In the sixth episode of season five of Game of Thrones, Sansa Stark is raped. It is an awful scene that feels gratuitous and pointless. One of the oddest things about it though, is that while Sansa is being raped, the camera lingers on another character’s face. The face we’re shown is that of Theon, the traitor, who is being forced to watch while the audience watches him as though his torment is what we should be worried about. When this happens we call it fridge-ing.
Fridge-ing refers to when a female character in a movie, book, comic book, TV show or song is murdered, tortured, raped or brutalised in some way solely to give the male character(s) a motive to act against a villainous individual or organisation.
The expression comes from writer Gail Simone, who coined it about an issue of Green Lantern in which Kyle Raynor, the new Green Lantern, comes home to find his girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, beaten to death and stuffed into their refrigerator. Up until that point the plotline had been interesting as Kyle struggled to deal with his new superhero responsibilities with the support of a loving partner. Of course, a nuanced story about two people in love dealing with an insane situation and trying to look after each other would have been super hard to write, so instead we get Alexandra’s murder, an act that only happens to give Kyle the confidence to take on his villains and become a true hero.
It is an all too common trope. A male character is going about his life and then boom! His wife/sister/mother/daughter/auntie/grandmother is killed/raped/kidnapped/attacked and it galvanises the man into action against a foe. The Bond movies go back to this well a lot, and the Taken trilogy is completely built around this trope. Even classics like the Godfather fall back upon it when Sonny goes to murder Carlo after he finds out how severely Carlo has beaten his sister, and drives into a trap. The female character becomes about as human as the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders. She is a plot point, story beat, a prop.
Think of how many stories with a central male character who has a wife character who has died before the movie begins to create a shorthand about his emotional state. Christopher Nolan has done this in Memento, Inception, and Interstellar. And then killed off a female character close to the male hero in The Prestige, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight that has greatly influenced a male character’s actions from then on. I could forgive The Dark Knight as Rachel’s death does reverberate throughout the rest of the movies, but Bruce Wayne’s mother dying is rarely referenced in favour of a focus upon his father’s death instead.
The worst part of this trope is that there is no male equivalent. There are stories in which a male could be said to be fridged — Peeta in The Hunger Games, Han literally in Empire Strikes Back (though his fridge-ing is not solely aimed at inspiring Leia to act, she is the one who actually rescues him, because I guess Lando was just watching dancing Twi’lek girls and biding his time) — but we do not have a term for that. Instead we say things like ‘Peeta takes on the role of the damsel in distress’ implying that his helplessness makes him a more feminine character rather than simply being a man who is not as capable as his female counterpart. Usually when a female character needs to be galvanised into action it is attacks/threats to their children that she reacts to. Even two of cinema’s most awesome ladies, Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, are mostly motivated by fear for their (real or surrogate) children’s safety.
I don’t want this to turn into a How To (or a How Not To) but this kind of lazy writing can be avoided. Look at George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie we’re pretty fond of here. In a recent interview he was asked about the character of Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron). Miller said that in initial drafts the character didn’t exist and it was Max who rescued the wives from Immortan Joe. However, during writing meetings it always felt wrong. The idea that one man (Joe) would kidnap and hold these women captive until another man (Max) stole them away left a sour taste in his mouth. The women had become a commodity that could be traded and stolen, and their ‘ownership’ was simply reverting from man to man. The addition of Furiosa changes the dynamic greatly as she becomes liberator rather than thief. The lesson here is simple. If you are a writer and you have written something and the female characters in it could be replaced with an inanimate object, you have failed. If your main character is moping because his wife died pre-story, read your script and change the wife dying to a job being lost or a sports team being defeated. If the script still works pretty well, then you’ve failed.
It is an easy, lazy form of writing that perpetuates stereotypes about women and weakness, and has been around since the first time a bad man in a top hat tied a screaming woman to the train tracks in a silent movie. And it’s time to do better.