Monday, September 10, 2018

Meta: Defying the Fridge

I just finished the most fantastic book called The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente, which tackles the subject of Women in Refrigerators through the format of The Vagina Monologues.
I loved it. More of a novella than a fully-blown book, it's a collection of first-hand accounts from various female characters who don't make it to the end of the story – they're the girlfriends who die so their male counterparts can get motivated or be angsty or just get on with his superhero lifestyle without any distractions.
Most of my thoughts about will keep until my end of the month Reading Log, but for now I'll just say that you can tell it's written from a place of deep frustration, and this article by Valente explains her inspiration: watching the death of Gwen Stacey in The Amazing Spiderman 2.
Then I made the mistake of reading the comments. Amidst the usual snowflake pearl-clutching about how the feminist agenda is infecting literature and destroying lives, there was a depressingly repetitive refrain, used as justification for the death:
"Gwen Stacey always dies."
Gwen Stacey always dies. The words are spoken like it's an explanation in and of itself. That's like... the whole point, guys. That's her purpose; her reason for existence. She lives so she can die. It's hard to properly articulate why this mentality is so depressing.
Look, I'm not so daft as to believe female characters should be immune from death, but it's the frequency with which women perish, and the reasons for why they do so – but that's for another post entirely.
This post is actually a positive one. Below are a list of female characters who defied the fridge. Despite all the odds being stacked against them, despite foreshadowing and precedence and fandom expectations and even narrative inevitability, these women refused to be stuffed in that damn refrigerator.
Their places in these narratives aren't defined by the pain their deaths inflict on male characters – instead they are given the right to live and thrive and tell their own stories.

Ahsoka Tano
From the moment Ahsoka Tano stepped off that transport carrier and introduced herself as Anakin's new Padawan, the question on everyone's lips was: "how and when is she going to die?"
It was inevitable: after all, she was a prequel-era character who was neither seen nor mentioned in any of the films. Everyone knew Order 66 and the extermination of the Jedi was on the horizon, and after that was an intergalactic war which wiped out millions.
More than that, Ahsoka was not a popular character, considered too bratty, too outspoken, and not a character who fit into the established canon of Star Wars – unless of course, she died.
But then something happened: Ahsoka grew and matured and established a strong rapport with both Anakin and Obi-Wan. Within a few seasons, she was an unexpected fan favourite, and the thought of her dying suddenly became much less palatable.
Dave Filoni seemed to solve the problem with a three-part episode in which Ahsoka is accused by the Jedi Order of a crime she didn't commit, and is so shaken by the masters' lack of faith in her that she chooses to leave the Temple and the Jedi way of life.
But even then, it wasn't a guarantee that she would survive – when she returns in Star Wars Rebels, the audience is left hanging at the end of season two, when the last glimpse we get of her is while she's locked in combat with Darth Vader, followed by an ambiguous scene of her disappearing into darkness as a vague indication that maybe she survived.
And she did, thanks to a little time-travel (long story) which pulled her to safety and set her on an unexpected story trajectory. And then, at the end of Rebels, which moves forward in time to the end of The Return of the Jedi – there she is.
She made it... and apparently became Gandalf the White at some point.

When she first appeared in The Clone Wars, her destiny seemed set in stone: she would die in order to further Anakin's arc; existing as yet another tragic stepping stone on his path to Darth Vader. The odds were stacked against her, and yet there she stands: a survivor of the Clone Wars, fights with General Grievous and Darth Maul, her exile from the Jedi, Order 66, the battle against the Empire, her confrontation with Darth Vader, and even a full-blown attack from the Emperor himself.
She lived, and her story isn't even finished yet...

Marianne Dashwood
Sense and Sensibility was first published in 1811, so there's a chance modern readers don't quite realize just how unorthodox Jane Austen was being in her treatment of Marianne.
In many ways, hers is a cautionary tale: having indulged herself in poetry and romance for most of her young life, she gets caught up in the thrill of a dashing suitor, is blind to the impertinent effects he has on her behaviour, and comes dangerously close to ruining her reputation through her interactions with him.
In any other novel, she would be punished for her transgressions, and for a long time it appears that's indeed the trajectory this novel will take: Marianne's heart is duly broken, her sensitive soul leads her out into a rainstorm, and she becomes gravely ill as a result. As Margaret Anne Doody says in her introduction to my copy of the book: "a young woman without fortune and now cast off by a suitor would make a very touching victim."
This is the stuff melodramas are made of: a rakish scoundrel and a naïve girl who dies of heartache. I'm pretty sure there are about five hundred Old English ballads about this exact scenario.
Her death would make her family sad, the reader sad, and her former lover sad, whilst also imparting an important message about the dangers of too much passion and emotion in a young woman. In the 1995 adaptation, Marianne even foreshadows this fate; in her own words: "to die for love, what could be more glorious?"
And yet Marianne does not die. She recovers from her illness, regains her strength, and in time finds love again with the infinitely more deserving Colonel Brandon.

