As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve decided to take a break from Tumblr. The negativity has started to actively stress me out, and it troubles me how hard it is to talk about anything nuanced on there. The phenomenon of backlash exists in response to actual problems in additions to attempts to deal with those problems. Because of this, in an environment like Tumblr responses tend to get extreme, and it’s hard to critique those responses without sounding like you’re just trying to dismantle or silence the greivance behind them.
So here on my own blog, I want to talk about the literary concept of “fridging.” This is an extremely useful idea for critiquing the way certain characters are killed in a dehumanizing way. But recently it seems that the use of the term has crept outward to be applied to any instance of “problematic character death” in a given piece of media. Its actual definition is narrower than that, and while I definitely think it’s worthwhile to discuss all problematic killings of characters, I don’t think it’s a good idea to dilute the meaning of a useful term to make it less precise.
The term “fridging” comes from a concept coined by Gail Simone called “Women in Refrigerators” Syndrome, drawn from when Green Lantern’s girlfriend Alex Curran was murdered and her body stuffed in to a refrigerator. Simone argued that in having Alex be horribly victimized totally without agency of her own for no other reason order to motivate Green Lantern to act and grow emotionally, the character was dehumanized and objectified. It’s especially problematic because the most frequent instance of this was a female victim motivating a male hero, which means that the female character is always the one dehumanized and devalued.
But just because a death is problematic, that does not mean that it is necessarily an instance of fridging. The key factors are, in my opinion, the objectification coming from the lack of personal agency in whatever lead to the character’s death, and the subjugation of her personal significance in using the death purely as a motivating force for another, usually male, character.
That is the precise definition of fridging. It is NOT necessarily fridging, for example, to kill a woman, a gender-variant character, a member of a racial, sexual, or religious minority, or any other marginalized group. The term is not meant to address issues of “reduction or compromise of representation.” That is a totally worthy and important thing to talk about, but I think it needs its own term for precision’s sake. I believe that it’s important to identify the exact nature of problems because each one may require a different solution.
Personally, I believe there IS a problem in media with racial and sexual minority characters having a disproportionately high death rate. I think at its base it’s another stemming from the Problem of the Protagonist, which is my personal critical theory (someday dissertations will be written on it 😝) that because we tend so strongly to have White Straight Men as our protagonists, all supporting and peripheral characters are designed with and given narrative trajectory in relation to his White Straight Manness, which boxes them into certain limitations.
For example, if our hero is a WSM, by definition our only options for non-white, non-straight, and non-male characters are in the supporting cast. Our hero is usually not an option for killing off, so we have to turn to the supporting cast to find somebody to die, which means that if we increase the likelihood of picking one of our non-white, non-straight, non-male people. Because a straight male protagonist’s love interest must be a woman, high stakes may demand that as the most important person to him she must be at risk– which suggests that the woman has to die. Or maybe we can’t kill someone as important as his love interest, who is often of the same race as the protagonist, so if we have any non-white characters they’re usually not her– so it becomes more likely that we’ll kill one of them. And of course both of these lovers are likely straight, which makes it more likely to push one of the queer supporting characters into the line of fire.
Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s not necessarily that we think our non-majority characters are less human than our white straight dudes. It’s that because we’ve placed white straight dude at the center of the story, the more closely entwined a character is with our planned trajectory for him, the harder it becomes for our narrative to function without them. Because the more unlike him a character becomes, the farther away they usually get positioned, which makes them more expendable to kill. This is a real problem, and objectifying in its own way. The problem is not that they are without agency, the problem is that they’re considered expendable to the narrative.
It needs its own term, though I’m not sure what. I want to say “Peripheral Expendability,” but that puts the emphasis on their Supporting Character status more than their non-majority status. “Minority Expendability”? I don’t know, something like that.
But back to fridging, which is SPECIFICALLY about lack of agency. The reason this blurring of the definition of fridging annoys me is because it denies the agency of characters who die because they made active choices. I think it’s MUCH more humanizing to write diverse characters who can take actions that have terrible personal consequences than it is to never allow them to make the same dramatic choices as their mainstream fellows. Yes, if you’re developing a pattern of only having your racial and sexual minorities make the ultimate heroic sacrifice, you’ve got a problem. But you’re not solving the problem of fridging just by keeping those characters from dying. You’re solving the problem when you allow them to have agency and examine their struggles for their own sake, not just for how they affect other characters whose journeys you’ve decided are more important.
So, the murder of a superhero’s helpless mother to motivate him to take on the mask and cape? “Women in Refrigerators.” The black guy or lesbian who choses to heroically sacrifice themself to save the group, instead of any one of the likely more numerous white and/or straight characters? “Minority Expendability” or whatever. I think it’s an important distinction, because each issue is solved differently.
A side note– a contributing dimension I would identify, even though I’m not sure if it was part of Simone’s original definition, is when there is a dearth of onscreen presence of the killed character before death, preventing her from speaking for or representing herself in any way, contributing to the functional lack of agency. I don’t think that’s a NECESSARY factor of whether or not a character is fridged, but when it happens I think it definitely intensifies the problem. Honestly, even if we’re informed they actively made a choice that brought about their death, I think the fact that they get zero screen time to speak for themselves makes it still count as a Fridging.