I’m about to spoil the crap out of the most recent episode of The Walking Dead – Self Help. If you’ve not seen it and you don’t want to be spoiled, hit your browser’s back button right now. But come back after you’ve watched it!
“Women in Refrigerators” or “fridging” is a trope that started in comic books and is now expanded to refer to any case in fiction in which a female character is abused, raped, and/or murdered in order to advance the storyline of a male character. The name comes from a Green Lantern comic in which the title character’s girlfriend was murdered and literally left in the refrigerator for him to find.
So, fridging reduces a woman to a plot point. She is no longer a person – if she ever was written to be a person – and turns her into simply a way to motivate a male character to act.
The Walking Dead – Abraham’s Story
SPOILERS BEGIN HERE
The Walking Dead’s most recent episode – Self Help – featured the backstory of the character Abraham, who is a huge, muscular, military man obsessively devoted to his mission. Through a series of flashbacks, we saw how Abraham began this mission.
In brief, Abraham, his wife, and two children were traveling with other survivors. Abraham went to scavenge and left his family with the group. When he returned, he learned that his wife and daughter had been brutally raped. Abraham slaughtered the group, but when he returned to his family, covered with blood, they were frightened of this brutal side of him which, presumably, they’d never seen before. The next morning, Abraham woke to find that his family had left him and left a note insisting that he not try to follow them. Of course he did, only to find that they’d been killed by zombies.
It was emotional, it was tragic. To see this man – this big alpha male of a man – reduced to nothing, everything taken from him, was a profound and powerful moment.
So, I’m going to leave Abraham kneeling in the road for a minute and come back to him in a bit.
Recently, I was asked to critique a bit of historical fiction. The writer, attempting to establish a particular character as a bad guy, followed him around a village market. Eventually, the bad guy spotted a pretty girl, grabbed at her, attempted to take advantage, and then the girl’s protector – the story’s protagonist – showed up to save the day.
When I suggested that perhaps there were other ways to show the character was a bad guy – attempting to claim a knife from a merchant, refusing to pay for his meal at an inn, laying claim to a horse – that could still require the intervention of the protagonist, the writer was surprised. Those options had never crossed his mind. He went straight to violence towards women.
The use of Tropes
Personally, I think a well placed trope can be a writer’s best friend. If I tell you the monster is a vampire, I don’t have to spend a thousand words telling you what a vampire is, I can just write my story. And if I show you that a guy is abusive towards women, I’ve done pages of character development with just one quick action. It’s a bargain! So, I understand. You write in the rape and murder of your main character’s girlfriend/wife/sister/daughter you have an instant and easily understood motivation for your character’s response.
For me, part of the problem is that if a woman is abused or raped in a story, that story should probably be about her. Her response to the rape, her response to the abuse, rather than the guy who wasn’t even there. Her response is one of a survivor, one of healing and, possibly, revenge. His response, his rage and grief is due to having something taken from him.
Let me pause for a moment and let you reread that last sentence. What’s wrong with it?
He’s mad because a possession of his was broken or taken away.
And that is another part of the problem in fridging. It reduces a woman to an object, a possession. Often we don’t even know the character. She is nothing more than the guy’s girlfriend/wife/sister/daughter. We don’t care about what happened to her for her sake, but only for how it impacts the man.
Getting Back to Abraham
The flashbacks were important in this episode because by the end, Abraham has lost everything he lives for. The actor who plays Abraham, Michael Cudlitz, described the moment as, “There’s nothing left. There’s nothing left to his group, there’s nothing left to his family, there’s nothing left to live for.” But it was more than that. This man, this soldier, this big, muscular alpha male – had failed to protect his family, twice. He trusted the wrong people and his family was hurt because of it. In giving into his rage, he drove them away and into danger. And because he wasn’t there, they were killed. It was a wound, upon a wound, upon a wound. He was devastated and moments from suicide.
A year later, he has a mission, something to live for. And when he learns that his mission is a lie, we leave him kneeling in the dirt, once again, with everything taken from him.
In the historical fiction I mentioned above, there were plenty of good options to motivate the good guy to step in, options that did not require violence against women.
For Abraham, I’m not sure anything else would have worked as well. I’ve thought about it a lot since Sunday. Perhaps if, instead of his family, he was traveling with a few survivors from his military unit? But he wouldn’t have felt the same obligation to people he considered equals rather than people he needs to protect, and they likely would have cheered on his brutality. Also, I in no way mean to suggest that violence towards men is somehow better – it’s just not a trope.
Honestly, I can’t think of anything that would have been as effective in tearing down that particular character. Those moments that he knelt in the dirt, full of grief and remorse, were profound and powerful and I don’t know what else would have put him on his knees.
There’s a fine line between a cliché and trope, and both should be used sparingly.
So, I’m going to suggest a new rule: If you can motivate your male character to action without shoving a dead woman in a refrigerator, then why don’t you try something – anything – else.
But if you have to, if you have to find a way to bring a man like Abraham to his knees, then do it powerfully and with respect to the character you brought into existence. Make me care that she’s dead because of her, not just because of it’s effect on him.
What do you think? Was there a better way to bring that character to his knees?