If you were to ask an avid and informed fan of superhero comics about controversies surrounding the portrayal of women in the cape-and-mask genre, you might get answers having to do with the male gaze, or the number of female protagonists, or perhaps even whether or not comics need to do more to attract female readers. In every case though, the focus can potentially lead to the phenomenon known as “Women in Refrigerators.”
Coined in 1999 by comics writer Gail Simone (probably most famous for her work on Birds of Prey, a series starring a team of female superheroes), “Women in Refrigerators” refers to a tendency for female characters in superhero comics to be either killed, abused, raped, or depowered in what seems to frequently be a move to anger or inspire a male superhero into action, or to intensify the hatred between the hero and his nemesis. Named after the Green Lantern character Kyle Rayner depicted above (who not only literally finds one of his girlfriends in a fridge but has also lost a number of significant others in his career), WiR has been an on-going discussion among comic fans for the past 12 years. In spite of the age and scope of the topic though, the conversation has not really penetrated the realm of anime and manga.
Given arguments over things like moe and lolicon and how Japanese society treats women, what of “Women in Refrigerators in Manga?” Furthermore, whether they’re informed or ignorant, with the number of people who have spoken or written about WiR in the superhero comics community, what would happen if they all focused their attention more towards manga?
Casca from Berserk, a strong female character horribly traumatized by brutal rape
When initially thinking about the topic, a number of questions came to mind. Would they look at manga and find it to be more sexist than superhero comics? Is the lack of a similar phrase or concept in manga a potential problem for it and any movements towards improving manga? However, I soon realized that WiR and its surrounding discourse are very much shaped by the superhero genre itself; evidence of this includes the whole idea of being “depowered,” something which holds a lot more weight in a setting where super powers are the x-factor in the story.
Of course, comparing one genre to the entirety of manga makes things quite unfair, but even when you narrow it down to, say, shounen fighting and action series, or even a single magazine such as Shounen Jump, the setup of superhero comics has particularly unique consequences.
Conceptual Paradox in the Superhero Genre
The basic superhero (of which Superman is probably the most well-known example) is someone who is somehow stronger, faster, and overall better than the average human, and this allows them to right wrongs. Where the regular authorities falter, the superhero-as-vigilante can come in and thrash the bad guys and make the world a better place. These settings rely on an environment fairly close to our own, one grounded in a similar default reality so that we can compare the ideal of the superhero to the everyday, but it also makes for a world that can start to unravel if the concept is pushed too far.
Adding a superhero to an otherwise normal world can transform it entirely, and when you begin to really question the effects a particular superhero can have on his environment, you wind up with questions like “If Mr. Fantastic is so smart, why hasn’t he found a cure for cancer?” While there are comics which do explore in detail the influence superheroes can have on society (Watchmen, for instance), and the Mr. Fantastic question isn’t some magic contradiction that destroys the superhero genre, it does point to the idea that a typical superhero story has to set its boundaries if it doesn’t want such questions jumping out at its readers.
The idea of boundaries isn’t limited to superheroes, as just about any story which adds something “superhuman” while wishing to maintain a semblance of normalcy has to draw the line somewhere. The tricky thing with superhero comics, however, is that the manner in which they have developed over the years encourages readers to find those limits through the prominent usage of a shared universe. When a comic is just about Batman, you can see how he fights crime and strikes fear into the seedy underbelly of Gotham City. When you cross him over with Superman though, suddenly Batman is put in contrast with a near-omnipotent alien who can outclass him fifty different ways. The reason to join them together is not to just make Batman look bad but rather to afford both heroes sufficient respect, so it requires Batman to have something extra to make up for it.
Where once he could just be a clever and ingenious individual, Batman is now the smartest man on Earth, armed with the most complex contingency plans ever conceived by man, all to make him Superman’s equal. In manga terms, this would be the equivalent of putting Monkey D. Luffy and Son Goku in the same universe and having to find a way for Luffy to be as powerful and influential as the Dragon Ball protagonist, like saying that Luffy’s rubber body makes him more resistant to ki blasts or something. As Marvel and DC actively promote their shared universes, this type of comparison becomes almost inevitable, and when you’re comparing, then the superhero universe comes under at least a certain degree of scrutiny.
