“There’s something about getting strangled and stuffed into a refrigerator that makes you consider your choices in life,” says Samantha Dane at the end of The Refrigerator Monologues.
Samantha’s chilly death illustrates a plot device infamously known as “women in refrigerators,” in which female characters in comic books are killed or injured to advance the ongoing story of the male superhero. The trope was given a name back in the ’90s by Gail Simone, but it’s been around forever. To this day, it’s a writerly technique that continues to pop up in superhero fiction.
Before we find out how Samantha ends up in a refrigerator, we meet five other women who have sacrificed their own personal story to further promote a man’s monomyth: Paige Embry, the science-queen of hypermercury, Julia Ash, the star-eater, Pauline Ketch, the evil clown, Blue Bayou, the scaly punk princess, and Daisy Green, the porn star. Long-time comic book readers will recognize each one as a counterpart to Gwen Stacy, Jean Grey, Harley Quinn, Mera, and Karen Page.
Samantha herself represents Green Lantern’s girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt, the original woman in a refrigerator. “That’s how it works,” she says in hindsight. She knows firsthand that killing the girlfriend brings the second act to a close. It’s an accepted part of the story’s structure. “I belong in the refrigerator,” she adds. “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.”
Obviously, The Refrigerator Monologues is meant to be a barbed jab at comic books and the hackneyed and predictable way writers treat female characters. The anger is real because the trope is indefensible. Author Catherynne Valente is on fire and you can’t blame her for being so mad.
But it’s also a highly entertaining book with humor and etegami-like wisdom sprinkled throughout. As a meta rebuke of superhero fiction, Valente allows her crackerjack cast of ladies to stand up and be heard. And they have a lot to say. Harley Quinn’s chapter, in particular, is riotously funny. She’s a “cherry bomb with a go-fuck-yourself fuse,” and neither Batman nor the Joker knows what to do with her. She’s too hot to handle.
Valente’s riff on Harley Quinn is great, but it’s Mera’s story that represents the bleeding heart of the book. She was the punk rock queen of Atlantis before Arthur Curry came into her life. “I was happy,” she says. “I was myself. Every story I told was about me. I was the protagonist.”
But once Aquaman showed up, the story wasn’t about Mera anymore. And it would never be about her again. “I’m the one who ruled the seven seas and battled the forces of aquatic evil every day,” she tells him defiantly. “You never wanted a partner, all you wanted was a groupie. You couldn’t share the fucking mic.”
[The Refrigerator Monologues / By Catherynne M. Valente and Annie Wu / First Printing: June 2017 / ISBN: 9781481459341]