Friday, November 9, 2012

Supernatural: Women in the Very Overstocked Fridge

“Women in Fridges” is a concept that was introduced by Gail Simone, a comic book writer, to refer to the hugely disproportionate number of female superheroes who were either killed, raped, depowered or otherwise discarded in the superhero comic genre. The term came about in reference to a Green Lantern comic where a villain killed the Green Lantern’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt and literally stuffed her into the fridge in order to hurt the Green Lantern.

The nature of this death - and similar deaths - was that the dead characters weren’t killed as part of their own storylines, but as an ancillary to another characters. Alexandra DeWitt didn’t die because of her story nor was her death even about her - she was a plot device to cause grief and pain on the Green Lantern.

Which lead to the trope that TVtropes has called “Stuffed in the Fridge,” where characters die as a plot device expressly to further the storyline or development of another character. Usually these are women who die to further the development of male characters - though we’ve seen the same with other minority side characters (and usually minorities only ever become side characters) dying for their more privileged main character’s grief and development.

And so we come to Supernatural and, perhaps, the most well stocked fridge of them all. In fact, I think this fridge must be industrial size given the number of women who have been crammed in there over the years. In fact, the very foundation of the Supernatural series is a fridging.

Sam, Dean and John Winchester all live a happy, normal life with loving wife and mother, Mary Winchester. Until Azazel, the yellow eyed demon, kills her dramatically in Sam’s nursery. And lo, the father and sons team become hunters, their lives ever changed by this dramatic fridging that set them on their path.

But that’s not the end of Mary, who nobly reaches out from her fridge to add to her menfolk’s development: whether that’s sacrificing her ghostly self to stop a poltergeist in season 1, to numerous flashbacks, dream sequences, visits to her grave and even time travel that allow the Winchester brothers to continually top up their angst and pathos over dear old fridged mother. As an added bonus, while we don’t really develop Mary at all, this time travelling introduces Samuel, Mary’s father and a hunter (she’s such a useful plot device!). Unfortunately Samuel is lured into a terrible deal with Crowley, King of Hell in exchange for bringing back his dead daughter. Yes, Mary provides motivation and development for 4 different men. She’s a multi-purpose fridging!

A fridged mother was, alas, not enough to keep Sam on the path of hunting, he needed a new motivation to get him into the story and the family business. Enter girlfriend Jessica Moore; she gets a few minutes of screen time and then into the fridge with her! One dead Jess and Sam gets a motivation to hunt and plenty of reasons to angst and mope (he had angsting-over-Jess moments right up into Season 5. That’s a long lasting fridge). We know Jess was a student and that’s about it - we don’t even know what she was studying.

Starting the story on a foundation of fridged women is already a problem, but as the series went on for 8 long seasons that overwhelming revolved around a core of straight, white men, Supernatural kept topping up the fridged women.

Perhaps most aggravating of them is mother and daughter team, Ellen and Jo Harvelle. Way back in season 2 when these were introduced, I had hope. Strong female characters! Ellen, the tough, no-nonsense mentor figure who runs the bar that was acting as a de-facto base for the Winchesters and Jo, a capable fighter and new hunter, raring to get out there and kill the monsters. I hoped for regular characters, I hoped for them to become an integral part of the universe. I hoped for them not to just disappear completely without explanation at the end of Season 2. Seriously, they completely disappear and no-one even comments on their absence. It was so ridiculous they even lampshaded it when they finally did return in the second episode of season 5 with Ellen giving them hell for not calling her.

But they came back right? And why was that? In season 5 the apocalypse is happening. We need something big, something emotive, something really powerful to highlight the scale of this, to really make it seem painful and momentous. Something like - women stuffed in fridges! Yes, Ellen and Jo are reintroduced in episode 2, disappear again, then in episode 10 of that season they’re fridged. Tell me they weren’t re-introduced expressly to kill them off?

