Thursday, 25 August 2011

Strong Female Characters, Women In Fridges and MANPAIN: Some Disordered Thoughts

Ah, the elusive Strong Female Character. How we crave her. How we condemn her.

Ideally, I long for the day where a tv show/movie/book won't be considered an exciting abnormality for having Strong Female Characters. I long for the day where the phrase Strong Female Characters will be obsolete, and there are either good characters or bad characters, regardless of said characters' gender.

But this is not the world we live in. We live in a world where we cling Strong Female Characters with grateful fangirl hands because they're so goddamn rare.

Contrary to what many Hollywood execs seem to believe, there is no checklist for what consititutes a Strong Female Character. Leather pants and a big gun do not a Strong Female Character make.

Of course, there are many butt-kicking female characters who are Strong Female Characters, but giving a girl a machine gun and sticking her on a motorbike does not automatically make them a Strong Female Character (I'M LOOKING AT YOU, FRANK MILLER). I like a butt-kicking woman as much as anyone, but it does create the trope that in order to be considered a strong woman (or a Strong Female Character), you have to reject everything that is traditionally associated with being female- become 'one of the guys' in a sense. While hopefully still wearing leather.

And that doesn't help at all. It still reinforces the idea that women are weak, this woman is just an exception because she's 'one of the guys.' Unfortunately this fictional trope is a reflection of what happens in society: in order to succeed, a woman not only has to be seen as 'one of the guys,' she also has to be tougher and more 'guy-like' than all the men. This is particularly true in business or political situations; in order to be taken seriously, a woman has to essentially beat all the men at their own game, on their terms. Case in point, Margaret Thatcher. And if you don't want to take on the boys club's terms and would rather succeed on your own, have fun trying to crack that glass ceiling.

Personally, I would like some Strong Female Characters who don't carry machine guns. Who are top CEOs. Who are insecure teenage girls. Who are mothers. Who are enthusiastic bakers. Who are sci-fi nerds. Who are trying to break into the job market. Who drive forklifts.

In short, variety.

Strong Female Characters are, however, still at risk of falling into that old standby: Women In Fridges.

The term 'Women In Refrigerators' was first coined by comic book author Gail Simone on her website of the same name. It refers to how female characters, in this case in comic books, are frequently murdered/beaten/raped/maimed/crippled/tortured/sent to parallel dimensions/brainwashed etc for the sole purpose of invoking an emotional response in a male character. The superhero genre is particularly guilty of this (the phrase refers to a particular scene in a superhero comic where a male character comes home to find a female superhero butchered in his fridge), as is the entire science fiction and fantasy genre.

Gail Simone also made an interesting point that much like business CEOs, the superhero fanbase is a massive boys' club and as a female fan you either go along with it or find the comic book store a rather uncomfortable place. Dare to mention the words 'feminism' or 'female empowerment' or even mention that drawing female characters in leather bikinis all the time is kind of sexist, and you will either get a lot of online flames or at best some blank looks before said boys' club keeps salivating over Catwoman's boobs.

So it's no surprise that Women In Fridges continues to be a popular trope.

One of the new Doctor Who series finales is a good example of a Woman In A Fridge: Rose is trapped in an alternate dimension so that the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant in fine brooding form) can angst about it for the next two plus seasons.

Because what goes hand in hand with Women In Fridges? MANPAIN. Which is basically straight white male characters whining about how hard it is to be straight, white and male in today's society and making everything in the world ever all about their ANGST. Because they have ISSUES. Some examples: Tenth Doctor, Batman, Det. Stabler from Law and Order SVU (good god, does he have manpain), Angel, Mal Reynolds, the entire Supernatural franchise. The key element being No One Has Ever Suffered As Much As Me. And the death/torture/other horrible things happening to female characters are written just so they can contribute to the litany of Manpain, ie:

Detective Eliot Stabler: My wife left me and my job is on the line because I can't contain my rage and I'M GOING TO HIT SOMETHING NOW BECAUSE I'M SO DEPRESSED AND NEVER LEARNT A HEALTHY WAY TO EXPRESS MY FEELINGS.

Detective Olivia Benson: Well, my father raped my mother and then she became an abusive alcoholic and I'm traumatised from being assaulted and I'm lonely because my partner and best friend who is my only source of emotional support is an ass who can't see beyond his-


And that, dear readers, is Manpain in practice. Clumsy, ham handed and often rather misogynistic.

Depictions of male characters in emotional pain aren't always Manpain, of course. It descends to Manpain level when said male character's pain is the biggest pain in the room, even if the pain is because his girlfriend/wife/sister/daughter was tortured and therefore the pain that gets the biggest focus should be hers. This combines Women In Fridges with Manpain to create a gigantic sexist trope that is sadly very prevalent in popular culture.

Women In Fridges (and the corresponding MANPAIN) is sexist because it reduces women's importance to how they are valued by men. Their pain is merely a plot device. The audience isn't supposed to feel sad because Jean Grey went crazy and died, we're supposed to feel sad because Wolverine is depressed now, poor baby. Jean Grey becomes That Chick Who Wolverine Angsts About. And I say this as someone who doesn't even like Jean Grey. Manpain is all about how the camera focuses on a male character's pain when there's is hardly the most important pain going on in the room.

I read a blog post by someone who I sadly know only as Thingswithwings who summed up my feelings on Women In Fridges and Manpain in a far better way than I can: "the show runners think that, if we don't establish that a female character is important to men, is in a romantic relationship and kissing a dude, we won't care that she's died."

I've had enough of female characters being reduced to plot devices with boobs. Give me female characters who have agency. Female characters whose feelings are taken seriously for once. Female characters who have their own plot arcs that are separate from their relationships to men. And, like magic, you will have a Strong Female Character.


  1. The first thing that I thought of when you were talking about all this was Spider-man movies. I've never heard about Women in Fridges. That's interesting.

  2. This made me think about Gods of Egypt or something like that, that is in cinema right now which is exactly what you have described. 2 men being the heroes and love, and men pain though the movie is so fast going they barely have time to "cry" before running off to be heroes. While the human female is dead and put in a tomb while the goddess woman of Love is just an alcoholic who only talks bullshit and "comfort" here and there, and sacrifices herself for LOVE.
    Let's face it. Minorities are not treated well on screen at all. Women many times are not given roles which a person can believe in, especially another woman.
    Games are the same way. Rarely do you see a female protagonist cause males play more then women. Someone need to point out that the female gamers are better then over 90% of the male ones. instead of getting someone strong in games we get a more then half naked females so the males can feast their eyes on. Lara Croft, I do like her a lot also falls to that with her body and cloths they use on her. MMOs are a slut fest - cause that string armor is such a protection...I would loose my shit and cry rainbows if I see an actual bad ass full plated armor on a girl then her being naked.
    It is true that males supposedly make more interesting movies and shows but many of them completely ignore the females they created and in a sense have no idea what they are doing.
    Someone get them educated or at least work in bigger teams of not only males so a lot of bullshit we see in entertainment stops and get a bit real.