Or the balance between a character's death being an example of them being "shoved in a refrigerator", and the death making sense within the narrative and context of the story.
Contains spoilers for the most recent issue of Batman Inc. (#8), and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, so be warned.
Today in Musings About Nerd Culture, I attempt to tackle, one of the more contentious issues being dealt with in comics and other forms of entertainment these days is the concept of "fridging". Fridging, for those few of you who read my blog who don't know, is derived from the phrase "Women in Refrigerators", created by Gail Simone in reference to a girlfriend of then Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, who was killed and stuffed in his fridge by a supervillain solely to make Kyle feel bad. WiF began as a means of listing all of the female comicbook characters that have been killed, maimed, depowered or otherwise grimly disposed of, mostly just to further the character arc of the male main character.
But, since then, the term seems to have spread out to encompass ANY death, depowering etc. that occurs primarily to affect a male character. To the extent that the death of the most recent Robin, the ten year old Damian Wayne, has been decried by some as an example of fridging as it appears to have just happened to further his father's story. Which leads me to my main question: When is a fridging not a fridging? Can the death of acharacter happen in a way that makes sense within the context and narrative of a story WITHOUT being a fridging? In this article, I intend to provide examples of both sides of the arguement to see if this is actually achievable.
To start with, let's examine a fairly straight forward example of WiF which was undertaken with some malice by some of the creative staff. I speak of the (temporary) death of another former Robin, Stephanie Brown. In the run up to the Batman crossover event War Games, it was decided by some of the DC writing staff that it was now time to kill off longtime Robin supporting character Stephanie Brown, aka the Spoiler. However, it was decided that before she were to die that she would become Robin temporarily, to "trick" the readers into buying the crossover, under the assumption she'd pull through and become Robin permanently afterwards.
Now, at this point Stephanie's relationships largely revolved around three characters. Her best friend Batgirl (Cassandra Cain), her boyfriend (former Robin Tim Drake) and Batman. Following her prolonged, over sexualised and torturous death (the blame of which was repeatedly and firmly placed upon Stephanie herself), who did all of the fallout primarily focus on? Why Batman of course! With Cassandra and Tim shoved out of the city for story concerns, every storyline directly connected with Stephanie's death focused around how Bruce dealt with it, in addition to the later revelation that Stephanie only died in the first place to teach Batman a lesson about how his using children in his warn on crime leads to them getting hurt or kille. Something he already knew due to the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. Steph is disposed of in a horrifying manner purely to provide something else for Batman to angst about, while another long standing female Bat Family character got mixed up in the whole mess and was kicked out of the story via an out of character move that doesn't even make sense within the context of the story.
Okay then, let's analyse this further, does the death of Stephanie make sense within the context and narrative of the story itself? Well even if you ignored the fact that they seemingly came up with her death first, planned out over the course of several days I might add, the circumstances that lead to her death didn't really make that much sense either. The idea is that while she was Robin, Stephanie found plans on the Bat Computer that Batman had made, for him to take over the criminal syndicates in Gotham through several double agents posing as supervillains and gangsters within the city's underworld. However, although Bruce evidently had trusted Stephanie to explore his secret computer files, he apparently didn't feel it was necessary to tell her that one of the moles required for the plan to work was actually himself in disguise.
So, after Batman fired Steph from the position of Robin, she tried to enact his plan without having the information needed to make it work, resulting in a gang war that resulted in hundreds of people dead, millions in property damage, and arguably the worst conventional gangster that Gotham's ever seen in charge of all the crime in the city. IF Bruce had intended her to be Tim's official replacement, and comics after her death indicated that Batman didn't even officially count her as a real Robin despite what he told her on her deathbed, why hadn't he shared that information with her, as wouldn't knowing whether a gangster is her secretly boss arguably count as something she'd need to know? So from a narrative standpoint, the very thign that leads to Steph's capture and torture at the hands of Black Mask (who uses the plan to take over Gotham's syndicates for himself) doesn't really make much sense from a story perspective.