Of course, at least one other woman in the story is not so lucky: the unseen Eliza is the woman who Willoughby seduces, impregnates and abandons, but since Marianne's relationship with Willoughby remained chaste (clearly there are some lines even Austen was not prepared to cross) she is spared the fate of a social pariah.
And yet Marianne's heart was seduced; she gave it utterly to Willoughby. But she is ultimately allowed the chance to put it behind her and find happiness with someone else.
To quote Doody again: "Austen does not go so far as to argue for the right of the woman already seduced or violated or sexually experienced to the second love, but she is looking in that direction, and in making Marianne bid farewell to a fantastic constancy, she is definitely joining in an argument about female sexuality."
Hearts are mended, life goes on, and Marianne is allowed to be a part of it.

Constance Bonacieux
Now this is the one I was truly dreading for two simple reasons: Constance died in Alexandre Dumas's original novel, and the show itself took great delight in fridging female characters (it scored a hat-trick in the first three episodes).
The writers could have easily killed off Constance to rile up D'artagnan and the rest of the Musketeers, and then point to the novel as justification. There was even foreshadowing for the sad event: Constance has an affair with D'artagnan that eventually concludes with her husband swearing on his dying breath that the two will never be happy.
It was certainly very ominous, and a female character being punished by the narrative for her extra-marital indiscretion (leaving behind a furious, vengeful and motivated lover) was certainly not out of the question. It would have been an easy setup for any of the three season's finales, with precedence in the novel itself.
One of the consequences of this was that it left viewers on the edge of their seat every time Constance was in peril, and the show milked this for all it was worth. The end of season one: kidnapped by Milady, her original murderer. The end of season two: nearly executed by Rochefort. And then a double whammy at the end of season three: first she narrowly escapes the Musketeers garrison being blown up, and then has an unsuspecting run-in with a defeated (and therefore highly dangerous) Grimaud.
I tell you, I was in a cold sweat.  At any moment, the BBC could have pulled the trigger.
But they didn't. Constance was carried out of the burning garrison in the arms of her husband and revived. She is spared an ignominious death at Grimaud's hands and leaves the room unscathed. And she certainly avoids her fate from the book: poisoned by Milady as an act of impersonal revenge.

She lives, because in this retelling she's not the designated victim, but an important character in her own right. Or to quote what D'artagnan says of her: "she's a Musketeer."

Sophie de Clermont
Let's get one thing straight: Versailles was not particularly kind to its female characters. They were allowed to be flawed, politically involved and moderately interesting, but much like The Tudors and Game of Thrones, they were also required to get naked, resign themselves to male authority, and divide themselves into Madonna/Whore categories.
It was so ubiquitous that it wasn't worth complaining about, and the deaths – when they inevitably came – fell into three types: historical precedence (Henriette), plot requirement (Béatrice) and good old-fashioned fridging (Claudine).
The character of Sophie de Clermont seemed primed and ready for that last one. To recap, she was the daughter of a Protestant woman conspiring against the king who was eventually executed in secret, became the court spy of the very man who killed said mother, and later employed as a double-agent by Emperor Leopold of Hungary, who tasked her with assassinating the Queen of France... which she goes through with.
She also has sex with Marchal (her aforementioned employer and the killer of her mother) in a transparent attempt to save her own skin after he suspects her of the murder. Sure enough, this gamble pays off, for despite hunting her down after she flees Versailles, Marchal spares her life and insists she leave the country forever.
But of course, we know it won't end there. Sophie is spoiled goods: she's the assassin of an innocent woman, the daughter of a guilty one, a slut for seducing the man tasked with bringing her to justice, a spy, a traitor, a conniver – basically someone no more or less guilty of sin than any of the male characters that surround her.
But most of all, her inevitable death would make her the third of Marchal's love interests to die, just to drive home how sad, lonely and tragic his life is.
Sophie's fate is sealed as she stands on a country road, deciding to return to Versailles to deal with the unfinished business of her mother's death. She may as well have "marked for dead" written on her forehead.
But as it happens, Sophie is not alone in this moment. She fled the palace with Princess Eleanor of Germany in a bid to save her, knowing that both their lives were in danger from King Louis. The girls were thrown together earlier in the season and spent most of it squabbling with each other, but now Eleanor beseeches her to leave Versailles behind and "start a new life together."
And something incredible happens. Sophie listens to her. She lets go of her desire for vengeance, her unfinished business at court, her entanglement with Marchal and just... goes. That's the last we see of her and Eleanor; walking off together with smiles on their faces.

