Women Versus the World!

I can’t remember exactly when I first began noticing that women got the short end of… well, everything. But I remember the very first time I heard of the phrase “women in refrigerators“. It was around 2014, back when the cast of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 were doing the press rounds. Emma Stone, the actress who plays Gwen Stacy, was repeatedly asked about her character’s death in the Spider-Man comic books, and if that scene would be recreated in the film version.

So not the place to be. (Photo by Squared.one on Unsplash)

I remember feeling annoyed about that, in the vein of “why are you all so fucking excited to see a woman die on screen?” Then I read articles like these. And then of course Gwen is killed off, because of course Spider-Man’s grief and subsequent drive to fight crime are more important. He’s the hero, you know.

Female fridging is still used by writers today as a go-to trope. Have you seen Deadpool 2? Two examples in that single movie, folks. Read that link to Vox for more examples of fridging in exchange for male development and motivations. Or this long-ass fridge list by “women in refrigerators” coiner Gail Simone. Etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum.

Killing women is also a favorite trope in Philippine stories, particularly in soap operas. The more api the babae is, and the more gruesome the death is, the more audiences will lap it all up. Then the man will feel immense guilt because his job in life is to protect the woman.

Oh. The fridging of women also happens in real life. Literally.

Keep sparkling, all ye lovely women. (Photo by Swaraj Tiwari on Unsplash)

The problem goes beyond relying on stupid tropes. It’s about properly representing women in every medium – from social media clips to books, TV shows, theater productions, music, feature films and documentaries, even (and especially) porn. It’s about women not being objectified, whittled down to basic male expectations, rendered dumb/helpless/needy, and ultimately treated as replaceable or interchangeable. Agency, independence, complexity, and equality are direly needed in our stories.

By women, about women, for women: Catherynne M. Valente and Annie Wu's "The Refrigerator Monologues", and Carmen Maria Machado's "Her Body and Other Parties".

One effective solution? Read stories by women, about women, for women (and everyone else). I wanted to take a break from #comprep, so I got two fiction books that put women front and center – and make no apologies about it.

The sacrificial women

I started this blog post talking about fridging because The Refrigerator Monologues is exactly about that: the women in comics killed off to further the manly heroes’ stories. In this book of connected short stories, six women “living” in Deadtown are given the spotlight:

  • Paige Embry, based on the aforementioned Gwen Stacy of the Spider-Man comics,
  • Julia Ash, modeled after Jean Grey/Phoenix of the X-Men series,
  • Pauline Ketch, Deadtown’s Harley Quinn, the Joker’s ex-lover and cohort, and member of the Suicide Squad,
  • Blue Bayou, this universe’s equivalent of Mera, a.k.a. Aquaman‘s ex-wife,
  • Daisy Green, known as Karen Page by Daredevil fans, and
  • Samantha Dane, Deadtown’s version of the original Dead Girl in Fridge, Hal Jordan/Green Lantern‘s Alexandra DeWitt.

Valente’s quick and witty writing style, combined with Wu’s beautiful B&W illustrations, make this book super fun to read. The whole book also serves as a guessing game: Valente talks about specific, actual storylines and settings in Marvel and DC comics, and it won’t take you long to figure out who the characters take after. One character, Frank (Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher, from Daredevil) even gets to keep his name and arc.

There are plenty of quotable dialogue and highlight moments; I can’t put them all here. Okay, maybe one:

You go your whole life thinking you’re the protagonist, but really, you’re just backstory… eventually you’re just a story your high school boyfriend tells the kid he had with his new wife.

Julia Ash, in “The Heat Death of Julia Ash”

Valente and Wu have also made Deadtown a place you’d be curious about: it’s a town forever in the dark, getting only extinct creatures and things from Earth (e.g., dinosaur eggs, canceled TV shows, ’80s/’90s fashion trends, books out of print), with friendly gargoyles everywhere as roomies, service staff and/or needed support systems. The ladies actually say they prefer being in Deadtown because there, they can be themselves and make their own decisions, and not be the “window dressing” to their partners’ “more important” experiences and lives.

It’s not all fun though. There are also parts that are painful to read because they’re so recognizable in daily life. Julia’s story is the perfect example: even when she’s already dead, writers and readers keep bringing her back to life via Retcon. She keeps crying that she wants to stay, but she keeps flickering in and out of Deadtown against her will. Pauline continuing to expect her puddin’ to come back for her is heartbreaking, because we all know he won’t. Blue Bayou being cast aside after losing her son? Fuck you, “Aquaman”.

Now, the downside. In her effort to make a singular point through six female characters, Valente sometimes makes them all sound like one person – like she is every character. In a way, she is; she states that her concept for The Refrigerator Monologues came about precisely because of “a Spider-Man movie”. Pauline Ketch/Harley Quinn has a trademark way of speaking, but all the other women sound the same at some points of the novel. There were also several instances where the “telling” is as much, if not more, as the “showing”.

The complex women

Riffing on tropes is one way to combat typical female characterizations. Carmen Maria Machado takes a different tactic: showing women in all our complexity, and that isn’t (and we’re not) always pretty.

Her debut work, Her Body and Other Parties, depict queer and straight women as (consciously or unconsciously) fighting men, fellow women, and society over control of their bodies, selves, and voices. Add to her eight stories elements of the fantastic, weird, and unreal, and you get a fiction anthology that took me only two and a half days to go through, it was that good. But I’m sure I missed a few things; a reread is in order.

I loved four of the stories. The Husband Stitch centers on a woman with a green ribbon around her neck, and her husband’s persistence in taking it off – despite the fact that him not doing so was her only request through their courtship and marriage. Inventory was about a woman listing the people she’s met and become intimate with, inventory-style, but with a mysterious virus killing everyone (a la The Walking Dead) as part of the context. Especially Heinous (first published in The American Reader in 2013) is an amazing recap and rework of the first 12 seasons of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit via episode synopses. Real Women Have Bodies is, like Inventory, set around another mysterious contagion, but this time it’s about women, at random, literally losing their bodies and becoming invisible and mute.

And her women will make you feel feelingsThe Husband Stitch shows how expectations in relationships are always skewed. Especially Heinous is about women regularly being brutalized, yet we can’t look away because it’s packaged as entertainment. There was a point wherein Machado took Valente’s strategy of telling instead of showing, and outright told the READER to STOP READING, yet I continued to read. The Resident, while predictable and with that semi-metafiction factor, has one of the best insults I’ve ever read. It also shows how women can be cruel to one another, and how its effects last long after the act. One line in Difficult at Parties – “what is wrong with you?” – shows readers how men expect women to be “solvable” and easy to placate. Even the annoying, manipulative mother in Eight Bites is effective: aside from depicting how body expectations can irreparably damage our self-image, it’s also realistic in how mothers would try to reach out to her estranged child(ren).

One more thing. Her Body and Other Parties is heading to the small screen, apparently. Like with everything Neil Gaiman has ever written, I’ve got mixed feelings about this. Let’s see how this goes.

The Refrigerator Monologues, Catherynne M. Valente and Annie Wu

Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado