“It’s a funny thing. You go your whole life thinking you’re the protagonist, but really, you’re just backstory.”
The Refrigerator Monologues is Catherynne M. Valente’s incisive takedown of the common mistreatment of female characters in comic books, who are often treated as disposable objects to stimulate the protective instincts of male superheroes so they can further their own character development. With The Refrigerator Monologues, Valente has created her own compelling universe of superheroes, villains, and side characters to drive home her point in spectacular fashion.
Women in Refrigerators Syndrome, or simply “fridging” for short, is a literary trope where female characters are assaulted, injured, disabled, killed, or depowered for the sole purpose of advancing the male protagonist’s story arc. Comic book author Gail Simone originally coined the term in 1999 as she highlighted the ubiquity of this sexist trope. Simone cited a specific Green Lantern comic as an example, wherein the eponymous hero returns home to find his girlfriend murdered and stuffed into a refrigerator. Simone has since compiled a long list of instances of fridging across a wide variety of comic books.
The Refrigerator Monologues consists of six interconnected short stories told from the perspectives of female characters who have been fridged under various traumatic circumstances. All six women—Polly, Paige, Julia, Blue Bayou, Daisy, and Samantha—are now deceased and living in Deadtown, where they have created a support group known as the Hell Hath Club to share each other’s tales of misery, including a literal fridging:
“I belong in the refrigerator. Because the truth is, I’m just food for a superhero. He’ll eat up my death and get the energy he needs to become a legend.”
Catherynne M. Valente’s writing is brutally incisive in recounting each woman’s story. The women’s justifiable anger is matched by a forlorn sense of the inevitability of their fates:
“What’s the difference between being dead and having a boyfriend? Death sticks around.”
Although it feels like the violence depicted in these stories is exaggerated to make a point, it’s not any worse than what has been incorporated into many mainstream comics. But Valente presents a more honest account of this violence from the perspective of the victims.
While most of the attention is on fridging in comic books, this trope occurs throughout literature and in other forms of media more broadly. My only minor complaint with The Refrigerator Monologues is the inclusion of a character known as “Grimdark” who is driven entirely by gratuitous violence. While this is clearly intended as a general criticism of grimdark fantasy, I’d argue that it’s a mischaracterization of the genre. Although there is plenty of fridging in grimdark novels, the genre itself is not nihilistic violence porn: good quality grimdark is full of nuance, offering glimmers of hope in an uncaring world.
Each story in The Refrigerator Monologues packs a powerful punch. The book also features internal comic book-style artwork from Annie Wu, which is the perfect accompaniment to Valente’s writing.
Reading The Refrigerator Monologues is truly an eye-opening experience, especially since fridging is part of a broader objectification of women in media. The Refrigerator Monologues is the type of book that will leave a permanent mark on its readers.