Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Does Deadpool 2 Put Women in Refrigerators?

Deadpool 2 was released in cinemas a little over two weeks ago, and I wanted to wait a while before about it on the channel. Overall, I thought the movie was okay (but a tad forgettable), but there was one particular trope used in the film which genuinely frustrated and annoyed me. In the opening scenes of the film, Wade Wilson’s girlfriend Vanessa (played by Morena Baccarin) is gunned down and killed by a drug lord that followed Wade home. 

Vanessa’s death serves to send Deadpool on a journey of self discovery to become a better hero, and while this doesn’t sound too awful at face value, this is one of the more played out and painfully overused tropes in comic books (the notion of the ‘Women in Refrigerators’), and I want to explore its history and why its use is such a problem in Deadpool 2.

The term ‘Women in Refrigerators’ was first coined by comic book writer Gail Simone back in 1999, as a way to describe stories where female characters (particularly love interests or supporting cast members) are killed, wounded, raped or victimised as a device to move a male character's story forward, rather than to fully develop the female character in her own right. 

The events of Green Lantern #54 birthed the phrase 'Women in Refrigerators'

The term sprung into popularity as a reaction to the events of Green Lantern #54 in 1994, where Kyle Rayner comes home to find his girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, killed and stuffed into a refrigerator by the villain Major Force. The problem with this, as Simone outlined, is that "if you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won't read comics.”

Likewise, in his book Dangerous Curves: Action Heroes, Gender, Fetishism and Popular Culture, Professor Jeffrey A. Brown notes the difference in how male characters who are killed and later revived are treated to female characters who suffer the same fate; he argues that "while male comic book heroes have tended to die heroically and be magically brought back from the dead afterwards, female characters have been likelier to be casually but irreparably wounded or killed, often in a sexualized fashion."

For instance, look at the Batman story Knightfall, where Bane breaks Batman’s back, forcing the hero to go on a journey of self-discovery and rehabilitation, before returning to stop Azrael. Contrast this to another Batman story, The Killing Joke, where Joker shoots and paralyses Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl, as a way to get at her father, Commissioner Gordon. 

Barbara Gordon's treatment in The Killing Joke is one of the
more notable examples of 'fridging' in popular comics

And honestly, this is a trope which has plagued comic book storytelling for a long time, and for a franchise that prides itself on subversion and ‘flipping the genre on its head’, it just seemed lazy. Notwithstanding the fact that much of the original Deadpool based itself around Wade’s rekindling with Vanessa, and their relationship was what prevented Deadpool from falling into the easy trap of unbearable humour, the choice on behalf of the filmmakers to kill Vanessa so early in the film serves to be a pretty significant step back in the franchise. 

Vanessa’s death becomes little more than a plot device to show Deadpool’s resilience and ability to overcome adversity, and the mutual understanding he creates with Cable, another character seeking vengeance for the death of his wife and daughter (who are both killed off-screen). 

In an interview with Vulture, Deadpool 2 screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick did state that they “didn’t know what fridging was”, and when asked whether they were concerned about being criticized for ‘fridging’ Vanessa, stated “I would say no, we didn’t even think about it. And that was maybe our mistake, not to think about it. But it didn’t really even occur to us.” 

And while the pair may not have intentionally played into this trope, I find it more alarming that a franchise which aims to parody the medium of comics so easily fell into one of its biggest cliches. 

In said interview, the writers noted that “in the very first drafts of the script, Vanessa didn’t die... She ended up breaking up with Deadpool, and he was trying to earn her back. Then I think at some point somebody just said, ‘Y’know, Deadpool kind of works best when he’s had everything taken away from him, when he suffers.’ So the thought was maybe we can really, really engender great suffering for him by having his line of work be the thing that costs Vanessa her life.” 

And this here demonstrates the problem: the Vanessa character in the first Deadpool was a genuinely well-written character, who not only made Wade Wilson infinitely more relatable, but also offered a much needed sense of humanity in the series, while also having the potential to develop her as a strong and capable ally to Deadpool under his ‘Copycat’ alias. 

Instead, the writers chose to kill the character to see how it would affect Deadpool; Vanessa became little more than a plot device to service Deadpool’s arc, and even though the film’s post-credit scene saw Deadpool travel through time and save Vanessa, the damage was largely already done by that point. 

In a period of time where films such as Wonder Woman and the upcoming Captain Marvel can offer us empowered and well written female heroes who don’t rely on their male cast members, I found the treatment of Vanessa in Deadpool 2 to be a notable step back in this movement. While fridging in superhero movies is hardly non-existent (the treatment of Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight comes to mind), modern comic book films have largely moved away from using female characters as plot devices to advance a hero’s story, and for a film which seeks to expose genre cliches as frequently as Deadpool, the apparent lack of self awareness by film’s writers is daunting. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that I hate Deadpool 2. As I stated at the beginning, I thought the film was largely okay, but this overused and tired cliche only served to pull me out of the film, and disappoint me. While the screenwriters clearly didn’t intend for the Vanessa’s death to come across as a misogynistic plot device to give its male characters something to do, and while I don’t think Deadpool 2 is an inherently sexist movie, the handling of this trope in the film is an issue, especially in a cinematic landscape where female heroes are only finally being treated as equals to male heroes, and the fact that Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were able to write this arc while being completely unaware of a damaging trope which has negatively impacted the comic book medium for decades. 

This therefore demonstrates the need for not only a more diverse set of voices, but also a louder voice by comic book and movie fans to ensure that our favourite female heroes are treated with dignity and respect, because I can promise you they’ll be far more memorable and moving than another woman in a refrigerator.

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