Women in Refrigerators Women in Refrigerators

Email as of 4/28/99

It's our third week of operation here at Dead Chicks central, and we seem to be making a LOT more friends than enemies. I know I'm doing SOMETHING wrong, obviously. And now, on with the feminist paranoia! Party Time! (GS)

First, thanks to Terry Moore (of Strangers in Paradise) for his encouraging note-he says he can't type fast enough to post all his comments so he's holding off for now; and thanks ALSO to J. Michael Strazinski, writer of Rising Stars and creator of Babylon 5, who said, "I can't really get into this due to deadlines, but I do think you have a point. Go get 'em!"

Thanks also to David (Faust) Quinn, Doselle (Gangland, Heart Throbs) Young, and Christy (Sisterhood of Steel) Marx, who have promised to send comments after deadline crunch. Looking forward to them.

One interesting trend has been guys asking my advice on violence against women in stories they're writing...

BERT says:

Being a comic writer/artist myself, I am very intrigued by your site. It's made me look a little deeper at my female characters in the project I'm currently working on, which may lead me in a different direction than I originally had in mind. While I have no plans for raping/killing/physically torturing either of them, nor is there any nudity planned (partial or otherwise), I do have one scene where one woman hits the other, who is handcuffed in a chair. (I should state for the record that they are sisters, one is a cop and the other a intergalactic felon, and the cop apologizes for the backhand slap immediately afterwards, shocked at her own outburst). I think this is a plausible scenario, but you're the woman here, so you tell me. I'm willing to hear from you or any woman on this, since I'm a loner, and don't have a lot of people to bounce ideas off of.

Hopefully, you'll find my female characters to be stronger than the average as I get my works (both comic and prose) out on the market. I have always felt that women were the stronger, sterner of the species (after all, you have all these biological changes that men don't have; you go through pregnancies, which men don't have to deal with, etc.).

One final comment- men also get raped. They just don't report it. Socially, a man reporting a woman raped him (rare, but there are records of it) would be chastised worse than the female victim. ("What do you mean, a woman raped you? You couldn't fight a girl off?") And male-male rape deals with the whole fear of homosexuality as well as other psychological issues that rape survivors as a whole face, but since every case is singular, I'm not apropos to the detail of the dilemma at hand. While I'm not keen on the whole topic as grist for a comic story (I know people of both genders who are rape survivors, and I've lost a friend to rape/murder), I think it's important to acknowledge this point, and realize the women being raped story angle is solely structured by subliminal social conditioning, and is prevalent in media entertainment as a whole, and not merely in comics.

GS: I don't really have any advice, except that women in action stories will have violence happen against them. That's understood-is it done poorly or well is the only real issue, I'd say. Good luck, Bert! I don't think we're the stronger, weaker or fairer sex, though. Just people, good and bad. Like guys, but with better fashion sense. Usually.

KELSON said:

Anyway, great site, and one that brings up some interesting questions and really makes you think. I like the fact that you've focused on the question, not the answer, and provided space for various answers so that the reader can think about all the varying viewpoints and come to his/her own conclusions - whether they be analytical or solution-oriented. I'll definitely be returning to this site again!

GS: Thanks, Kelson! Honestly, you've hit the nail exactly on the head. If I had all the answers, I wouldn't have produced the site. I just have lots of questions and some theories is all-I never wanted the site to be about MY opinions. I wanted it to be about a LOT of opinions!


Hi Gail
Thanks for the great research and site. WIR was lots of fun. Here are a few thoughts on the subject.

I draw and read comics for fun (no profit - ha!), but I don't read superhero comics, for various reasons you can imagine (top of the list: I'm a freakin' snob!). So I didn't recognize most of the names on your list. But the fates they met were often disturbing. Is it possible to write about a female heroine who hasn't been raped?

One of the creators pointed out that the hero archetype comes with some kind of physical or psychic wound, so in creating her character, she used rape to fulfill that slot. Err... I s'pose. But for all the women I've known who have been raped (and, sadly, I know a lot), only one seemed to hold onto the experience as a life-transforming, character-informing event. The rest went through a rough patch for awhile, particularly if they were young, but then, hey, whaddaya know - they went on with the rest of their lives! They defined themselves not in terms of their past pain, and not even in terms of the strength they developed to heal the wound, but in terms much more rich, diverse, intelligent, human - and nothing at all pertaining to that event in their lives. They weren't either "victims" or "survivors". They were too smart to rest comfortably in such limiting categories.

