Women Write About Comics: Women in Refrigerators, 13 Years Later

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The panel which birthed the term “Women in Refrigerators” from Green Lantern

As you may have noticed if you read GeekMom regularly, I’m a passionate reader of superhero comics and have been since I can remember.

But, being a woman (d’uh), it’s impossible to miss the issues with the portrayal of female characters over the years.

Nowhere was outrage more consolidated than in a site called Women in Refrigerators. WiR tried to detail the various deaths, depowerments and violence against women in superhero comics and how different it was from the violence and death directed at the men.

It wasn’t ever meant to be a comprehensive list of bad things done to women in comics. Instead, it was created to start a discussion, point to happenings and say “so, why do you all think this happened?”

Now, Women Write About Comics has asked comic bloggers this week to write on a single topic: Women in Refrigerators, Thirteen Years Later. They already have a number of links of with sometimes divergent points of view on the topic.

I have somewhat of a unique perspective on WiR in that I’m a co-moderator for Gail Simone, one of the founders of WiR, both on her current forums on Jinxworld and her previous forums at ComicBookResources.com. Simone is under contract for DC and has written Birds of Prey, Secret Six, Welcome to Tranquility, Wonder Woman, Superman, and several other titles. That’s somewhat of a big flashing light that things have changed since the site went up.

But they haven’t changed completely.

When people came to the forums to yell at Gail Simone for being an uppity feminist or claim that she hated men or that the whole site was idiotic, I had to deal with them. Over and over, Simone merely directed people to the site, claiming that those who were yelling about WiR probably hadn’t read it fully. If we could really move past WiR, those people would never show up.

So, I think before I can talk about WiR now, we need to go back to the site: Women in Refrigerators. The most interesting part isn’t the list or the fact that women were badly served by many superhero storylines.

Most of us here know that already.

It’s the page of respondents, a list of comic creators commenting on the issue. And, wow, do many of the male creators unload on their colleagues. Read Mark Waid’s response in particular. A sentence:

“Most males are fans of or in comics because they’re social misanthropes who can’t get laid or can’t keep girlfriends and they’re pissed about it on some level. There’s the famous–and true–anecdote of the Hellcat story that consists mostly of her being beaten to a pulp by a man, a story that BY THE *WILDEST* COINCIDENCE was written by a man in the middle of harsh divorce proceedings.”

This is Mark Waid, who wrote Kingdom Come.

Stephanie Brown as Batgirl, lost in the DC Reboot

So, things were bad. Have they changed?

Yes and No. To illustrate my point, I give you the comics history of one Stephanie Brown: Spoiler, Robin, dead, Batgirl, limbo.

Stephanie Brown first appeared as the daughter of the supervillain Cluemaster who wanted to stop her father’s crimes. She “spoiled” them, hence “The Spoiler.” She was one of those characters who quickly took on a life of her own.

The highlights of her existence:

Major supporting character in the Robin series written by Chuck Dixon starring the Tim Drake Robin.

Became Robin after Bruce Wayne fired Tim because editorial said he should.

Fired from being Robin for “incompetence” by the same Bruce Wayne after a very short time.

Decided to prove to Batman she was competent, ended up starting an editorial-mandated “gang-war” by stealing something from Bruce’s files. (Editorial also mandated, apparently, that Bruce not have any security passcodes on said files.)

Horrifically beaten and bloodied and eventually dead from injuries inflicted by the villain Black Mask. Keep in mind, this was an underage teenage girl who then appeared on a comics cover sprawled and helpless with blood all over.  To add injury to insult, DC then came out with a figurine of Black Mask complete with the tools he’d used to torture and kill her. Classy.

Reader outrage led to the founding of Girl-Wonder.org.

Steph’s creator, Chuck Dixon, came back to Robin for a short time and brought Stephanie back to life. Cool.

Dixon left DC again shortly after and Steph’s fate seemed uncertain until she returned as the new Batgirl in an outstanding series by Bryan Q. Miller.

Stephanie’s time as Batgirl ended in midstream as DC rebooted titles last September. Stephanie was replaced by a now-younger version of Barbara Gordon, no longer the information specialist Oracle.

Stephanie is now in limbo. In some interviews, she’s supposed to still be around but she’s yet to appear in the rebooted universe.

So, what to make of all this?

To me, the bottom line is that the problem lies behind the scenes.

DC right now has two female creators on their new rebooted titles, Simone and Ann Nocenti, who’s taking over Green Arrow. Without a strong creator who sells a lot of books to stand up for a character, like Geoff Johns did with his Green Lantern characters or Grant Morrison did with Batman or even Scott Snyder with Batman, female characters are going to get overlooked–let’s not even get started on the other missing Batgirl, Cassandra Cain– in favor of other pet characters who happen to be male because, well, 98 percent of the creators and the vast majority of editorial are male. (One bright exception to this is Batwoman, who is backed by the amazing talented artist and writer, J.H. Williams.)

So while the characters in the comics might be treated better right now than thirteen years ago, the real change, the one needed behind the scenes, is sorely lacking. Things will never truly change until that does.


