This week we’ll continue our discussion of women in comics that began with the post about Harley Quinn. In the world of superheroes, comics, and graphic novels, there exists a phrase: women in refrigerators. The very fact that there is a name for this trope is problematic, but let me back up a moment and define it for you. Gail Simone coined the phrase women in refrigerators to identify the trope she first noticed in Green Lantern. “Kyle Rayner, the title hero, comes home to his apartment to find that his girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, had been killed by the villain Major Force and stuffed into a refrigerator” (“Women in Refrigerators,” para. 1).
Women in refrigerators refer to female characters in comics who are killed off or attacked just to further the male superheroes’ story arcs. Independently of their men, the characters sometimes do almost nothing for the story, and at best have no depth of character. Simone wrote a long list of fridged female superheroes in comics in order to open a dialogue about the related issues of female readership in comics and the treatment of male and female characters.
How are we treating women in comics? What does this say about societal norms and expectations? Gail Simone’s list helped some comic writers reevaluate how women are treated in their stories. Other writers became defensive. Over the last several years, however, there have been some genuine changes in the industry. Not all women in comics suffer gruesome ends, nor are they sex objects. So if you are interested in giving comics a chance, here are a few recommendations I have for you. Unlike my last post, this list includes graphic novels that are appropriate for children and teenagers (I still enjoyed them though).
- Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF
Moon Girl, Lunella Lafayette, is a fourth grader who happens to be the smartest person on Earth. After she accidentally teleports a dinosaur to the present day, the two form an unlikely team to fight crime. This series offers a nice change of pace from more serious superhero stories, with colorful illustrations and know-it-all fourth grader attitude. Lunella is smart, entertaining, and looks like a normal preteen.
- The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 1: Squirrel Power
Eatin’ nuts and kickin’ butts! Squirrel Girl is just starting college, studying computer science by day and fighting crime by night. Hiding her tail in her jeans leads to some great conversations around body image, and she is an intelligent woman who isn’t afraid to show it. While Squirrel Girl is entertaining in her own right, what really makes this comic shine is the writers’ humorous commentary on the bottom of each page. Even if you don’t like squirrels or computer science, please give this series a try.
- Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal
If this list of recommendations shows anything, it is that recent graphic novels do have diverse characters, though for the most part that is not the main focus of these characters’ story arcs. Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is a high schooler who, like Lunella Lafayette, has Inhuman genes. She has always looked up to Carol Danvers, the original Ms. Marvel, and once she gains her powers, she takes up the name to honor her hero. Kamala struggles with issues of identity throughout these comics, and goes through the normal struggles of a high schooler. She isn’t the perfect hero, and that’s what really makes the comic fun to read.
- Princeless, Vol. 1: Save Yourself
This comic was nominated for an Eisner award, and deals with sexism so bluntly through humor and illustrations that it is a must-read. Adrienne Ashe is imprisoned in a tower on her sixteenth birthday to await being rescued by a prince. Instead, she decides to take matters into her own hands. She teams up with a blacksmith’s daughter and goes on an incredibly empowering mission. Princeless made me laugh out loud and has well-developed characters that will stick with you.
It’s encouraging to see comics with strong female characters being written for young readers. Many of these have also received positive attention or awards from critics. Jeff Mace wrote, “Helping books with strong, fully-realized heroines reach the larger audiences they deserve strikes me as one very obvious way to [entertain without catering to the lowest common denominator]” (“Fan Jeff Mace Responds,” para. 27). Hopefully with books such as the ones above, audiences will more easily find and come to expect these powerful, fleshed out characters.
Mace, J. (n.d.). Fan Jeff Mace responds. Retrieved from http://lby3.com/wir/r-jmace.html
Simone, G. (n.d.). Women in Refrigerators. Retrieved from http://lby3.com/wir/
Women in refrigerators. (2017, December 20). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Refrigerators