antagonists like Lex Luthor and weak, mad ones like the Hatter. When I, in 1993, envisioned feminist portrayals of women in popular culture, I must admit . . . this is just about what I had in mind. Variety. Good and bad, strong and weak, gorgeous and hideous, all in equal measure. Women as protagonists of their own stories in balance with supporting roles in the stories of others.

This is activism. Whether Ms. Simone wrote this in a deliberate attempt to foster gender equality or not — and, listening to interviews with her it’s not clear to me what her intentions were (other than to get Nicola Scott to draw a naked Catman) — really doesn’t matter. Activism, changing the world is not always done through manifestos and declamation. One can raise a question, one can take a stand, but once people agree that change is needed — well, people need to then make the change. Secret Six is, for my money, one of the best examples of a feminist vision of equality in mainstream superhero comics today. Script by script, panel by panel, Gail Simone is ending the dominant, hegemonic position of the Women in Refrigerators trope. This, this is how you kill a refrigerator.

Email: sigrid @ fantasticfangirls.org
Twitter: sigridellis

  • Caroline

    Great article! I haven’t read much of Gail Simone’s work, honestly, but I’m intrigued by what I’ve heard of the ‘Villains’ series.

  • Excellent take on a great comic. I never quite could put my finger on what it would take to write gender non-specific correctly, and to make it worth reading, but Simone’s done it and you nailed the commentary.

  • Great article! Secret Six doesn’t sound quite like the book for me (as you may have predicted), but I think you’re spot-on in your analysis.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure it says that much about the comic book industry as a whole. It’s great that Gail Simone is writing this, and that DC is publishing it, but in the end it’s not all that surprising that the woman who started the Women in Refrigerators crusade is capable of writing a book that doesn’t fall into those traps. When the other 100+ mainstream superhero comics published each month catch up — or at least a few more creators who aren’t Gail Simone also rise to the challenge — then I’ll be more comfortable putting a headstone on the trope.

  • sigrid

    @Paul Thanks — I do just like her work in general, but I am finding Secret Six to be especially good.

    @Jennifer I think you would *hate* this title. 😛 Also, I hear what you say about not putting too much into the one title. But, I feel — I really, honestly do — that Secret Six is an example of a trend in comics toward gender balance in mainstream titles. At some point we have to stop saying that Rucka, Fraction, David, Van Lente, Parker, Carey, Simone, Coover — at some point we have to stop saying these are exceptions to a rule, and start saying they are a visible and growing minority. I, personally, think that NOW is that time. That the hegemony is downgraded to one view, as opposed to the ONLY view.

    Maybe “headstone” overstates the point a little. But I really think not by much.

  • Caroline

    I think my view on this falls somewhere between Sigrid’s and Jen’s —

    The big problem with the WiR trope (the problem for me — your mileage may vary) is that it’s a default. There hero is a guy, the helpless/powerless love interest is a girl, and the best way to harm the hero emotionally is to threaten/injure/kill the helpless girl. When that situation stops being the default, there’s a lot more room for stories to grow in their own direction, according to the demands of the particular story. So just by nature of more diverse types of stories existing, the WiR narratives become less powerful — and there also become fewer excuses for them to exist.

    On the other hand, I think these are still the defaults, largely because in the current narrative frameworks they’re the easiest kinds of stories to tell. Because the heroes are still mostly men, the people beloved/threatened/powerless are still mostly women, and when a story has to be told fast and the demands of continuity/editorial/sales need to be considered, even writers who may have enlightened personal views and awareness of the tropes may up going there anyway.

  • sigrid

    @Carrie I had a whole, great big digression in this — about the meta-side-conversation we sometimes have, about how the stakes need to be something the character cares about, and how, often, for a male protagonist that really IS his girlfriend or wife, and how one needs to distinguish that from WiR, . . . And then I took it out. Different post, entirely. One, perhaps, you should do.

  • Caroline

    Right, I think there’s a difference between good stories that are genuinely from and about a male point of view — to which the answer is ‘balance them with a female point of view, either in the same story or elsewhere — and stories that just dumbly assume that the male is the only character that matters and the woman is only there as a potential victim/ villain/ discardable crazy person.

    I probably have something to say about this at some point. Hmm.

