Marvel needs to stop fridging its female characters

Disney+'s Secret Invasion is the latest project to continue the MCU’s unfortunate trend

Marvel needs to stop fridging its female characters
Kingsley Ben-Adir and Emilia Clarke Photo: Gareth Gatrell/Marvel

[The following contains spoilers from the first three episodes of Secret Invasion as well as all of the MCU films to date]

In her excellent essay about the abysmal treatment of Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) in the new Disney+ Marvel show Secret Invasion, Sarah Shaffi had this to say after the first episode ended with Agent Hill dying at the hands of a Skrull disguised as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson): “Fridging, and the fridging of women characters especially, is a trope that should long ago have been left in the past. The idea that the MCU pulled it out again (after doing it to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Avengers: Endgame) is anger-inducing. Dying in the way Hill did is a sad and unfitting end for a character who gave and gave and gave to Fury.”

Maria’s death was indeed infuriating and unfortunate, but did it constitute fridging? Some commenters on the piece took issue with that terminology. Whether it qualifies or not (we’ll get to that in a bit), there’s one thing that most Marvel fans can agree on—that the franchise has a history of needlessly killing off its women characters, and centering the trauma of the men connected to them.

The term was coined by comic book and TV writer Gail Simone in 1999 for a simple website called Women in Refrigerators, where she and others compiled an ongoing list of all the female superheroes who had been “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies.” At the time, Simone offered no specific explanation for why it happened so often (though she had some theories), it was just a disturbing trend she’d noted as a fan. It wasn’t until later that the concept was expanded to account for the abuse as a motivating incident, especially for male lead characters. To this day there is no universally agreed upon definition for fridging, it’s just one of those things you know when you see it.

If you’re a Marvel fan, you’ve seen it more than a few times in the pages of the comics. Now it’s seeping into the MCU with increasing and alarming frequency. To what extent depends on your definition of fridging. Characters, both men and women, are killed off in superhero films all the time, for all kinds of reasons. Death is a handy plot device that can raise the stakes of the story or propel it in a certain direction. The harming (through death or other tragic circumstances) of a female character isn’t necessarily a clear-cut case of fridging. For that, we believe it requires two specific narrative elements: first, that the character receives little or no development prior to their death or injury, and second, that this suffering serves no purpose other than to motivate the male lead character.

By those standards, we believe the death of Maria Hill in Secret Invasion does qualify as fridging. Had she been given any characterization beyond “Fury’s loyal right hand” prior to being killed off, we might reconsider. But even after appearing in half a dozen films and TV series we never found out anything about her personal life or backstory. She never changed or grew, as far as we could tell, always remaining in Fury’s shadow. As for the motivational piece, Fury literally lays it out for us. “Someone wanted to hurt me,” he tells Maria’s mother after her funeral. “So they hurt her.” He could be talking about the Skrulls or the show’s writing staff; either would be valid.

The third and most recent episode of Secret Invasion also ended with a significant death that may constitute fridging. We won’t know until we’ve seen the second half of the series. In the final scene of “Betrayed,” Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir) exposes G’iah (Emilia Clarke) as a traitor and shoots her. We see her revert to her Skrull form, and that may be the end of her. Even if it isn’t, and even if Maria’s death also proves to be a ruse, the damage has already been done. According to Simone, a character’s death doesn’t have to be final to be considered fridging. “Some have been revived, even improved,” she wrote on her site. “Although the question remains as to why they were thrown in the wood chipper in the first place.”

In the greater Marvel cinematic universe, we’ve actually seen this happen before. After Thanos tossed Gamora over a cliff on Vormir to acquire the soul stone in Avengers: Infinity War, she came back as another version from earlier in the timeline. Although it did motivate Star-Lord and continued to define his character arc well into the third Guardians Of The Galaxy film, we can’t technically call it fridging by our own definition, because at least she got a character arc before being killed off (highlighted by the stark differences between the two versions). The same can’t be said of Star Lord’s mother. Can you even remember her name? (It was Meredith, for those keeping track.) Her death is a more classic example of fridging, since she was only introduced in Guardians Of The Galaxy to pass on an audio cassette, die of a brain tumor, and give Peter Quill a reason to leave Earth.

Fridging isn’t limited to the MCU, of course (the term comes directly from an issue of DC’s Green Lantern, in which the hero finds his dead girlfriend stuffed into a refrigerator), but Marvel’s penchant for killing off female characters is not insignificant. Take Natasha’s death in Endgame, for example, one of the most commonly referenced instances of fridging in the MCU (though we’d argue it doesn’t technically count because she died as a comparatively fleshed-out character). She chose to die, that’s true, but she fought Clint for the right to go over the cliff because he had a family to go back to and she didn’t. As we learned in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, she’s incapable of having children, thus her life is determined to be worth less than his. She sacrificed herself to save the world, but didn’t get anything close to the emotional sendoff Tony Stark did.

Other unnecessary deaths we could point to include Frigga in Thor: The Dark World, Maria Rambeau in WandaVision (the rare example of a death motivating a female hero), Aunt May in Spider-Man No Way Home, Queen Ramonda in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (we could also include Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as an honorable mention)—none of them really got a chance to live up to their full potential, often only made explicit in their final moments. And the death toll rises with each new phase.

The fact that this continues to happen in Marvel properties means one of two things, neither of which says anything good about the studio’s creative leadership (which, it must be pointed out, is still predominantly white and male). Either they haven’t heard the criticisms from fans, which would make them distressingly out of touch with their audience, or they have heard the reproachments and don’t care. Either way, they’ll continue to resort to this tired and lazy trope until something changes. In the meantime, we’ll keep speaking up and pointing out problematic trends whenever we see them, in the hope that someday it might make a difference.

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