I'm not trying to trivialize rape; in fact, just the opposite: it seems to me that using rape as a "motivator" in a character's development trivializes not only the character in question, but also the use of rape as a political weapon. "Rape" becomes a factor in defining "womanhood". "Rape" is what happens to "women"; it's part of the "natural order of things". "Is she a strong woman? She musta been raped." That one out of every ten victims of sexual abuse is male remains outside the dialogue; perhaps it is hinted that rape is a particularly patriarchal choice of abuse, but it is left just there - a hint. There's no recognition of the contingency of rape to social-historical contexts, that it rises and falls with the general vacillations of violence in a society (and the ability of people to protect themselves). Case in point: use of rape by Serbian commandos to suppress ethnic Albanians' struggle for independence. Another case: Nigerian military police raping villagers who oppose the exploitative and environmentally damaging practices of multinational oil companies.

It's not that I think rape shouldn't be included in a character's past, either. But that it's used a "source of strength" indicates a limited understanding of human, particularly a woman's potential. Not to mention, it's horribly hackneyed.

GS: I like stories about people overcoming adversity-many of the women on the list weren't considered important enough to go through that, though-they were just sort of tossed aside. Actually, rape in mainstream comics seems fairly rare, although the THREAT of sexual violence is common as dirt.

FRANK wrote this thoughtful piece:

After hovering on the edge of "Geez... am I gonna respond to this? What do I say? I've really got to write this paper, but...," I finally gave in and decided to respond. I'm surprised by the number of people who seem to be unwilling to accept this list, at least as food for serious and very real consideration. It shouldn't be a secret to comic readers that in real life, women have been oppressed and victimized for thousands of years in different cultures, and in the comics world, women continue to be underrepresented and often valued only for their sexual appeal. Statistically, women represent over half of the world, so why do such a small percentage of women in the different comic universes develop superpowers? Arguably, because comics are primarily written and read by men, and we're socialized to perceive men to be powerful and women less so. And sure, one can cite powerful female figures in history, but what about our fictive archetypes? The heroes from which Superman and Spider-Man draw their inspiration? Not only are the powerful females inevitably outnumbered by powerful male figures, those powerful women are often evil, vengeance-driven characters. The most classic examples that come to mind off-hand are Medea, Demeter (after Persephone was carted off and raped), Hera, Hecate, and Lilith, countered only by the occasional Athenae and Isis. Most detractors will write off classical archetypes as too distant and far removed, but there is a precedent for classic Western heroes that teaches us to think that men are more powerful and heroic than women.

Your point about the way in which women often meet violent ends in comics seems to be occluded in the minds of readers by several skewed statistical facts. To be sure, there are a large number of male characters in comics who have died, but there are *so* *many* *more* male heroes. In light of that, how could this list fail to disturb people? Look at the premiere superhero teams. Rarely do women ever comprise more than 1/4 or 1/3 of the teams, if that much. I'm sure that someone can cite an exception or two, but an exception or two doesn't balance out the scales. And while one respondent angrily accused you of implying that female characters shouldn't undergo character development, why does it look to me like more of the female characters who were actually kind of prominent in this medium have experienced not just a temporary power loss, but permanent "character development?"

Character development can occur at numerous levels, not just through mutilation, death (which doesn't seem like development to me at all, but hey), abuse, rape, etc. Sometimes the rape, etc. makes a really poignant statement about women's issues (every time I read Avengers Annual #10 about Ms. Marvel I cry), but if one only has a limited number of female characters to begin with, why would writers and editors choose so often to eliminate or physically maim the existing female characters that they have. Can't character development occur in less permanent ways? Sometimes I think that because men primarily write comics, they think that their gender inhibits them from socially or intellectually developing a character of the opposite sex.

The issue at hand is also often occluded by the fact that sometimes the death, etc., really does make a good story or improve the character. Personally, I am more fond of Barbara since she was crippled, and I thought Miller's death of Elektra story was really powerful. But, when things like this happen, it's felt all the more because of the dearth of female characters. It all seems to wind back to the underrepresentation of women in comics. If one could draw up a list of male and female characters in comics, and the list was equal or nearly equal, then the death/maiming of female characters wouldn't feel so out of whack. But there are far fewer female characters to begin with.