An entire subplot which would have no doubt led to Sophie's violent death at the hands of one man or another, designed to make another man sad or motivated or regretful evaporates into thin air, because Sophie – astonishingly, wonderfully – makes the right decision.
All the corruption and deceit of Versailles is left behind, and she gets to live freely with the unexpected friend whose life she's just saved, sloughing off the past and walking into the future as though she has every right to.
I never saw it coming.

Let's be honest: there's nothing fandom hates more than an ambitious non-white prostitute who gets in the way of white male characters and their goals.
Things did not look good for Max at any point during the four-season run of Black Sails, especially when her arc allowed her to grow in power and influence. Surely she would have to be cut down to size at some point – that's just what happens to sex workers, and there was no shortage of male characters in the vicinity that would have felt moderately sad or temporarily motivated by her demise.
And of course, fandom was predictably horrid to her. As it happens, this is the only time I've really gone off at someone on a message board, especially when their vitriol was so transparently racist and misogynistic, and so profoundly at odds with what was actually being depicted on the screen. Each episode I spent in fear that this would be the one in which Max was gruesomely, violently punished for the audacity of wanting a better life for herself.
The show itself wasn't above killing off female characters for the sake of manpain (Miranda Barlow and Eleanor Guthrie – though I concede the latter's was a little more complicated than that) and in an environment filled with death, violence and mayhem, where fortunes could rise or fall at a moment's notice, where the highest position a woman of mixed race and low birth could hope to attain was a brothel madam, Max's death seemed only a matter of time.
But it never came. Instead, she consolidates power by seeking out solidarity with other powerful women, she finds a way to reconcile her ambition with her moral compass, and she uses all the lessons that've been taught to her across the course of four seasons to find security and power.

On the island of Nassau, that wretched hive of villainy and scum, she not only lives – she thrives.
There are a few more women I could have added to this list, but for one reason or another, they didn't quite meet the requirements of "female character being set up for fridging but spared". So consider this the roll call of honourable mentions:
Vanessa Carlysle from Deadpool is fridged in the opening sequence of the sequel that ticks a lot of the trope's clichés: she's killed by a stray bullet, she dies in slow-motion, and her death motivates Wade in the story that follows.
But in one of the (many) post-credit scenes, Wade realizes he has access to a time-travelling device and goes back in time to save her life... so, yay? I guess we'll have to wait and see whether this is canon, and if they'll utilize her to a better extent in the third film.
Sara Lance from Arrow is killed off at the beginning of season two, but as with Vanessa, is brought back to life thanks to mystical science-fiction mumbo-jumbo. But even making her the lead of a spin-off doesn't quite wash out the bad taste of her initial fridging, though you could argue that her death had less impact on Oliver as it did on Laurel, who was inspired to become the Black Canary in the wake of her sister's passing.
And then they fridge Laurel instead, rendering the whole thing moot.  
Bond Girls come in three types: the good one who sleeps with Bond before dying, the bad one who sleeps with Bond before dying, and the good one who makes it to the end of the film, sleeps with Bond, and is never seen or mentioned again.
There are some variations here and there, especially in the Daniel Craig era (Solange Dimitrios doesn't sleep with Bond but is tortured and killed anyway; Camille Rivero doesn't sleep with him either, though her backstory involves a fridged mother and sister) but special mention has to go to Monica Bellucci's Lucia Sciarra in Spectre.
She's fifty-one years old, she sleeps with Bond almost directly after her husband's death, and she appears complicit in many of the dark dealings of the film's criminal cabal – and yet despite all these strikes against her, she walks away unharmed. That's... quite frankly a miracle, but honestly, the bar is so damn low at this stage I can't bring myself to applaud it too much.
Yes, I suppose you could point out how depressing it is that the simple act of surviving feels so revolutionary, especially since many of the women listed above have co-stars that weren't so lucky (Claudine in Versailles, Shado in Arrow, Miranda Barlow in Black Sails, Padmé Amidala in Star Wars – all classic fridgings).
But despite all that, there's such a feeling of victory in watching Ahsoka, Marianne, Constance, Sophie and Max defy the fridge and live rich, happy lives on their own terms that I wanted to celebrate them somehow. To paraphrase the Grand Dame who provided the framing device for the film Ever After: "though you could say these women lived happily ever after, the point gentlemen, is that they lived."

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