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15 thoughts on “Women Write About Comics: Women in Refrigerators, 13 Years Later

  1. Q: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
    A: Because you’re still asking me that question.

    -Joss Whedon

    1. Re the Whedon quote above: so happy to see the Buffy and Faith/Angel comics selling so well. And drawn by Rebekah Isaacs. Only a few copies of F/A left at our local store today!!

      My daughter wants a career as a graphic artist and we’ve been trying soooo hard to find good role models/empowered examples. It has been such a HUGE deal for her to get included in the upcoming “Womanthhology” and to be exposed to these kind of discussions in the art community.

      I avoided comics as a young adult for the reasons in the article, but as a mom am now finding more to love in graphic novels, indies & kickstarter projects (vs DC & Marvel) via my daughter’s interests.

      1. Womanthology is going to be really cool! I love how it was funded in mere days on kickstarter.

        Have you looked up the artwork of Nicola Scott as a model for your daughter? Her work is wonderful-she’s done mostly Secret Six and Birds of Prey. Amanda Conner as well.

      1. Hey Rebecca,

        You can borrow our Season 8&9 Buffy (and DVD version) and Angel and Faith comics!

        …oh and I have ALL the Spike ones too ;-D


  2. As a life long comic reader, I have noticed the storylines. I longed for stronger roles and I have seen a change – but like you said it is still there.

  3. WIR is bullshit & i’m writing this as a woman. In fact someone did a great little presentation on it & if i can find the link i’ll post it. If you take all the things that appear on the WIR list & apply it to male characters significantly more Male characters end up on that list then female characters.

    WIR is a perfect storm of confirmation bias & reporting bias. What you are talking about is not combating a negative trend, what you are talking about is pretending that it is a negative trend & then determining that there should be some sort of “Plot Immunity by Gender.”

    I’ll use Stephanie Brown as an example: Stephanie had a long history as spoiler doing her own thing, she then tried to be Robin & failed, when she was fired for incompotents (fair enough since Batman figured she was going to get herself killed).

    At which point Stephanie stole some data & started a gang war & then got killed. To call this story “editorially mandated” is asanine… What story isn’t mandated by the editorial department? They all are, thats what editors do.

    Stephanie then got her self killed in a bloody fashion. now, why is this any worse then Jason Todd getting beaten to death by the Joker & then blown up? That was an editorial mandate as well… Heck, that was a contest first. No one made a peep about it, no one tried to make it into an argument about sexism, because it clearly isn’t. Same goes for Stephanie… The only argument for Stephanie not dying is just “plot immunity by gender” & that is sexism.

    We have to accept that if a female character is really equal to a male character, then they must by definition be allowed to suffer the negative consequences of plot just as much as there male counterparts can.

    As for the change behind the scenes, i assume you mean that there NEEDS to be more women, to which i can only answer: There needs to be no such thing. It would be nice if there was, but heck if you look at the work of Gail Simone herself (the same woman who invented WIR), her work on Birds of Prey constantly did the things she preached against in WIR, as did the Secret Six (who was it who killed Knockout again, who was it who stripped Oracle of her digital technopathy powers; oh that was Gail).

    That alone invalidates this idea that what female characters need is more females working at DC.

    So yeah, i’m going to be the one to say it: I’m a female comic book reader & Women in Refridgerators is bullshit. An to think other women & feminists are constantly using the term privilege when reffering to men, yet we seem incapable of recognising it in ourselves.

    1. The most disturbing bit of Stephanie Brown’s death is that even though she was a Robin and Batman called her Robin, DC has repeatedly ignored her role as Robin. There’s a memorial to Jason Todd in the Batcave but NOTHING for Stephanie Todd.

      The part that has always stuck out to me most about WiR sis that yes a lot of male characters die, but none of their death feature their wounded and broken bodies contorted into sexy poses.

      The issue isn’t with deaths themselves, it’s with manner of death and the treatment of their characters overall. How many male characters can you think of that have been raped? How many have been killed by their stalkers? How many have have been sex workers?

      If you’re not asking these questions you should be.

      1. “The most disturbing bit of Stephanie Brown’s death is that even though she was a Robin and Batman called her Robin, DC has repeatedly ignored her role as Robin. There’s a memorial to Jason Todd in the Batcave but NOTHING for Stephanie Todd.”

        Thats because Stephanie was never Robin. Robin is not a job its an education. Putting on the costume is not enough to make one Robin. As someone else once said “if i put on a lab coat & follow a doctor around saying “i concur doctor” that doesn’t make me a consulting physician. Stephanie was never Robin, because she never graduated to it: She washed out of the program due to incompotence… An then got herself killed due to that same incompotence.

        “The part that has always stuck out to me most about WiR sis that yes a lot of male characters die, but none of their death feature their wounded and broken bodies contorted into sexy poses.”

        Neither do women. This has been covered else where with the dying Stephanie Brown in Wargames, when someone pointed to the images of her dying & said “but thats sexy:” no its not.

        But the fact is that 99% of WiR is not about dying characters, or dead characters at all. If you go take a look at it, its essentially any character who is female & was incovencieced in some way, to the point where stubing your toe could get you on the list.

        “How many male characters can you think of that have been raped?”

        6 off the top of my head: Nightwing, Tom Strong (twice), Green Arrow, Red Robin (attempted rape, but i’m going to count it, as it was done in comic), The Midnighter (by the Commander), Starman (the Jack Knight version was raped by The Mist).

        An those are just the ones off the top of my head. The other questions are dismissed as they are pandering. The question shouldn’t be “but how many men has this happened to in comics” the question should be “why not draw on reality.”

        The end result is always the same: Negative things have to happen to characters. Not always the same negative thing, but always a negative thing otherwise there is no point to the narrative.

        “If you’re not asking these questions you should be.”

        We already have, so here is a return question: Why shouldn’t negative things happen to female characters? After all its already been proven that its not a gender specific trend, but a vital consequence of serial storytelling that affects both genders equally, which serial storytelling requires as much as you require oxygen.

  4. Ok, here’s the problem.. Everyone always runs to the defense of Stephanie Brown and point out how horrible DC treated her.. OK, yes, it was bad.. but the problem is:

    The character appeared for 20+ years in Robin as Robin’s “sidekick/girlfriend” and was shown numerous times not to be a very capable hero. She was OK, but she often needed other stronger heroes to save her or keep her fat out of the fire (I.E. Cass and Tim saved her from being killed).

    During this time, Steph was trained by Batman, Black Canary, and Cassandra Cain (plus of course Tim Drake), but all of them dumped her for various reasons and MOST ended with them telling her that if she continued to be a hero, she’d get herself or worse someone else killed.

    Flash forward, DC editorially mandates that Stephanie Brown become Robin. Why? Because Tim stepped down and Bruce was upset at Tim and wanted to goad him back and.. Steph was mad at Tim for kissing another girl. So she was made into Robin, not because she EARNED it but because DC mandated it.. in order to eventually kill her (as Spoiler).

    So she magically comes back having been forced to fake her own death.. So she comes back, and once again, BY EDITORIAL MANDATE, they force Cassandra Cain (who has been Batgirl for the last several years, a former friend to Steph after Steph dumped her b/c Cass worried about Steph getting herself or others killed, a petite asian fighter capable of kicking Batman’s butt, and with an origin similar to their current male psycho Robin) to throw Steph her costume and literally jump off a building. then magically, Steph becomes Batgirl.. (with all the tone and witty repartee of Buffy). Steph, once again, magically becomes a great fighter, almost as good as the guy who trained her for years after well.. 20+ years of not learning anything. So is Stephanie Brown the best example of WiR? Not in my opinion.

    Btw it should ALSO be mentioned, they have also had Joker appear with a crowbar in toy form and in video games (DCUniverse Online for instance). The same weapon he used to kill Jason Todd, so it is NOT unusual for a toy villain to get the weapons that s/he used to murder a Bat teen sidekick.

  5. I also find it hilarious that Batwoman is the way to do women RIGHT.. Kate Kane who is shown as being.. a woman in a costume and well a lesbian, but she’s not very smart (she scrapes knowledge from other people like her father and her girlfriend). She’s shown as being a good fighter, but that’s about it.. But her sidekick, Bette Kane, who has admittedly fought Deathstroke? She’s incompetent. She can’t do ANYTHING at all. Yes, Bette Kane needed some training and polishing, but seriously? the woman trained w/the Teen Titans and Nightwing and Kate Kane trained with.. the Army (which would teach her mostly how to shoot a gun and some very BASIC martial arts, not how to be a superhero).. and Bette Kane is the one that can’t do anything? Idk if I buy that.

  6. You left out another female creator working on the rebooted DC books – Amy Reeder Hadley, who’s doing art on Batwoman. (I think her and JH Williams III are switching off on different arc.)

    And when they were planning the reboot, they definitely approached one other writer… might have been Kelly Sue DeConnick, can’t remember who it was, but it didn’t work out for some reason.

    Anyways, yeah, they definitely need more female creators on their books.

    1. Actually SF they asked a handful of other women to work on the reboot, on specific books but due to other responsibilities they couldn’t commit to the projects. I too wish i could remember the names, but i know some of them blogged & tweeted about it.

      As for the statement: “Anyways, yeah, they definitely need more female creators on their books,” i’m going to disagree. Why do we NEED more female creators?

      I mean, it sure would be nice to have more female creators, but what exactly do we as women bring to the table which cannot be brought to the table by the male creative teams we already have?

      I mean its not like a female writer is somehow more egaltrian then a male writer or anything. Heck Gail Simone herself had Oracle beaten to a bloody pulp multiple times, possessed by brainiac & stripped of her b tech technopathy, killed Knock-out to motivate Scandal Savage, mentally violated Black Canary, sent Vixen mad, turning her into a two bit villain & turned Lady Blackhawk into a “super date rape drugged” sex fantasy for a legacy super villain… An that was just in the pages of Birds of Prey. You remember Gail Simone, she’s the one who wrote that WiR list: Oh irony.

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