Here's another list for you. Of the women on your list, here are the ones that I know of that were lucky enough to have their own series:

1. Wonder Woman
2. Amethyst
3. Black Canary II
4. Spider Woman
5. Supergirl
6. Ms. Marvel
7. Huntress II
8. She-Hulk
9. Elektra
And miniseries:
1. Black Canary
2. Power Girl
3. Huntress II
4. Storm
5. Zatanna
6. Illyana Rasputin
7. Rogue
8. Elektra
And these women got to share a title with a man:
1. Scarlet Witch
2. Psylocke
3. Dove II
And, of course, Batgirl got a one-shot. There is some repetition in the three lists, but the results are obvious. Compare these to the scores of male titles and mini-series out there. Maybe toss in the scant few titles that headline women but somehow avoided being on this list, like Starfire (the science-fiction one) or Red Sonja. There are lots of angles to sexism and inequity that one could come up with through various lists, but I think what one would find is that the number of female characters in the comics world that are and remain powerful and vital are proportionally far fewer than the males. Then maybe you could eliminate all of the one that seem to exist solely for their sex appeal. The inequity is obvious, well-acknowledged, and pervasive; the question is what to do about it.

Well, you're right in that things are changing slowly, as they have been for decades, just as they have been in our society. There are more female writers and artists, there are more female characters, and occasionally, women are characterized really, really well. Unfortunately, I don't think it's something that we can just apply a magical social salve to and fix. Social change doesn't occur that easily, so I don't think that a medium that reflects the values of our society, even if it is fiction, is going to change easily either. Inarguably, though, the initial key to change is an awareness of the things that are wrong, and I really appreciate your compilation. I think it does need companion/comparative lists to convince the defensive and the people in denial; perspectives and semantics can be argued, but textual statistics don't lie.

I apologize for the length of this letter, even though I didn't say everything I intended to (I really do have to write a paper). I'm also sure that I didn't say anything that you don't already know, but I appreciate the opportunity to express my response to your web page. Good luck in your further exploration of this issue. If I have time to compile some other statistical lists that might help, I'll be happy to send them on.

GS: Thanks, Frank. Food for thought! It's true that many of the guys who have seen the list on message boards (and some pros, like Fabian Nicieza) think that stats are the only way to make this point. I think that's a shame-as if charts are gonna make the point I hope to make. My simple point has always been: if you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won't read comics. That's it!

SCOTT (the guy who last week thought I was full of it) wrote this:

Tragic things happen to everyone; in fiction this is called drama. If you can't deal with it, maybe you shouldn't be reading at all. Watch sitcoms or MTV.

Seriously, am I the only one who thinks your views are just feminist paranoia? Now *that's* disturbing.

GS: I responded, and we've since gotten a lot closer to a civil discourse, although we're never likely to agree. He also took issue with my characterization of his "Guys in Refrigerators" list so I have to go back and make sure I was accurate there. But it IS true... out of our first zillion letters, Scott was the only fan who thought the whole thing was a bunch of crap. I did get some negative flak on Alvaro's Message Boards, but no negative e-mail except Scott, until a couple days ago, when we got our second negative correspondent. More about his soon!

Meanwhile, SCOTT'S next letter said:

Ok, I am sorry about that. It's just... I *really* don't think any of this is any more than dramatic storytelling. Life, as it were. And some of it incredibly good storytelling - Byrne's Fantastic Four, for one. (I've also been buying up his run on West Coast Avengers and enjoying it, in fact I just bought the issue involving Wanda's children and Master Pandemonium today... haven't read it yet. The Scarlet Witch, BTW, is up to full power and discovering new things about her abilities each month in the new Avengers series.)

GS: Thanks, Scott. It's too easy to resort to name-calling on the net... it doesn't help the discussion. I appreciate your apology and accept it gladly.

EDWARD said:

Gail- Fascinating, thought-provoking site. I was steered here by Tony Isabella (he really IS America's most beloved comics writer) who is a blessing to the industry. A thought or two: first, it is not just comics(obviously), this is a sadly widespread trend throughout media. Not to excuse its repellence. Might I suggest that a large part of the problem is the continued socialization men receive that a woman's death is seen a inherently more of an outrage than that of a man? In the hands of the sleazy or worse misogynist, it goes from a moment of compulsion, of motivation to anger or regret and into cheap one note theatrics or the salacious and vile. That said, it's a horrid use of a character to off, mutilate or violate them willy-nilly regardless of gender. One thing at least is changing for the better: many of the best comics being produced are by women. Now if only the majors would figure that out and realize that women love comics at least as much as men - good comics anyway- maybe the body count would drop. Hoping I made some sense; love the site name (I just found out about this repellent plot point from Green Lantern from a review and was frankly sickened by its ghoulishness); hope you get people THINKING.

