Women in Refrigerators (or WiR) is a website that was created in 1999 by a group of comic book fans. The "Women in Refrigerators Syndrome" describes the use of the death or injury of a female comic book character as a plot device in a story starring a male comic book character. The website features a list of female comic book characters that had been injured, killed, or depowered as a plot device within various superhero comic books. Also, the site seeks to analyze why these plot devices are used disproportionately on female characters.
The term "Women in Refrigerators" was coined by writer Gail Simone as a name for the website in early 1999 during on-line discussions about comic books with friends. It refers to an incident in Green Lantern #54 (1994), written by Ron Marz, in which Kyle Rayner, the title hero, comes home to his apartment to find that his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, had been killed by the villain Major Force and stuffed in a refrigerator.
Simone and her friends then developed a list of fictional characters, superheroines who had been "killed, maimed or depowered." The list was then circulated via the Internet over Bulletin Board System, e-mail and electronic mailing lists. Simone also e-mailed many comic book creators directly for their responses to the list.
The list is considered “infamous” in certain comic book fan circles. Respondents often found different meanings to the list itself, though Simone maintained that her, "... simple point (had) always been: if you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won't read comics. That's it!"
Soon after the release of the list, many comic book fans and professionals responded. Initial reactions to the list came to Simone over e-mail. Some correspondents reacted with hostility at the creation of the list and assumed a radical feminist agenda on the part of Simone. Some responses were neutral and others were positive. Additionally, various arguments on the merits of the list were published on Internet comic book fan sites in early 1999. Different discussions developed regarding the use of gruesome injury, death and/or depowerment of friends and acquaintances of heroic comic book characters as a plot device.
Gail Simone decided to include many of the responses she received on the website. Journalist Beau Yarbrough created the initial design and coding on the original site. Artist and business executive John Bartol edited the content. Robert Harris, a librarian and comic book fan, contributed to site maintenance and updates along with fan John Norris. The idea for placing the list on-line originated with software developer Jason Yu, who also served as the original site host.
Several comic book creators indicated that the list caused them to pause and think about the stories they were creating. Often these responses contained reasoned arguments for or against the use of death or injury of female characters as a plot device. A list of some responses from comic book professionals is included at the site.
Ron Marz's reply stated (in part) "To me the real difference is less male-female than main character-supporting character. In most cases, main characters, "title" characters who support their own books, are male. [...] the supporting characters are the ones who suffer the more permanent and shattering tragedies. And a lot of supporting characters are female."
Dead Men Defrosting
Some fans argued that many characters, regardless of gender, eventually return given sufficient importance in a storyline or fandom popularity. Thus, second and third-string characters (and not first-grade leads) are more likely to be killed off permanently regardless of gender. Sidekicks in general also tend to be singled out frequently. The deaths of Robin II and Captain America supporting character Bucky were often cited as an example of this trend in online discussions on the message boards of Comic Book Resources at the time of the original development of WiR.
In response to that line of reasoning, content editor John Bartol wrote Dead Men Defrosting and argued that when male heroes are killed or altered, they are more typically returned to their status quo. According to Bartol, after most female characters are altered they are "never allowed, as male heroes usually are, the chance to return to their original heroic states. And that's where we begin to see the difference."
In 2005 the characters Jason Todd and Bucky both returned as characters in regular publication.
After 1999, development of the site largely stopped as the topic had seemingly been thoroughly covered. The original domain of WiR passed through several hands, all of whom maintained the WiR site as an archive. In late 2005, the last domain holder let the original domain expire. The domain was then taken over by a European adult entertainment company, much to the chagrin of the content creators. As of 12 April 2009 this site appears to have become infected with malware.
Beau Yarbrough then registered a new domain, Unheardtaunts.com, and placed the original WiR site there at www.unheardtaunts.com/wir. This is the only version of WiR that is endorsed by the content creators.
In popular culture
Though the original list and website exist now as an archive, the term Women in Refrigerators continues to spark discussion in comic book fandom on the Internet. The term and the website continue to have an impact on the comic book subculture.
Metatextual references in comic books
Metatextual acknowledgement of Women in Refrigerators exist within superhero comics. In the 2006 comic The Battle for Blüdhaven #5 by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, Hal Jordan beats Major Force with a power ring-formed refrigerator. Also in 2006, the comic Seven Soldiers: Bulleteer #4 by Grant Morrison featured a fight scene in which two female superhuman characters, Bulleteer and Sally Sonic, strike each other in turn with a real refrigerator. In 2008's satirical Ambush Bug: Year None #1, the title character is shopping in an appliance store, and asks the clerk while holding the door of a refrigerator open, if they have any models which do not have dead women stuffed in them.
References in mass culture
WiR also sparked discussion outside of comic book fandom. In 2000, several national newspapers ran articles that referenced the site. The articles about WiR always generated discussion on the topic of sexism in pop culture and the comic book industry. This discussion often included healthy debate by those who believe sexism exists in those realms and those who believe it doesn't. There were many mainstream references to the site in the mass media. The references even trickled down to smaller mainstream media outlets. Some universities also list the content of 'WiR' as related to analysis and critique of pop culture.
Women in Refrigerators Syndrome
Women in Refrigerators Syndrome was coined in various forms via on-line discussions and articles. In one on-line article from 2006, comic book fan Lauren Dayap made mention of 'the girlfriend in the refrigerator syndrome' without explaining what the term meant.
'Women in Refrigerators Syndrome' describes the use of the death or injury of a female comic book character as a plot device in a story starring a male comic book character. It is also used to note the depowerment or elimination of a female comic book character within a comic book universe. Cases of 'Women in Refrigerators Syndrome' deal with a gruesome injury or murder of a female character at the hands of a supervillain, usually as a motivating personal tragedy for a male superhero to whom the victim is connected. The death or injury of the female character then helps cement the hatred between the hero and the villain responsible. Kyle Rayner is a particularly cited example of this case, due to the common tragedies that befall women in his life.
Several contributors to the site and the original list later became comic book creators and entertainment industry professionals. These writers, with Rob Harris (see below), were also all members of the early Internet group of comic book fans and aspiring writers known collectively as "The Pantheon." This group includes:
- Stephen Cmelak - creator of the webcomic Avatars
- Daniel Merlin Goodbrey - digital designer and underground comicbook author, creator of the hypercomic Six-Gun: Tales from an Unfolded Earth and the ipod comic Brain Fist
- Brian Joines - writer of the independent comic The 7 Guys of Justice and as of 2006 publishing new comics through Platinum Studios
- Greg Dean Schmitz – creator of UpcomingMovies.com, AKA Greg's Previews, now columnist for Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes
- Gail Simone - author of several comic books including Birds of Prey for DC Comics and Marvel's Deadpool.
Original site editor and contributor Rob Harris was a long-time fan of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and created the Legion Academy student Nightwind (originally named Nightwing) through a fan submission to DC Comics. The character debuted in issue 12 of The Amazing World of DC Comics. The character was later renamed Berta Harris in honor of her creator. Robert Harris died in 2004. Nightwind is one of the characters from the original WiR list.
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