  • Anika

    Okay I have honestly never heard of this comic but I find the article very interesting and I find the comments very interesting. To go off on a HUGE tangent, we just watched TDK the other night and had an interesting discussion about ‘Rachel in Peril’ versus ‘Harvey in Peril’ and the assumption everyone makes (correctly) that the good guys (or specifically Batman) would try to save Rachel first. Is this because (1) Rachel is more important (2) Rachel is more beloved or (3) Harvey is expected to be better suited to escaping on his own? Pretty much any of those reasons could be considered sexist, (1) is just blatantly not true in terms of significance to the city (if we are to believe what the movie wants us to at least) and (3) shortsighted since he doesn’t escape on his own. But (2) is probably true and in that it’s not a question of ‘he put the woman in peril/Batman tries to save the woman’ so much as ‘he put Rachel in peril/Batman tries to save Rachel’ — which is, I think, what you are discussing here in comments. That said, I really believe Rachel would be a better character if she were Bruce’s BFF and not his OTL. I think her death would have more meaning and his guilt would have more meaning if he could imagine her happy with Harvey and that THAT was what stolen by the Joker, not his (Bruce’s) happy ending (the bit about ‘Harvey can’t ever know’ really bothers me — it makes Rachel more plot than person and I find that related to this discussion). So that is a tangent of a tangent and people are going to think all I talk about it Batman (hmm, I could have used Mary Jane in the Spidey movies too — clearly this is a widespread happenstance but I am apparently reluctant to call it a problem).

    This is a really good article. And I would like to read the other proposed one on the use versus misuse of women associated to heroes.

  • Gail Simone

    Fantastic article.

    I have no idea how I have avoided knowing about this website up until now. Can’t wait to get caught up.

    To me the answer to a lot of these questions is not so much promoting a feminist agenda, a gay agenda, or a ‘minority’ agenda…it is the promotion of a value neutral agenda, that where characters are given weight according to their story value, rather than perceived and tiresome axioms about ‘what the audience wants,’ due to decades-old assumptions.

    If I write a character, I want it to be a character first, then the flavors second. I spend no time worrying about how a character might be perceived in regards to its gender, color and orientation, and that is intensely liberating. It’s why the current villain can be a cross-dressing female omnivorous sexual predator.

    I think striving for equality in stories is a bit of a dead end. What works better for me is to not judge one character against another, and giving the characters the full potential they deserve (or lack thereof when they don’t). As a female myself, I don’t want women to all be super-capable and perfect, any more than most male readers want that of their own heroes. Even those who grouse and complain get bored pretty quickly when their heroes aren’t really challenged and tormented.

    What bugs me most about comics, number one of all things is, the audience is ahead of us. You go to any con, and the readership is diverse and canny and covers every possible spectrum. But a lot of creators, editors, press people and publishers still want to believe the white-single-guy-in-his-mom’s-basement model, which isn’t true any more, if it ever was. I think some in comics want to hold onto that model, they want it to be true because they know they don’t have much to offer people who are younger, hipper, cooler, and more discerning than they have been in their comics careers.

    And some I think ARE those stereotypes, a little bit, so they have a bit of built-in sympathy.

    The funny thing to me is that I see a pattern over and over, that the readers often cross cultural lines completely. They don’t necessarily need to have a character that reflects their own situations exactly in every book (be they gay, female, black, Asian, whatever). What they want is interesting characters and surprising stories. I can’t tell you how many young black men I’ve met who identify with Spider-man a million times more than Black Pather, or young women who identify more with Batman than Wonder Woman, for example. It’s about something more primal than even simple tribalism, I think. I think there’s a spark in each person’s favorite character that goes beyond the differences that still tend to divide us in some ways.

    I love that. I love that, again, say, Spider-man, speaks to all kinds of people, every shade, age and orientation. I love that so many are drawn to the outsider angle of the X-men. I love that so many people, guys and girls both, can get behind the idea of being a Warrior Princess who also happens to be a sister and a daughter, and who sometimes feels the gods themselves are against her.

    That’s what we need to do, I believe, is remember the connections that made people like these characters in the first place, AND continue to invent new characters who have a different make-up, to speak to more people, or the same people in a different way, on a different level.