Supernatural does try to get good value for their fridges though - and death is no barrier for a good topping up of the angst. In season 6, with the return of the Titanic and its shifted time lines, Ellen and Jo are alive again. Not only that, but Ellen is in love with and married to Bobby! Suddenly changing the time line back comes with a terrible cost - they will lose Ellen and Bobby would lose the love of his life. Yes, Ellen reached out from her fridge to touch the heart and life of another man, to add meaning to another storyline and for her disposal to add more emotional impact to more men.

And Jo? Well she doesn’t come back, but she does make an appearance as a ghost in season 7 when Dean is on trial by Osiris. Why? Why so we can examine Dean’s grief and pain and guilt of course! Supernatural has mastered the art of repeatedly using the female character’s death for emotional impact, development and motivation of the men the story centres around.

There aren’t a lot of regular female characters on Supernatural, certainly many that live for a prolonged length of time (and aren’t evil) but even the single episode inclusions can squeeze themselves into that fridge. We’ve had Sam falling in love with the tragic werewolf, Madison, in season 2 who has to be killed. Or there’s Sam upset at the death of his childhood friend Amy, the Kitsune, in season 7. Even women who appear for a single episode can be stuffed into the fridge.

The Winchester family isn’t the only one to get into the Fridging fun. The most excellent character of Bobby Singer is introduced as a surrogate father figure, mentor, font of knowledge and general all round source of awesomeness who says “idjit” a lot. But how did this most excellent character enter the hunter path? He had to kill his wife, Karen Singer, after she was possessed by a demon.

Seriously? Does every hunter need to have a dead female loved one at some point? Is it a basic requirement? Like other fridgings, Karen’s death isn’t a one time deal - Supernatural extracts maximum pathos from every woman in the icebox. Karen haunts Bobby’s dreams in season 3 and even comes back as a zombie so Bobby has to kill her AGAIN in season 5. Rank up that angst and stuff that refrigerator!

Kevin Tran has only just arrived on the scene in the last 2 seasons and has only made an appearance in a few episodes. Yet he already has some major grief that drives his character - the death of his girlfriend, Channing Ngo which is pretty much the reason for her (brief) existence. After that his mother, Linda Tran was killed (ETA: Apparently only severely injured) by Dean because she was possessed by Crowley. And this woman was an awesome, amazing character who not only should have been a regular but should have got her own spin off series - but no, she was introduced to give Kevin a motivation to run from the Winchester brothers and create grief for him and guilt for Dean.

The true extent of how ludicrous this gets has to be shown with Benny. A completely new character in season 8, a season that’s only 6 episodes old in which Benny has made only brief appearances. He can’t have a fridged woman in his story yet! Except - what is Benny’s motivation for changing his morality? What was it that got him killed and sent to Purgatory? What motivated him coming back from the dead? Andrea Kormas. His lover who changed him and then was horribly murdered. This brand new character comes with his own fridged woman! But not entirely, since she was turned into a vampire to be killed again, for more angst. Yes, Supernatural really does get the most out of its fridged women.

This is one very very full fridge. I’m waiting for Crowley to reveal he made a deal to become a demon for those extra inches below the belt because a woman in his life tragically died.

Even when the women manage to dodge the fridge, how many times has rescuing a woman been the focus of the episode (I vaguely counted 6 in the first season alone)? How many times has a damsel in distress been the focus of the brother’s motivation for the monster of the week? It’s a topic for another post - but these women are, again, imperiled, in pain and suffering to give the Winchester’s motivation. That is their purpose time and again.

Like so many of these tropes, it would help immensely if there were sufficient counter examples. But we have now reached season 8 and the number of recurring female characters in this show has dwindled to Amelia - who we see in flashbacks and I don’t predict living a long and peaceful life. There are virtually no regular female characters on this show who have managed to survive - I think Sheriff Jody Mills, Lisa Braeden and Meg (who is a villain and hardly counts) may be all I can scrape up. The utter lack of decent female characters in the series makes the constant fridging all the more extreme and all the more inexcusable.