GS: interesting points, Edward. Thanks!

JASON said:

Look at most superhero origins: Batman -- parents shot in front of him; Superman -- planet blown up; Spider-Man -- uncle killed; Spectre -- was killed to become a superhero; either someone is put through hell emotionally to become a super powered person, or it just kind of happens. Of the four I mentioned, I only follow (followed, damn it) Spectre. From this, the genre tends towards violent stories to create some emotional connection. I'm not sure what Flash's origin is, but I doubt it's anything as highly emotional, or I would have heard about it.

The point I'm trying to make is that the superhero genre is based on violence to get the ball rolling. And for female characters, rape is the most obvious choice.

Why is it THE obvious choice? I like to think maybe it's because at least some comics writers are MORE sensitive to it than the average man. Maybe because, as others have pointed out, healthy romantic and sexual relations are uncommon among these geeky (us geeky) guys, it's just as scary to us. In a weird, pathetic way, it's a matter of empathy, or a way to try to explore these emotions in themselves on the part of the writer.

I think it's significant that most of the men author's who wrote in were described as being nice. I think it shows that these men aren't creeps; rather, they're so awkward when it comes to women that they have next to no idea what they're talking about.

Also, a lot of other issues brought up are relevant, like the second string nature of most female characters and the fad effect causing imitation after imitation of everything.

And last, be wary of looking at trends. Don't stereotype all writers as being one way or another. Applaud those individuals who do well.

Just out of curiosity, is it weird getting so many responses to this, with you as the center of attention? You don't actually need to respond, I'm just trying to recognize the fact that your site may be getting a stronger response than your question intended. I appreciate the seriousness you're giving the art form; I wish the public in general would do the same.

GS: Jason, neat thoughts-as to your last point... I guess the weirdest thing has been people continuously assuming I have some sort of anti-guy agenda. I think it makes it easier to dismiss me and the WiR. In truth, I don't like male-bashing at all, unless it's for charity. And I think I've been pretty careful to let these writers' words stand for themselves.

SHAWN said (edited slightly for space):

As I mentioned in my Message Board post, I find the association of such fantasy elements as loss or change in powers alongside such horrors as rape and murder a little disturbing. I think your point would generally be served more effectively if you differentiated between DISRESPECTFUL treatment (loss of powers, humiliation, etc.) and VIOLENT treatment (rape, murder, assault, etc.). The two categories may be similar, but I think the association of one with the other lessens your point.

Any woman (and all too many do) can suffer a miscarriage, assault, or rape, but none can lose their ability to shapeshift or such. It weakens the impact of the later to associate it with the former.

I also think it would serve your idea if you presented some examples of positive female characters. While your point is justifiably critical, it is generally best to take the good with the bad. A spoon full of sugar, as it were.

It might also be useful to associate your list with some statistical abstracts on readership trends (available from several online databases, as well as readership figures from publishers). If people saw what a disproportionate number of comics fans were female, they might understand why some of this is; otherwise, I fear you may be starting another SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, which will certainly hurt your case even more.

But generally I think your point is entirely valid. Comics in general have a far too cavalier attitude towards violence. The nature of the medium (as an escapist/fantasy media) tends to disassociate consequence from violent behaviour. Characters survive positively absurd amounts of punishment, with little to no result (thanks to metahuman endurance, healing factors, and the like). Granted, this is the nature of the industry, but it is still a disturbing message.

Also, death is little more than a joke. (For male characters, anyway.)

Ultimately, I think the failure is in large part attributable towards the audience (which later becomes professional). As numerous respondents have pointed out, the vast majority of comic book (and s.f.) fans have horrid relationships with women. (Who are all too often either viewed as the domineering mother who threw out their comic books, or as the girls who scorned them in grade school.)

Comics are unique as a media in that almost all of the professionals are fans. It is a closed loop. Persons who get jobs in the movie industry are not always film buffs; but everyone is comics seems to be (and have been) a fan. Thus, the audience is the producer and vice versa.

As a fan who one day hopes to be a professional, I can tell you that you have made your point with me. I have always tried to offer powerful female and ethnic characters to compensate for the previous shortcomings of funnybooks; your input has lead me to redouble my efforts.

I hope these comments help you, for I think your site is one of the very finest in design and conception that I have seen in a long time.

GS: Thanks, Shawn! If the point was merely about violence against women, yes, it'd be offensive to put rape and miscarriages right next to women getting their wings torn off. But, as I've said, the real message here is what have we left for young girls to read? And in that context, yeah, they all get lumped together. Good luck on your comics career! Good point about pointing out positive portrayals, too-we're working on it.

