(Sidenote: I co-wrote this article with a close friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous at this time. The first five lines and the whole section about Blaze from Sonic ’06 are his work.)
You know when you’re reading something awesome and then, all of a sudden, a character dies for no reason other than to further the main character’s plot? You know how that’s usually a woman dying for the sake of developing or furthering a man (usually her lover or a family member)’s character arc?
Yeah, sucks doesn’t it.
Welcome to The Fridge. Population: every superhero’s girlfriend ever.
The women in refrigerators trope started when come book writer, Gail Simone, started the website Women in Refrigerators. Here she made a list of “superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator” (Simone). This was done in order to “illustrate that female superheroes are disproportionately likely to be brutalized in comic books, usually to further the character arc of male super heroes.” (TV Tropes). The title for the site was inspired by the murder of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt. She was killed by the villain Major Force and stuffed into the fridge for Kyle to find. This took place solely for Kyle’s arc of anger and angst.
“While it is strictly true that Tropes Are Not Bad, this one, especially as a catchphrase [Stuffed into the Fridge], is often given a very negative connotation as it is all too often a hallmark of supremely lazy writing – using the death of a character as “cheap anger” for the protagonist, and devaluing the life of that character in the process, instead of giving the villain something actually interesting to do that can involve all three characters and more emotions than simple anger and angst.” (TV Tropes)
This trope shows up a lot in fantasy as male heroes frequently have their female lovers killed off or kidnapped by the big bad or their minions for the purpose of spurring said heroes onward. While what happened to Alexandra is the most well known instance of fridging, lets take a look at one that is often overlooked.
People have a lot of complaints against the infamous Sonic ’06, but one of the least popular of those is the fact that one of the best female characters in the Sonic franchise – Blaze – gets fridged at the end of SIlver’s story.
For those who don’t know, some background on Blaze: originally introduced as a guardian of the Sol Emeralds from a different dimension, she is a cat who can control fire, jump incredible lengths, and run at a speed comparable to Sonic’s. She was one of a few Sonic characters who is not pink and, while female, is not particularly feminine. Like Sonic, like most male protagonists, her gender is a background quality, not a defining one. She has flaws – acrophobia and a tendency to judge people harshly and hastily – and she has a concrete personality. All of that fell away when she decided to sacrifice herself at the end of SIlver’s story arc, to get rid of the big, bad Iblis for eternity.
Except that didn’t happen. She took two Chaos Emeralds and sealed Iblis inside herself, then sealed herself away in an alternate dimension for all eternity. And guess what? IBLIS CAME BACK. And is later defeated. And after that completely eliminated from the game’s canon timeline. Not only did her sacrifice mean nothing to the plot, besides bringing Silver’s journey to independence to a neat close, it is never acknowledged. After that point, she’s never mentioned by name, or even referenced. Not even by Silver!
To make matters worse, as we all know, Sonic dies at the start of the final arc, and such a huge deal is made over it that the miracle that was foreshadowed throughout the game (mostly by Blaze, by the way) is Sonic’s revival. However, Blaze is absent from the entirety of the final episode. Of the nine playable characters in the game, seven of them search for the Chaos Emeralds in the final act. Sonic is out because he’s dead, and despite space-time being rent into little bitty pieces, Blaze is left out, as well. Because, of course, we can cry for the dead guy who got murdered by the Big Bad, because he’s like, the title character and all, but not for the girl who sacrificed herself to save the world. And failed.
I have heard two arguments as to why Blaze wasn’t fridged, and why she was forgotten about. The first is that, since Sonic and Elise go back to snuff out the candle flame that becomes Iblis, they reset everything in the world, and therefore, Blaze is alive again. The other is that, when Blaze sealed herself away, she erased herself from the timeline and doesn’t exist in that canon anymore.
First off, Sonic and Elise clearly recognize each other after they reset time and destroyed Iblis. Perhaps this is only because they were together when they erased Iblis from existence, but it pokes a hole in the idea that the entire game’s story basically never happened. By the way, that’s a really shitty way to cover up killing a character — “Oh hey b-t-dubbs this person is alive again, so you can’t be mad at us!” is just bad storytelling.
Second, how, exactly, is a female character who literally erases herself from history anything other than fridging?! If, in fact, this is what Blaze did, it makes every other factor centering around her treatment in the narrative even worse. Yes, she was a mentor character, so her “death” should have been obvious from the start. Considering gender politics, though, it was pretty damn poor taste to kill off one of the more progressive female characters in the Sonic franchise. Blaze was once a main character, featured on box art! In ’06, the three hedgehog dudes take that spot, and she is turned into a static mentor character for one of the dudes, thrown in the fridge under the guise of sacrifice, and once “dead,” never mentioned again. You could argue semantics over whether she really ended up in the fridge or not. Either way, that is a shitty way of dealing with a character. It was sexist and disempowering, and it brought low one of the only female characters in the series whose main qualities have nothing to do with her femininity.
Now the presence of this trope doesn’t mean that female characters can’t be killed off at all. Nor does it mean that every instance of a woman dying will automatically fit under women in refrigerators. To illustrate this, lets take a look at an example of a female character death done right.
Final Fantasy VII is known as one of the greatest games of all time. A major reason for this is its epic storyline which has one of the most well done character deaths in fiction. That is the death of Aerith, which happened somewhat early on in the story. Aerith had learned of Sephiroth’s plan to destroy the world with a spell called Meteor. She ran off on her own to a temple to pray to the earth for help fighting him only to be killed by Sephiroth as Cloud, Tifa, Barret, and the rest of the gang show up. We later learn that Aerith wasn’t just praying, she was also casting a spell called Holy that would protect the earth from Meteor. In the final fight it is our group of heroes fighting Meteor with Holy that allows them to win out.
This death works because Aerith wasn’t just killed off by Sephiroth to show how evil he was and to motivate Cloud on a revenge mission. Sephiroth kills her because she directly threatened his plans and we see the impact her death has on everyone, not just Cloud. Aerith’s murder has lasting repercussions throughout the story and she is never forgotten. The biggest key, though, is that she was not disempowered by her death. Her actions gave Cloud and the others the power they needed to defeat Sephiroth. She knew the danger she was putting herself in and was willing to take the risk. Blaze knew the dangers too, but the difference is that Blaze’s efforts were erased, made null and void. Aerith’s sacrifice was not.
What truly pulls Aerith’s death away from the fridge is that she wasn’t killed because of her connection to cloud. She was killed as a direct result of the power she possessed and her attempts to use that power to stop Sephiroth. To reiterate my earlier point, she was killed because she posed a threat to Sephiroth. She had power and her power didn’t just disappear or get forgotten because she died. It gave the heroes the edge they needed to win. That is how you do a character death right.
The women in Refrigerators trope is a highly toxic and pervasive one. It normalizes and perpetuates the use of violence against women. To make matters worse the stories in which these women are tossed aside are not meant to be about them. The stories are meant to be about the male hero’s anger and angst over her death. They are meant as a motivator to send him off after the big bad. This makes the trope even uglier because it erases the lives and experiences of the women killed. The thing is you don’t need to kill, rape, or brutalize women in order to motivate a hero. Thinking a hero needs that is actually narrow-minded and selfish. Heaven forbid a hero simply be motivated by the greater good or a desire to help others.