If you then add the on-going saga aspect that is “continuity” to that mix, then the world of the hero can be scrutinized not just in terms of space, but also time. Superhero comics encourage a long-term view of its characters, where the events build on top of each other to create a loose history. And given the longevity that some of these characters possess, an action 30 years ago can continue to be associated with that character. In a comic from 1981, Avengers character Hank Pym hit his wife Janet , and it became a recurring topic all the way up until she died a few years ago. If they were to just ignore it and have the two characters act like nothing had ever happened, then it would have been perhaps silently condoning spousal abuse. However, because they kept it, it wound up defining the characters in certain respects. Although one can argue that this enriched their characters, it also meant that once it was done, neither of them could return to what they were prior to it. And while things are re-written or counteracted on a somewhat regular basis in superhero comics, this shared universe setup means that just one bad decision by one creator can potentially define a character to the point that no amount of reboots or retcons can undo its influence.
One Woman, One Refrigerator, One Universe
Let’s go back to manga for a little bit and pick a title that most definitely has female characters that are WiR candidates: Fist of the North Star. Now I love this series and consider it among my all-time favorites, but its female characters range from essentially cheerleaders to useless. Going in the style of the original Women in Refrigerators post, I’m going to list them with a list of ways they’ve been “fridged.”
Yuria (above) abused, forced to become Shin’s lover, kills herself (not really), contracts a fatal illness from long-term radiation exposure
Mamiya turned into a sex slave, her lover Rei dies, stops fighting entirely
Lin almost forced to have Kaioh’s baby, brainwashed into falling in love with another man
And so on and so forth.
Women are kind of a non-factor in Fist of the North Star no matter what they say about love and no matter how many women nobly sacrifice themselves. But at the same time, the fact that Fist of the North Star ran in Shounen Jump doesn’t mean that its portrayal of women exists in the same environment as One Piece or Toriko or City Hunter. Misogyny can exist, and it can even exist in multiple titles from the same publisher in the same magazine to the extent that you could call the whole thing sexist, but there is less of a risk of the comics congealing into an entrenched, constantly self-reinforcing “super misogyny.”
With superhero comics and their long continuity and shared universes, it can be incredibly easy to permanently “poison the well.” In this environment, a single instance of a WiR does not stand alone in its own conceptual space, but ends up existing in a greater universe, and then stays there in the timeline potentially forever. While this is not inherently a bad thing, it means that more innocent and simplistic stories and concepts have a harder time maintaining that innocence. If someone said The Cat in the Hat and Schindler’s List occupied the same continuity, it would be very hard for Dr. Seuss’s characters to be quite the same when the idea of genocide hangs over them.
This can even apply to the degree to which women are sexualized in comics. Somewhat like how “Hollywood Ugly” requires you to believe that the attractive celebrity in baggy clothes and glasses is meant to be homely, if you take a title where the aesthetic portrayal of women is geared primarily towards the sexual gratification of men and put it in the same world as a comic where the attractiveness of women is depicted in a more neutral fashion, then there is bound to be a conceptual clash, especially if the two were to cross over directly. Either the overt “butt and breasts out” poses would have to be acknowledged directly with respect to how a woman would normally pose herself (accounting of course for stylistic flourish), or the more neutral design would have to be subsumed by the overtly erotic aesthetic. If respect is supposedly afforded to both portrayals, then there winds up being a compromise, much like Superman and Batman’s situation, that generates at least a certain degree of schizophrenia.
It can also be easy to poison the well of a shared universe because once that idea takes root in one corner of the world, it becomes easier for it to spread to other parts as well, and I think this is what ends up really shaping Women in Refrigerators in terms of the superhero genre. While I may be assuming things too much, I think it’s far easier to corrupt an innocent idea than it is to make a corrupted idea turn innocent, and so every time another woman gets killed or raped or depowered, it means less and less of a chance for that whole thing to be turned around entirely, which means the rate at which the universe becomes “darker” winds up being far faster than the rate at which it becomes “lighter,” unless deliberate steps are taken to work against it.
