Comics are a love and passion of mine, and I think it is important when you love something of such cultural importance that you also be aware of the more critical aspects of it. A lot of people don’t share this view, and in recent months there has been a surge of people coming to the aid of comics, defending it from criticism of any kind. No art exists outside the influences of the society in which it is created in; Charles Dickens works remain so popular because they are a direct reflection of the plight of the working-class in Victorian England, and Jane Austen’s fairy tale-like Pride and Prejudice is an idealised answer to the problems of lower-class women who dreamed of a Regency gentleman. Comics are not exempt from these influences. In 2011 when the campaign for same-sex marriage in America was beginning to make international headlines, X-Men writer Marjorie Liu decided that now was a perfect time for Northstar to marry his long-term boyfriend Kyle in Amazing X-Men #52.
With that being said, comics remain a boys’ playground, with heteronormativity at its core. One of the major areas of criticism with comics is its treatment of women. This post discusses representations of women in comics, and thus carries trigger warnings for rape, brutalisation and death.
The Women in the Refrigerator trope was coined by Gail Simone in 1999. Simone is a well-respected writer in the comic world, penning popular titles like Batgirl, Red Sonja and Secret Six. The Women in the Refrigerator trope is defined as the death, rape, depowering or brutalisation of a female character for the sake of plot advancement, usually for a male counterpart. It is named after the infamous Green Lantern #54 (1994), in which Kyle Rayner, the Green lantern of the time, comes home to find his girlfriend Alexandra cut up and literally stuffed in to the refrigerator for him to find.
A more famous example of this is the treatment of Stephanie Brown. Stephanie was once Robin before she became Batgirl. We learn that as a child, her babysitter attempted to rape her, but her father murders him for trying. Her death is a graphic and heart-breaking affair. She was tortured over several issues by Black Mask. The scenes are brutal and sexualised, enough so that many fans have dubbed it “torture porn”. Stephanie does manage to escape and make her way to the hospital, only to have treatment denied to her by a doctor who on countless occasions has been shown to be a good person. Her death was avoidable, and worse, it was unnecessary. In a final insult, she is the only deceased Robin not to be given a memorial in the Batcave. Many artists and writers are split on this issue, but it controversial to the fanbase. The only female Robin is not afforded the same dignity in death that Jason Todd was.
Some critics have argued that men are not exempt from this kind of treatment. However, the overall message and framing is not the same when it is directed at men. In response to this argument, John Bartol created Dead Man Defrosting. These are male characters who die or are depowered, but are allowed to return to their previous status. Often, they come back better than ever. Two prominent examples of this are Jason Todd, who returns as Red Hood, and Bucky, who returns as the Winter Solider. Male characters who do not return are usually side characters though, and can be discounted from the trope as simply collateral damage.
A fundamental difference can be summed up with two examples from the same universe. Barbara Gordon, the most famous Batgirl, was shot by the Joker, paralysing her spine. She stayed this way until the New 52 reboot. Batman has his spine broken by Bane in Batman #497 (1993). By the events of Knightquest: The Search, Bruce’s back is healed and he is able to reassume his mantle.
That is not to say that women cannot be hurt in comics. Superhero comics by design are violent, especially in the New 52 reboot. The difference is that the death, depowering or brutalisation of a woman should not be for the angst or plot of a male counterpart. The attack on Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke was not about Barbara, but was instead to advance the story of Batman, and to a lesser extent her father. The original script called for the Joker to rape Barbara, though Alan Moore claims that this was not meant to be implied in the final edition.
Consequent writers, including Simone, have attempted to rectify this injustice in later stories about Barbara. John Ostrander established Barbara Gordon as an invaluable ally in Suicide Squad #23 (1989). He created the character of Oracle, a post-attack Barbara who provides technical expertise from her wheelchair for the Batfamily. It would have been easy in the New 52 to simply retcon The Killing Joke from existence, but instead Simone wrote a woman coming to terms with her healing and the nightmares that came from her attack. She made The Killing Joke about Barbara, where the focus truly belongs. In Simone’s final Batgirl story, the one-shot Batgirl: Futures End (September, 2014), we see Barbara confront Bane, and she finally comes to terms with what happened to her and her new life. Simone is not the only writer to write Barbara’s PTSD and recovery from her attack, but in my opinion her Barbara arc is the most interesting to read. While fans bemoan the loss of Oracle as a character and a vital piece of representation in the media, her transition was handled very well.
Characters are hurt, and sometimes lost, as is the nature of the narrative the writers weave. However, it is important to remember that these women are characters, and not devices in which to install a drive in the males in their lives. They are characters; they are not sacrifices.
Stephanie Gallon is a writer and blogger from Blyth, Northumberland. Look out for Part TWO of her women in comics series later this week.