This is from DAVID, who disagreed with some of the stuff I posted at Alvaro's Message Board:

Some of this I mentioned on Alvaro's Marvel Universe board, but I don't know if you saw it, and I wanted to add some stuff anyway.

While I think you have a valid "cause," that of pointing out the mistreatment of women in comics, I think you're barking up the wrong tree with the "violence against women" thing.

While bad things have happened to female heroes/supporting cast members over the years, any similar minded person could probably list a pretty large number of nasty things that have happened to male heroes/supporting cast members.

For example, Moira MacTaggert is dying of the Legacy Virus - so is Maverick. While it would be rather tricky to have a male impregnated by rape, both Starman (Jack Knight) and Namor have been raped. When it comes to depowering, Nova, Dr. Strange and the Spectre, among others, have been up and down the power scale several times.

Another thing I think you're overlooking is, for lack of a better term, categorization. A number of characters you mentioned fall into the "love interest of the hero" category. There has always been a risk for characters in that role. And it's not restricted to the female ones. Steve Trevor was bumped off at least twice, Shanna the She-Devil's fiancee was killed, The Cat's husband was killed, etc.

Also, there's a question of the book these events occurred in. I could mention that one book was especially harsh to women. Virtually ever woman super hero to appear was killed off during the run of that title. Thing is, the book was Strikeforce: Morituri - the concept of the book is that these people get super powers to help ward off an alien invasion, but the process that gives them the powers eventually kills them. So almost EVERYBODY who starred in the book was eventually killed off. Not just the women. Then we have books like Suicide Squad... well, I'm sure you can imagine what went on in there. :-) And there's also the "super mega crossover" books. A few of the characters on your list died in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and there was certainly not a small body count in that series.

Another thing to consider is the writers of the books in question. I don't mean that as a "show everyone who is to blame" kinda thing, but some writers tend to be... harsher to their characters. For instance, in every 50th issue Bill Mantlo ever did, there was a "ritual purging." Christopher Priest (formerly Jim Owsley) has a tendency to bump off supporting cast members at odd moments. John Byrne can also be pretty rough on his casts.

Oh, and I agree with the person who said that you should include how the character in question died.

(some list corrections sent on to the listmaster and snipped for space)

But to get off the whole "violence against women" issue, I think you'd be better served by pointing out the instances where women have just been treated like either a) sex objects, or b) victims:

* During Mike Deodato's run on Wonder Woman, she was practically wearing a thong.
* Lady Death and Vampirella - speaking of a fanboy's wet dream...
* Virtually every Lois Lane appearance until the 80s: it seemed like her sole purpose in life was to get that ring on Superman's finger.
* Virtually any "damsel in distress" scene you can name.

Also, look at the imbalance in powers between men and women. While there has been some improvement, notably with the Invisible Woman (who went from disappearing at bad moments to taking out the rest of the FF with minimal effort) and the Scarlet Witch, there's still a lack of female "heavyweights."

Another thing to point out is exactly how many women were originally created as "female spinoffs" of male heroes. We have Supergirl, Batgirl, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, etc. How many times do you see a male hero taking the name of a female hero? (Wonder Man doesn't count. :-) )

GS: No offense, David... but it bothers me a little to hear people talk about my "cause" when they don't know what my cause IS. Honestly-I put the list up bare, because I wanted to hear what people said unencumbered by my thoughts and philosophies. People keep wanting the list to be about me and my own prejudices, when in fact, the list is the work of LOTS of people, mostly guys. If they see it, then it's a bit harder to dismiss as some chick with a grudge. And the reason we didn't go off into what issue these things happened is... well, dang it, that sounds like a lot of work. :P

Seriously, I appreciate your letter-but I don't know if I'd be "better-served" by doing it your way-since that's not really a point I'm interested in. Bad writing happens... my only point is I hope some female characters make it through these catastrophic creative team housecleanings that keep happening, so that the girls reading the comics still have someone they like that they can identify with.

Whew! And there's lots more mail we haven't gotten to yet! Thanks everyone who wrote in-honest, we love it and appreciate it. Thanks to all those whose letters we didn't print... we may yet, if the mail ever slows down. And thanks again to those who sent list corrections.

Love ya! Keep checking back!


P.s. Big thanks to Sequential Tart and Tony Isabella for their nice comments about us at their web sites! Wow!