And, more directly, the context of WHY Stephanie had to die didn't really make sense either. Namely, why the other female character in this mess, Dr Leslie Thompkins, would allow Steph to die in the first place? Leslie Thompkins is a longstanding character in the Batman books, a friend of Bruce's parents, who runs a clinic in the poorest area of Gotham and holds a belief in absolute pacifism. She was established as a character who was so committed to non-violence that she will not fight back even to defend herself from an advancing serial killer. Yet somehow, SOMEHOW, this character decided that deliberately treating a teenage girl who had ever tried to make people's lives better wrong so she'd die of her injuries, just to teach Batman a lesson about how his using children in his war on crime. After this, Leslie liquidated her assets and moved to Africa to become a relief worker, where Batman decided to briefly pass judgement on her by saying he may not stop violence, but he had never "thrown another body onto the pile in the hopes of making a statement". He then left her to the punishment she had already chosen for herself instead of taking her to face trial for killing not only his former sidekick, not also his younger partner's girlfriend and his semi-adopted daughter's best and ONLY friend as well.
The death of Stephanie (as well as the treatment of Leslie) very much counts as a case of WiF due to it's gratuity, mean spiritedness, and due to it only effecting Batman's character arc, and not Stephanie's. This whole mess was later all changed to Leslie smuggling Steph out of the country after faking her death to avoid more attempts of her life as she recovered, which makes a hell of a lot more sense than the previous storyline.
A more debatable case of WiF comes in the form of the death of Irene Alder in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. Here, after betraying the archvillain Moriarty to Holmes by informing the latter of the former's schemes, Moriarty has her poisoned, and then gloats about it later to Holmes as an example of how ruthless he is. Seems like a pretty text book case of WiF, but if you look at the narrative and context of Game of Shadows and the previous film, the death of Irene becomes less offensive while making more sense within the story, if that makes sense.
The threat of death for betrayal was something that Irene was threatened with by Moriarty within the first film, with her betrayal at the end of the first film leading her to take as many precautions as she can to try and avoid attempts on her life by a man she knew to be both dangerous and not the sort to make threats lightly. These means to safeguard her include hiring a large number of loyal bodyguards, and when she has to meet Moriarty in person, she arranges for it to be in public in her favourite restaurant. And when he offers her tea to drink she gets a fresh pot, under the assumption that the first would be poisoned. Unfortunately for her, Moriarty had filled the restaurant entirely with people on his payroll, making them all leave at his signal, in addition to poisoning both pots of tea in advance in case she didn't drink the first one.
The fact that Irene attempted to defend herself but failed is less a case of her death being something purely to upset Holmes, as it is something that establishes Moriarty as being a brutally effective villain who can still get you in believable ways even if you try and out think him. This in addition to the theme established in the narrative of the second film regarding Moriarty leaving no loose ends (once people do what he wants, he either has them killed or forces them to kill themselves by threatening their families) makes Irene's death actually make sense within the story as a whole Why, from a plot perspective, would he allow this person who he knew to be untrustworthy to continue assisting in his downfall to live once she was of no more use to him?
In addition, when Moriarty reveals the information to Holmes, Holmes was already in the midst of an investigation into stopping whatever scheme Moriarty was undertaking. The death of Irene is revealed to Holmes, in the form of a newspaper story written by someone on Moriarty's payroll, as an attempt by Moriarty to leave him alone. He knew Holmes was already fully invested in stopping him, so he used the "just business" murder of Irene as an example of how casually he'd kill the people closest to Holmes to back off. When this doesn't work, Moriarty sets in motion a plan to kill Dr Watson and his new wife almost immediately to show Holmes he wasn't bluffing. Thus Holmes' character arc is effected by it in the form of him grieving the only woman he'd ever loved, but having to let it reluctantly go to focus on the task at hand. It might just be my interpretation of WiR, but if it was a typical example of the trope, then the death of Irene would happen out of nowhere with no further repercussions in the story, whereas in Game of Shadows it builds on what was previously established to show was lies ahead for the heroes if they continue. That is to say, it makes sense within the context of the story, it makes sense in terms of the narrative, it's Irene reaching the end of her tragic character arc while actively trying to prevent the death she sees coming, as opposed to it merely coming out of nowhere to motivate Holmes to stop Moriarty.
This may be a case of being up to the viewer's opinion, but personally I'd rather have meaningful (in terms of plot and characterisation) character death and a competent villain, than the heroes always being able to escape in the nick of time with no repercussions. Such things remove tension and threat from the story, and make us as an audience loose our suspension of disbelief. Why would the character of Moriarty, established as being incredibly thorough and equal to Holmes in mental power, NOT try to kill her, considering the people he leaves littered around the rest of Europe? If your villains lacks competence, then what investment does the audience have in whether the heroes succeed or not?
