Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story, Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War below.
Our heroine Val clings to the side of a bridge suspended high above the snow-covered canyon below. She expertly attaches explosive after explosive, all the while communicating with the members of her crew who are engaged in the more “heisty” aspects of the robbery—fighting people on a train, hooking up cables on the desired train car, and piloting the getaway ship. Everything seems to be going well until the crew is confronted by another band of wayward criminals and Val is pinned down by a group of Imperial droids, shooting at her from their ships.
Val holds the detonator in her hand and looks over at her team, rapidly approaching on the still intact railway. Even as her husband and criminal partner begs her not to, she sets off the bomb, sacrificing herself and allowing the heist to be completed. You read that correctly. She sacrifices herself not to save anyone, but to finish the job.
As you can imagine, the rest of the film is consumed with the grief and mourning of her husband and crew—I’m sorry, actually my notes say that her death is barely mentioned and her husband seems moderately annoyed for possibly two scenes. That can’t be right. Oh, wait. It is.
The character I am talking about, Val, is billed as one of the top six characters in Solo: A Star Wars Story—and she’s the first black woman who is a major character in a Star Wars film. Val appears on promotional posters, in trailers, and for the first portion of the film, seems to be a driving force behind her crew.
Among the many issues with this portrayal, including the fact that we don’t know Val’s last name (but we find out that Han Solo got his last name because he was traveling alone—barf) is the fact that her death feels completely meaningless. Star Wars is all about narrow escapes from trash compactors, Imperial stormtroopers, exogorth stomachs, scavenging Jawas, Canto Bight cops, exploding Death Stars, the list goes on. So why wouldn’t Val escape? And what does her death give the narrative?
Well, my friends, it's time to talk about a little trope called fridging.
In Green Lantern #54, released in 1994, our hero returns to his home to find his girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, murdered by a villain. Not only that, but her body has been stuffed into a refrigerator. Long before she would becoming a comics writer herself, Gail Simone (along with some online friends) discussed the problematic nature of this portrayal, which resulted in Simone starting a website called Women in Refrigerators a few years later.
According to Simone’s letter on the front page of the site, it was dedicated to creating a list of “superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator.” Her goal was to figure out if what she had noticed was indicative of a pervasive trend overall in comic books. The website lists over 110 female characters who have been subjected to such treatment.
The creation of the list sparked much debate online and within the comic book community. (You can read some responses to the list on the same website.) Some argued that depowering, murder, and rape happen to male characters—and they do. However, male characters usually “recover” and return to their prior stature or become more powerful. Female characters tend to, well, stay dead and/or powerless.
Fridging, as a term, has transcended the world of comic books and is commonly used to describe the deaths of female characters that are solely used to motivate a main male character or, as in the case of Val, don’t seem to have any meaning at all.
Solo: A Star Wars Story isn’t the only culprit. Fridging has been a theme in many of the major films this year. Deadpool 2 features a triple whammy: Cable’s daughter and wife are murdered within moments of appearing on screen and Vanessa, Deadpool’s love, is killed by a stray bullet before the opening credits even begin. The film’s screenwriters, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who share a co-writing credit with star Ryan Reynolds, claimed to have never heard of fridging in an interview with Vulture. “And maybe that’s a sexist thing. I don’t know,” said Reese. “And maybe some women will have an issue with that. I don’t know. I don’t think that that’ll be a large concern, but it didn’t even really occur to us.”
But, wait, there’s more! In Avengers: Infinity War, Gamora, who has been a kick-ass female hero throughout the Guardians of the Galaxy films, is relegated to the role of sacrifice for Thanos, her evil warmongering father. It’s okay, though, because Thanos cries. Yes! You heard me right. When Thanos decides to murder his adoptive daughter Gamora, who he abused for most of her life, a redemptive tear rolls down his cheek. WORTH IT.
What I can’t figure out is why fridging is making a comeback. Maybe it’s because these films were all written by men. Maybe it’s a reflection of our current society when the American president stands accused of sexual assault and harassment by 19 women and the New York Times sees fit to print a defense of incel ideology. Maybe it isn’t making a comeback at all. Maybe I’ve just been so accustomed to seeing women killed off, raped, tortured, and abused for no reason that I couldn’t see it before. And maybe that’s the answer, that as creators and consumers of media we need to stop and ask ourselves why something happens to a female character, what it has to do with her story arc, and whether or not that is a tired trope.
Before you huff and puff and try to blow my house down, let me be clear: No one is saying that you can’t kill off female characters. What I’m saying is that female characters should be three-dimensional, they should fight the good (or bad) fight, they should be strong and weak and everything that real life people are. Some female characters should die, but only as a direct result of their own actions tied to their own storylines—and only when the narrative necessitates it. What they shouldn’t be is a throwaway plot point, nothing more than a woman blowing herself up on a bridge, taking a bullet to the heart, being pushed off a cliff, or being shoved into a refrigerator.