Thawing to a Close

After a month of avoiding my topics of expertise, I think it's best we just dive right into the geek jargon and misguided extrapolation of socio-sexual themes in picture books of men in tight underoos.

A math professor whose name and likeness I've purged from memory to make room for obscure slang and fantasies involving Masuimi Max once said that a mathemetician's job was “to simplify”. I really wish I could identify the peddler of such mindwipingly stupid misinformation, because looking back upon my life it is definitely in the top five fattest fucking lies I've ever been told. Every subsequent math class ever served only to illustrate just how arbitrarily complicated they could make math for students, for no other reason than to keep them occupied for fifty minutes a day. In college I had to make a venn diagram to show why barking was evidence enough to prove that Max was a dog. Moral of the story: I picked a hell of a year to go broke and not afford any hard drugs.

For me, the only facet of human knowledge that actively seeks to simplify itself is language ('ll feed you, my cherubs, just bear with me). It's perhaps most evident in the analysis in fiction/media, where over time we have as an audience identified and analyzed “tropes”, explaining plot conventions and media trends into short two or three-word phrases in lieu of paragraph-long definitions. These often have catchy, memorable names like Jumping The Shark, Pet The Dog, and Bikini Chain Mail (I'm almost positive that at least one of those is the name of a band I auditioned for in college). Depending on how widespread these expressions become, they can succeed in simplifying and modifying the language of those who observe and partake in the media these trends occur in (which, in the case of television, is like, a lot of people).

Where am I going with this? Absolutely nowhere. That was all just smarty talk back story for the real topic we're covering today: a disturbingly common trope in fiction known colloquially as Women In Refrigerators. WiR denotes the phenomenon where female supporting characters (usually the “love interest” but can sometimes be the daughter, sister, etc) are murdered/beaten/tortured/thrown through a wormhole in time to be eaten alive by velociraptors by the antagonist for seemingly no other reason than to hurt or aggravate the male protagonist. The trope was coined by writer Gail Simone and derives its name from an issue of Green Lantern, where Kyle Rayner comes home to find that his girlfriend Alex has been murdered by Major Force and stuffed into the fridge. While prolific, by 1999 this trend had become, as we say on the interwebz, “old meme”. Icing the leading lady to get a reaction out of the protagonist is at least as old as Shakespeare, and perhaps older; if you're read up on your classic mythology.

WiR reached its height in usage during Identity Crisis, where Sue Dibny, the wife of Elongated Man and one of the most beloved secondary characters in comic history, was raped and murdered for no other reason than to sate the curiousity of DC executives who were eager to see how a “rape story” would go over with their audience, because you know, they had that whole comic book thing down so well they thought they'd branch out. I wouldn't even trust these assholes to read aloud a Mad Lib, let alone write me a story about rape and the political privileges of superheroes. Fuck. I need to step outside and count to ten. I'm running out of throwable furniture.

If Mjollnr can only be lifted up by those pure of heart, can The Hulk lift a path of earth or a building upon which Mjollnr is lying, or would the hammer just fall through and return to the ground? Discuss.

To say that WiR is illustrative and illuminates the sexist and chauvinist patriarchal mindset pervasive in comic books is like saying Fox News' support of the teabaggers is illustrative of their right-wing viewpoint. Congratulations, you've discovered critical thinking. I could dissect WiR as a sexist phenomenon and pontificate about what it says about women and a woman's place in a “man's world”, but that sort of poignant, socially conscious critical analysis isn't what my readership has come to expect from me. No, I know what you really want. Subtext and implications of homoerotic overtones!

By reverse engineering the Women in Refrigerators phenomenon, we can see what circumstances have brought about this shallow, contrived trend. So, why do the women always have to take the fall whenever some superhero gets in over his head? Because there aren't any men around to do it.

Superheroes often lead lonely, anti-social personal lives. Relationships with friends and family are scarce, and in many cases, the people who you are suppose to rely on and turn to for support end up being the same costumed assholes trying to throw drop a car on your girlfriend.

Such is the sad story of Spider Man, who, ironically enough, is argued to have started the trend in the first place. Originally, the trope was named Gwen Stacy Syndrome, after Spider Man's original love interest who was dropped off a bridge by none other than Norman Osborne, father of Spider-Man's best friend and self-proclaimed “surrogate father”. Peter Parker's got to have the loneliest facebook account in the Marvel Universe. The Lizard and Dr. Octopus were, in different incarnations of the characters, Pete's academic mentors and occasional accomplices. His boss, J. Jonah Jameson is such a raging anti-Spiderman advocate even Glenn Beck would say he needs a hobby. Even Venom, one of Spidey's most popular villains to date, turns out to be a childhood buddy of his in childhood.

There is no man that Spidey can trust, especially not after he sided with the Pro-Reg side in Civil War. And when you can climb walls, tie people up with webs and sense the various unseen objects being hurled at you by robotic tentacles, there really isn't much people can do to hurt you. You don't have any friends or siblings, so the only option your enemies have is to attack your love interest (Gwen Stacy/Mary Jane) or your doddering, helpless maternal parental figure (Aunt May, the geriatric punching bag of Marvel). The best part is that they don't even need to google up their addresses, because chances are all your enemies will have met one or both of them at some point in their supervillainy career.

Why can't Spider-Man have any friends? Is it just something about him? Does he just attract bad guys wherever he goes, or is it just a superhero thing? Surely other heroes have meaningful platonic friendships with other men?