Given everything I’ve said about the danger of a shared universe, does this mean that any sort of shared universe will lead to similar problems? Not necessarily, but I think that regardless of which direction that universe goes, compromise is almost inevitable. When Neon Genesis Evangelion with its emphasis on psychological turmoil enters the crossover environment of the Super Robot Wars games, its story and characters end up less traumatized overall. When Lupin III meets Detective Conan, his role is more of a lovable scamp than a hardened thief. Even taking darker series and making them lighter to fit in another work is a form of compromise. However, neither of those bother to maintain their continuities for prolonged periods. Moreover, while a shared universe does not guarantee Women in Refrigerators, the way that superhero comics have turned out means that it is constantly poised to do so, and as far as I can tell, the discussion surrounding WiR is very much about a concerted effort to turn things around, to deal with what may very well be a case of inertia.
Towards Methods for Manga?
A quote from Gail Simone in 1999 clarifies one of the original purposes of Women in Refrigerators:
My simple point has always been: if you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won’t read comics. That’s it!
This is not as much of a problem for manga, even titles and magazines designed for boys, as many publishers in Japan have learned ways to court a female audience. Some titles in Shounen Jump are especially known for their sizable female readerships: Saint Seiya, Katekyou Hitman REBORN!, and The Prince of Tennis, to name a few. Granted, most of these titles have primarily male casts and so the portrayal of female characters is not the primary draw, but that is also getting into another more complex issue of gender-based character identification. I’ll leave this as something of an aside for the sake of not going too off-course, but will say that this might mean that it doesn’t take outstanding portrayals of women to attract a female audience, but at the very least ones that won’t make them feel uncomfortable to be women.
As it is, the “Women in Refrigerators” discourse is especially suited for the superhero genre. Its concerns and the manner in which it can quickly spread to other stories are at least partly predicated on the structure set out by decades of development. If WiR is to be applied to manga, or even a certain genre or magazine/publisher, then it likely needs to be modified to fit a very different history, both in terms of manga itself and the Japanese culture surrounding it. Personally, I’m not entirely sure what changes need to be made. It’s probably an endeavor that is too big for one post, but I can throw out some possible directions.
I think the killing, rape, and abuse aspects probably translate adequately as is, but to go back to the “depowered” aspect of WiR as something very particular to superheroes, perhaps it would be a good idea to find something that is not quite so specific. If we’re dealing with a genre like shounen action, your Dragon Ball‘s and Naruto‘s and such, then maybe it’s not so much a matter of depowering as it is being quickly outclassed or made irrelevant. A lot of characters in these works often get some kind of improvement to their abilities, but that is made obsolete by the fact that every other hero gets stronger at a quicker rate. While this is not exclusive to female characters, it may be something worth tracking among female characters to see how they’re made to be functionally useless.
If we’re looking more at sexually-charged (but not necessarily pornographic) titles, maybe it would be wise to keep an eye out for degradation or humiliation. For example, how often are characters made to do something or wear an outfit that not only embarrasses them, but sexualizes them in the process? What of humiliation as a sexual tool, even when it’s meant to be light-hearted prodding and not something more extreme like torture?
Maybe it would also be a good idea to take a look at one popular title and to note where the female characters are mistreated solely to advance the male characters’ stories. After that is done, the next step would be to look at works that may have come about as the result of its popularity, whether it was because there was a clear influence, there was a blatant attempt at riding the wave, it was the next title readers flocked to, or even if there was some kind of editorial mandate to feature more of those stories. Do some of those WiR-esque ideas and portrayals still exist? Are they getting weaker or stronger? This may be a way to track things across one magazine or one genre without having the shared universe of superhero comics.
Of course, this is all assumes that WiR is not an issue when the female readership has been established and sustained sufficiently, but what about the possibility that the phenomenon not only exists in shoujo and josei, but that such events might occur in greater numbers compared to manga geared towards male readers?
What I’ve provided in the ideas above would not comprise a complete framework, but then again neither did the original list of Women in Refrigerators. There is a distinct possibility that with each genre of manga, even if you were to narrow it to titles somehow similar to superhero comics, that it would require its own adjustments be they subtle or broad. It may even be the case that in the end, we find out that WiR cannot be applied to manga no matter how many modifications are made, but I think it would still be a worthwhile endeavor to figure that out in the first place. I’m sure we’d learn something along the way.