The Refrigerator Monologues is a book for all the Gwen Stacys and Alexandra DeWitts, the Elektras and the Barbara Gordons, the Maria Castles and Big Bardas: all of the comic book women whose deaths form the tragic backstories for the men in their lives.
They are the victims of the trope known as “women in refrigerators,” a term coined by Gail Simone in 1999 to describe the frequency with which women in comics are “killed, maimed, or depowered” in order to motivate male characters. You know the trope, even if you’ve never opened a comic book: the fridged woman is the woman who dies in act three of a superhero movie, causing the hero to shed a single manly tear and vow to exact vengeance against her killer. That one.
And now, courtesy of Catherynne M. Valente in The Refrigerator Monologues, the fridged woman gets her voice back.
The book is set in Deadtown, a place run by gargoyles where the only food served is extinct. Every night, the Hell Hath club holds a meeting, and they tell their stories: One woman accidentally gave her boyfriend super powers and then got thrown off a bridge; another had a sadomasochistic love affair with the supervillain she met in the lunatic asylum until he killed her. And where their stories end, the heroes’ stories continue.
“It’s a funny thing,” says one member of the Hell Hath club. “You go your whole life thinking you’re the protagonist, but really, you’re just backstory.”
If you’re a comic book fan, you’ll have fun playing spot-the-analogue (oh, there’s Harley Quinn, there’s Gwen Stacey!), and if you’re not, you’ll get the general gist. The tropes are such a fundamental part of pop culture that I recognized most of them, and I’m not a comics person myself.
But the real fun of The Refrigerator Monologues comes from Valente’s hyper-stylized voice, inflected by turns with pop, jazz, and opera as she moves from heroine to heroine, genre to genre. It’s by turns bitingly sarcastic and wistfully regretful, and always ferociously angry at the narrative in which this collection of women has been trapped.
“I can’t swoop in and save the damsel,” Valente wrote when she explained where the idea for the book originated. “What I can do is turn on a mic and let the damsel scream.” And what a scream it is.
The Refrigerator Monologues comes out June 6 from Saga Press.