Alexandra DeWitt is the poster girl, the one whose body was found in the refrigerator by her superhero boyfriend and gave us a name for the troubling objectification of women in superhero stories. She wasn’t the first to play the role now named for her untimely demise, merely the unlucky inspiration for its name. There have been so many more left in the cold of that metaphorical appliance: Gwen Stacy, Barbara Gordon, Stephanie Brown, Linda Park, Karen Page, Sue Dibny, even “villains” like Harley Quinn.
“Women in refrigerators” are characters (frequently female) whose pain, suffering, and — often — death is written into a story solely to motivate a (typically) male hero to vengeance or greater sacrifice. The term was coined by comic book writer and all-around queen of badassery Gail Simone in 1999 and, as a recognized trope, has steadily received more scrutiny as the superhero genre fan base has grown and diversified. Sometimes the character is created simply so she can be murdered (or raped or kidnapped or institutionalized or otherwise abused) a few issues into a larger story, thus providing the hero with the requisite manpain* to further his story arc. Some of them are so little regarded in the grand scheme of things that “Daredevil’s ex-girlfriend” is the beginning and end of their significance, though “fridging,” to give the trope it’s verb form, is not limited to one-offs and minor characters alone, as has been proven by Barbara Gordon’s treatment in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, or even Jean Grey throughout much of the Phoenix Saga (especially the film version from 2003).
Merging together the world of the super powered vigilantes and the style of The Vagina Monologues, The Refrigerator Monologues (June 2017) takes this persistent, frequently sexist trope and turns it inside out. In Catherynne M. Valente’s fully-fleshed out superhero universe (illustrated by Annie Wu), the women in refrigerators get to step out and tell their own stories.
In the land of the dead, the ladies of the Hell Hath Club meet to tell their stories and bond over the shared experience of being fucked over by various super-powered narcissists. Their experiences should be depressing as hell (and in some ways they are), but Valente doesn’t set out to make them pitiful or vindictive. Her narrators have a foulmouthed, rat-a-tat delivery and sarcastic cynicism that is best defined as a cross between a hardboiled detective from the 1940s and a teenaged Joss Whedon heroine, if his shows were R-rated. From the girlfriend murdered by a supervillain to the powerful (but tokenized) heroine that intimidates her colleagues, each character has DNA traceable to recognizable comic book forbears, adding an extra layer of interest for those who recognize their original forms without detracting from the stories as their own narratives. There are some minor flaws of characterization, in that many of the voices sound a bit too similar, but there is such an overall cohesiveness (and so much righteous, rollicking female anger) to the stories that this rarely detracts from the otherwise excellent writing.
There is a rich and wonderful irony to Valente’s approach — creating an entire universe to support the stories of women that were once mere disposable supports for male-focused stories. Of course, that also means that the stories that make up the Monologues were written to prove a point. This is a dangerous way to approach fiction, yet it never reads as a polemic, thanks to both Valente’s style and substance. Whereas any skilled analyst or essayist can break down a trope like fridging (and many have), it takes a skilled fiction writer to make the Hell Hath ladies more than the poster girls for sexism in comic books. The gallows humor of the narration and human imperfection of each character give the stories a power and individuality that makes their experience more effective than a simple takedown ever could, and the universe they inhabit is so fully-realized that even readers unfamiliar with the trope at the heart of Valente’s mission — or superhero comics in general — will find that it speaks a truth they’ve known but perhaps struggled to articulate.
More from BUST
Amber Troska is a copy editor, freelance writer, and voracious reader from Virginia. Her writing and reviewing work focuses on the intersection of politics and feminism in literature and pop culture. She is also the founding editor of the Medium.com publication Postcards from the Resistance. Follow her blog atroskity.booklikes.com.