Thursday, March 29, 2018

Review - The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne Valente


Short review: Six women consigned to permanent residency in Deadtown whose lives were sacrificed to advance someone else's story tell their own stories.

Haiku
All women deserve
More than being stuffed in a
Refrigerator

Full review: "Fridging" a character specifically refers to an incident in the Green Lantern comic book in which the hero Kyle Rayner's girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt was killed by the villain Major Force and stuffed into a refrigerator for Rayner to find later. This kind of plot device then sends the hero into a righteous wrath whereupon he then goes upon a rage-driven quest for revenge to avenge his lost love. The use of the term in a more general sense, to mean a character (who is almost always a woman) who is killed off in order to provide motivation and character development for the hero (who is almost always a man), was originally coined by Gail Simone, and has since become a widely used term to refer to this sort of lazy and misogynistic trope.

The framing of "fridging" is to subordinate the fridged character to the protagonist's story - the now-dead character only exists in the story to help tell the story of the "more important" central character. Because this trope is almost always presented as a female character being sacrificed to give depth and meaning to the story of a male character, this has the effect of erasing the women's stories. In many of these cases, the female character to be killed off is presented in as shallow a way as possible - since she exists only to further someone else's story, to the extent her story is told, it is usually only told to the extent that her story intersects with the protagonist's. The end result is that there is a rogue's gallery consisting of dozens (or, more likely hundreds) of female characters whose stories were never told, because they were killed off so that Bob Squarejaw could experience a little angst and dedicate himself to vengeance. Marvel's Punisher is a character entirely built upon this premise, and his wife and children pretty much only exist within flashbacks in his story. I suspect that the fact that the villain's killed Wick's dog in John Wick was intended as a kind of joke - replacing the usual girlfriend, wife, sister, or daughter of the hero with a dog, and part of the commentary provided was that the dog got as much character development as the usual victim would have.

Cat Valente's Refrigerator Monologues takes this trope and flips it on its head. The characters given voices in this book are all women who are residents of Deadtown - the place where the discarded comic book characters go when they die. Some characters die and then come back to life, but others, the ones who were "fridged", are all eternally confined to the never-ending autumn of Deadtown. They call themselves the Hell Hath Club, aren't happy about their deaths, and they are going to tell anyone who shows up at the Lethe Café on open mic night. They are Paige Embry, Julia Ash, Pauline Ketch, Blue Bayou, Daisy Green, and Samantha Dane, they all have their own stories to tell, and in this book Cat Valente tells them all.

To provide a setting for her heroines to exist in, Valente has crafted a complete world around them, populated with super-heroes, super-villains, love interests, mentors, children, and everyone else. Although the world is very clearly inspired by the fictional worlds of some of the major comic book publishers, and several of the characters and storylines are reminiscent of characters and storylines that have appeared in those worlds, Valente's world is a distinct entity unto its own. To a certain extent, such similarities are unavoidable, and some are possibly even unintentional, but it is clear that many of the elements that run parallel to well-known comic book stories were included quite deliberately. These parallels are, after all, part of the point of the book: To highlight how these stories in previously published stories sideline and marginalize women's stories, one has to emulate them to some extent, and Valente manages to come close enough for the references to be recognizable, but not so close that the stories she is telling are diminished.

Each of the six stories told in this book ends tragically, which seems like an inevitable outcome given that this is a book about women who died to further the story of another person. Even within this limitation, Valente refuses to allow the stories of these character to be erased - even if the story they were supposed to have originally appeared in cast them as a secondary character, in this book they take center stage and give full voice to their own lives and experiences. The characters in this book might be a girlfriend who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or a superheroine whose powers were "too dangerous" for her teammates to allow her to live, or a disaffected punk teen who finds love and has an ill-fated child, but that is not all they are, and in each of their stories that is made painfully clear. This is a book full of rage, rage at being dead, but also rage at having their story erased. But there is so much more than rage in these stories, because as Valente presents them, these are fully realized characters with complete lives: The anger that runs through each woman's story is engendered by the joy she had in her life - the hopes, the dreams, and the ambitions she had for herself that were all snatched away by the necessities of formulaic storytelling.

There are some books that need to be written to make a point. The Refrigerator Monologues is one of those books. But like the women depicted in its pages, it isn't only that kind of book. While some books intended to make a point can become didactic polemics, in Valente's hands, the premise results in a collection of fully realized women living in what feels like a completely distinct and yet entirely familiar fictional comic book world. This is, quite simply, a brilliant book. These are stories that needed to be told, and it turns out that Valente was the perfect person to tell them.

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