Meeting Gail Simone at Planet Comicon was a bit of a surreal experience for me this past weekend. It was around ten years ago that I found her website Women in Refrigerators and at that time, I remember being upset by some of Simone’s conclusions because I felt that she was looking for a fight and cherry-picking information in order to prove her point. Now that I’m older, I can recognize that this is the nature of academic work, but I still don’t agree with most of her list.
I know that I’ve discussed my issues with her site before, but seeing her this past weekend (and a brief conversation with Jason Aaron regarding the site) has made me think through my position once more.
To recap, Women in Refrigerators takes its name from an issue of Green Lantern where Kyle Rayner comes home to find his girlfriend murdered and stuffed in a fridge. Simone argues that this is indicative of a larger underlying issue where women are treated unfairly in comics. While there are moments where women are certainly mistreated in comics, the issue I have is that the assumption is that when a woman has PLOT occur to her, then it is automatically due to issues that writers have with women.
During my interview with Ron Marz (writer of Green Lantern during this storyline), Marz stated:
For me, having Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend killed and stuffed into a refrigerator was not in any way, shape or form intended to be about harming a woman, but it’s about Kyle learning that people around him were going to pay the price for what he was doing. Some people are going to say that “you’re using a tragedy to a female character to have an effect on your male character.” Well, yeah, I was. Shakespeare did the same thing with Romeo and Juliet. People care about their significant others. That’s a trope in all fiction.
In short, plot happens. Kyle’s girlfriend Alex was specifically created so that readers could empathize with Kyle’s loss. Her first appearance was in Green Lantern #48 and she died in #54, so Marz spent a few issues developing her character and allowing readers to relate to her before he she died. So, even though she was designed to die, it wasn’t as if Marz wanted the story to be cheap way to get readers to care about Rayner. He wanted to build a connection.
On Sunday afternoon, I explained the Women In Refrigerators situation to Jason Aaron and my response of Moms in Ovens. Being the wise sage that he is, Jason Aaron thought for a moment and responded, “Creating a character just to kill her is kind of cheap though, isn’t it?”
And it caught me off guard a little. He erased the issue of gender completely with one question . . . even though he is completely and totally wrong.
Yes, if handled incorrectly, designing a character to simply kill off can be cheap, but designing a character simply for the emotional toll it can have on a character can be an incredibly powerful narrative device. When I was considering stories that feature characters created for the death, my first reaction was Bambi’s mom.
Only a heartless person wouldn’t cry while watching Bambi as his mother dies. In fact, the scene was so powerful that the American Film Institute listed “Man” as one of the top 50 villains in all of film history. While she taught Bambi life lessons and provided for him, her essential narrative function was to die. Was it because Disney hates women or that they hate parents? One could perhaps interpret the message to be like that, but it can also be interpreted as a physical representation of Bambi’s transformation into an adult. The film is about growing up, and Bambi’s mother was his last connection to his adolescence and her death allowed him to grow up. It was unfortunate that she had to die, but her death allows for the audience to connect to the loss that Bambi suffered. It allowed for an emotional connection between an audience and the work which is a very powerful and beautiful thing.
Maybe Bambi isn’t a great example, however. After all, we’re discussing comic books, not film. Perhaps a better example would be Batman.
Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered immediately in his origin story. Again, this was to create an emotional response to allow for readers to relate to Batman’s pain and since that time, there have been stories crafted around this pain that has provided new meaning to the character and his parents. They were never initially developed to be well-rounded characters, and they have never been presented as such. Their involvement in Batman’s origin story has been a powerful place to start considering the motivations for his character.
So, in essence, while characters created for death can lead to cheap story-telling, they can also allow for a connection between audience and story if handled well. Alex’s death in Green Lantern was one such story. Marz developed her character so that her death actually meant something, and in the years following, he used her death as a means of exploring Kyle Rayner’s emotional struggle for what it means to be a hero.
To conclude, I had a brief conversation with Simone at Planet Comicon about the state of gender roles in comics today and we both concluded that there have been some great efforts in making the medium more equal. It should also be noted that she is an absolutely kind, and wonderful person to talk to and I felt a little ashamed for all of the pent up anger I had about WiR all of these years. Even though I don’t necessarily agree with her assessments, I see the importance of her work and respect her immensely.