    I know comics is not a perfect medium, but I am so in love with the potential of comics, indy, small press, webcomic, ‘mainstream,’ whatever, that I really feel quite sparkly about it. I think we’re not at the bottom of the mountain looking down, but just at the start of a bigger mountain looking up.

    It makes me happy.

    Thank you again for a great article!

    Gail

  • sigrid

    @Gail

    I went, some years ago, to a comic convention devoted to the Sandman comic. The convention was called Fiddler’s Green and was attended by many of the people involved in the production of Sandman. And I remember thinking that the attendees at this convention — one purported to be groundbreaking for its cross-genre appeal and broad audience — were less diverse as a group than the big science fiction conventions I go to.

    That’s not in any way a slight against Sandman — for a single title it did and does grab a wide audience. But that single title cannot compete against the massive diversity of audience that COMICS pull in. When good stories are told in the framework of an attractive myth, people will and do respond. (In my personal blog I am currently ranting about the negative reaction to the tv show Dollhouse, speaking of stories set inside powerful cultural frames.)

    This isn’t an interview, so I will refrain from peppering you with questions about writing Secret Six. If you ever get a chance, though, in an interview or column, to speak about the process of making the Six appealing, hilarious, and deeply disturbing at the same time, I would love to hear it.

    I agree with you, that the key is to foster further connections between character and audience by making characters as full and rich and real as possible. It’s not always practical to write mindfully — people get headcolds, cars need maintenance, in-laws make one’s spouse homicidal, etc. But mindful writing is what makes new myth.

    Which, if it’s not abundantly clear, is what I think you do. Thanks again for stopping by, and thanks for the work you do.

  • Gail Simone

    Hmm.

    Well, that might have had something to do with the narrowness of the focus. A single book will likely always produce a more singular audience, I suspect.

    But I can’t remember the last con I attended that was almost purely white guys. It might have been years ago in upstate New York. Since then, it’s a different story, I believe. And I think it’s getting better.

    And you’re very kind.

    I’m one of the worst about pulling back the curtain. I have this little toolbox of self-taught gizmos and processes that work for me but for some reason, I am quite terrible at conveying them to others. :)

    Best wishes,

    Gail

  • Sigrid- thanks for the article. A lot of attention gets put on women and their abuse and then empowerment. Not much is spoken of the others that often get mistreated and stereotyped. I’m a reader of the Secret Six and must admit to being a bit shallow by never really considering the equalizing nature of the series. You are absolutely right! Thank you for pointing it out in this article.

    I hope you don’t mind, I wrote a response on my own blog and quoted and linked to you. I want my readers to also be aware of the points you raised. Thanks again.

    Kelly

    http://mybottomlesscup.blogspot.com/2009/02/women-refrigerators-and-secret-six.html

  • PS-

    And Gail, thanks for the responses. It’s always great to hear the creator’s insights. :)

  • Great article! The Secret Six crew, as written by Gail, has been at the top of my list for the last few years. I’m so glad they finally committed to an ongoing because it’s really one of the best out there.

    It’s funny, I was gonna say, “You have to send this to Gail! She’ll love it.” and then I saw her comment. :)

  • Gail Simone

    For those who don’t know, Kelly Fenton is a monstrously talented musician, composer, and conductor, and actually composed a cycle of musical pieces based on the Secret Six.

    It’s pretty much the coolest thing in history.

    :)

    Gail

  • Bane Wayne

    Great article. Just one comment: isn’t Bane’s attachment to Scandal more of a wannabe-father-figure one, as opposed to romantic?

  • Caroline

    I just wanted to chime in and thank Gail for taking the time to leave such thoughtful comments. Villains United/ Secret Six has been lurking on my ‘to be read’ stack for a while (I didn’t even realize there was an ongoing!) but after reading this great discussion, I’m especially eager to try it out.

  • Gail- you are too kind.

    :)

  • Anika

    Because I was talking about this at lunch yesterday and had this thought I decided to put it here:

    At the end of Iron Man, Tony does rush off to save Pepper BUT, once he is aware she’s okay he not only stops worrying about her, he puts her to work helping him beat the villain. I actually find this very notable and I just had to add it to my comments (since they were comic-movie-related anyway) :)

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