Green Arrow? Partakes (unwillingly) in mindwiping Batman, who wasn't far from the finish line, mentally speaking.

Aquaman? Constantly being usurped by his brother Ocean Master.

The Hulk? Launched into space by a group of other heroes, one of whom was his former psychiatrist.

The Punisher? Killed his sidekick. And two hours of my life when War Zone came out.

The lesson here is, obviously, that other men cannot be trusted. If they don't become your enemies, they will steal your thunder to make room for their own career. If Superman is his “best friend”, why does Batman keep a kryptonite ring lying around?

If you must have some contact, if you absolutely must form an attachment to somebody, it's best to find yourself a nice girl, one spunky and independent enough to not be bothered with you never being around for movie night but vulnerable to ambush so that you can constantly rescue her in lieu of actually working towards a relationship. And if she dies, well then you gotta use that as an opportunity to get stronger, to overcome and all that shit. Because it can only make you tougher. Because you can't die. Women, once they die they're dead. No “get out of dead” cards for them. But a hero never dies. You'll just keep coming back from the dead until you stop being profitable and then they'll write you off in some crossover and by then you won't even care that all your girlfriends keep dying because you won't even exist.

I feel somewhat responsible for the state of male friendship in fiction, because in a time in this country where two men cannot be open for their feelings for one another, cannot express genuine platonic love without their sexuality being called into question, the last thing I should be doing is putting out all these articles about these two heroes are gay for each other and how that guy's fucking his sidekick and wackity shmackity doo. When I was a kid my father used to warn me that showing any affection to my siblings would make me “queer”. This from the guy who complained when I wouldn't kiss him on the cheek after I reached high school. My therapist never gets tired of hearing about my dad. But seriously, I should know better. I've played right into patriarchy's plan. Damn them. Damn them all to hell.

This is why the women are always taking dives in comic books. Because our warped American sense of friendship and community has bred a generation of distrusting lone wolf heroes. Is the knife in my back going to come from my estranged college buddy or my best friend who's taken a few too many gamma rays to the nutsack? Or maybe this has nothing to do with our society's discomfort with male friendship. Perhaps it's all about target audience! Maybe offing all the popular, sympathetic female heroes and secondary characters keeps girls from getting interested in comic books, maintaining a strong “straight male” demographic that takes some sort of catharsis in seeing their paranoia and unrest towards other men brought to life, that experiences some perverse relief in seeing the ball and chain cut loose and stuffed in some domestic appliance. We like our criminals unreformed and our heroes unattached.

Two drinks and some subversive leftist literature later, I'll swear up and down that this is all one and the same. That comic books are being used to indoctrinate the youth of the nation with the misogyny and homophobia necessary to sustain the patriarchy. Which I may or may not already believe, but simply do not possess the courage to say it out loud with a straight face. All I'm saying is that if Joe Quesadilla can use his executive influence in Marvel to push his anti-smoking agenda, then it's not out of the picture to imagine he'd use it to push his opinions on love and relationships. Because he already has. It was called One More Day.

The irony of these tropes is that their oft-wacky names can be used to downplay or sugarcoat the unfortunate messages and themes expressed. Women in Refrigerators sounds absurd and silly, mostly because it is. It's the 21st century. Women are on the news and in the White House and winning tennis championships. We don't need to be taking dives to make the story relevant. For every superhero's girlfriend tossed off a bridge or stuffed in a fridge there's five or six being shot or stabbed or hit with a car on some form of televised media. We are more than MacGuffins in skirts.Yeah, that's right. I said “we”. I'm co-opting your gender like I co-opted your mom.

WiR is, at its best, an overused and deservedly mocked plot convention used by male writers who just don't know better. At its worst it is a reflection of the blatantly misogyny inherent in male-oriented fiction.

In the juvenile fantasy of the patriarchal stooge, the woman is both invaluable and disposable; the only face you can trust in a city of villains disguised as lab partners and teammates, and an easy and convenient way for your enemies to let you know they're ready for your city-devasting grudge match. A confidant you can trust with your identity and vulnerabilities who will stay in the ground once buried, leaving you free to continue your quest for revenge or whatever you decide it is today without fear of having to commit, to flesh out your feelings and really bond with another person. Because that shit's for queers.

Enough female dignity, both fictional and nonfictional, has been lost due to society's inability to reconcile male friendship with flaming homosexuality. Our inability as a society to accept male bonding that does not involve murdering some animal in its natural habitat is eating us up from the inside, and the effects will only worsen over time. As the misogyny festers in the patriarchy, its fantasy land will become more and more hazardous to women, both character and reader. Five years ago DC did Identity Crisis simply because they wanted to try a rape story. Who the fuck knows what awaits Black Canary and Lois Lane in the coming years. And all the while Superman and Batman will simultneously drift apart with resentment and inch closer with unvoiced desire and love, ever-mirroring the real world that breathes their story to life. Art doesn't imitate life. It is life.

These appear to be separate issues, unrelated problems with unrelated solutions, but when it comes to people and their bullshit there is never only one cause and effect. These trends must be overturned and challenged. But how? Maybe if we had more feminist comic creators, perhaps with our/their combined efforts we could make the fictional world a better place for ink and pencil women. That still leaves the problem of finding Spider-Man a friend and teaching men that it's okay to be open about their love without ending every sentence with “no homo”.

Circulate this around facebook and livejournal and see if anyone comes up with anything.

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