Using the previously established ideas of whether a potential refrigerator death makes sense within the context and narrative of the story, does the death of Damian Wayne count as a fridging or not? Well he is a Batman supporting character, anything happening to them is bound to influence his character arc in one way or another due to him existing like a black hole in the centre of the Gotham narrative landscape. Batman is a man who'd take the shooting of his Commissioner Gordon, for reasons completely divorced from Batman and Gotham as a whole, personally, and sink into a deep depression about the whole affair. Batman's character arc can't not be affected in Damian's case as he's Bruce's biological child. And in addition to this Damian also dies in a messy, gruesome way like Steph, so do these things together make it a fridging?
Okay, the context of the death. Damian's mother Talia al Ghul is launching an attack on Gotham, mostly out of spite for Bruce and Damian rejecting her, because Grant Morrison's Talia is INCREDIBLY petty. Attempting to save the life of a reoccurring character from Morrison's numerous Batman series (a former prostitute that Batman gave a job at Batman Inc. so she could get away from her old life), Damian ends up getting into a fight with an evil clone of himself that their mother had genetically engineered and grown to full size due to Damian's perceived disappointing behaviour. Doing this he ends up fighting tooth and nail, but in the end and despite a valiant struggle he ends up dying. Like Irene Damian worked damn hard to NOT end up dying, and although he ended up dying he still managed to save someone else's life. So he might have died an exploitative, gruesome death, but he still died a hero in spite of this.
Grant Morrison said in the interviews leading up to the publishing of Batman Inc. #8 that the storyline, which he had planned since the beginning of his Batman run six years ago apparently, was meant to reflect his own parent's messy divorce. The idea being that when parents fight, it's usually only the kids that get hurt as a result of their bickering. The death of Damian as a direct result of his parents clashing over their ideological differences being a rather clumsy metaphor for this sad state of affairs. Does this effect the narrative of the story in any way? Eh, sort of.
Damian was introduced way back at the beginning of Morrison's Batman run as an entitled brat who felt that the role of Robin (and later Batman) were things that he was owed purely due to who his parents were. But since then, he's grown as a character, rejecting the things about his mother that he previously used to justify his shabby treatment of other people, and slowly become the kind of hero that his father would be proud of. Him giving his life, unthinkingly, to save the life of a woman who he probably wouldn't even spare a thought for in his introduction marks the end of a character arc that, unlike Batman's, now has a clearly defined beginning, middle and end.
Due to the fact that Batman's an immortal corporate entity in real life, it's unlikely that we'd ever see Damian ever age to the point that he'd take up Bruce's role at some point in the future, as you'd expect if comicbooks followed real life. Batman was always destined in a metatextual sense to outlive his sons. And considering the contrary nature of the DC reboot of 2011 had already left FOUR damn Robins littering up the place at the same time, I guess that it was only a matter of waiting until one or more of them was killed off, just for the sake of making things less confusing. Personally I'd rather they had a full reboot instead of the hodge podge mix that they ended up with, but that's an issue for another time.
Damian's death was likely to happen one way or another, his brief time in comics not being enough to justify introducing him into other media like Dick Grayson, Jason Todd or Tim Drake, and in the time of Iconic Characters, if Grant hadn't decided to end his character arc on his own terms then someone else would have. And probably would have given him a lot more ignoble death than what he got.
What am I saying? Yes, the death of Damian Wayne probably counts as fridging. It's gruesome, exploitative, and he died saving only one person, for "small stakes" as opposed to, say, saving the entirety of Gotham all at once. And chances are it wasn't intended to be the end of Damian's own character arc, but rather an attempt to force another era of gloom and depression upon Batman (something the DCnU Batman didn't have following the "death" of Jason Todd due to ALL THE ROBINS BEING ACTIVE AT THE SAME TIME), that will be broken when the next Robin contender comes along. Mostly likely in the form of the character Harper Rowe in Scott Snyder's Batman comics. But, if Damian was to die, I'd personally prefer him to die saving someone, as a Hero (albeit less graphically), having shown that he's grown as a character, rather than dying foolishly for no reason other than a portion of the readership didn't like him, like they did with Jason Todd.