Friday, May 19, 2017

The Structure of the Girlfriend in a Refrigerator Trope

The Girlfriend in a Refrigerator is a trope used in the comic industry. It's a relatively rare trope because it's hard for any title to use the trope more than once. In this trope, the hero's girlfriend/wife/etc is killed while he's away in order to make the hero feel helpless, to essentially immaculate him. Without a symbolic woman, he ceases to be a symbolic man. He must then learn to be a man on his own again while travelling a darker road than he normally would, one gritter with revenge and brutality, for he's had his feminine aspect destroyed.

You can see how using this trope too often doesn't work. It must be rare. By my understanding (which may be wrong), we see about one of these stories per year come out of the industry, or about 1% of the output, if that much.

Male heroes go through this trope for many reasons, simply because most heroes are male. As you can't usually kill the hero off, because that only works in very limited circumstances, if you want edgy death to intrude onto your comic, then it must happen to a secondary character. As a hero usually doesn't have any parents, often because they're already dead, it has to be another loved one who dies. It could be a male character, but considering that comics is an industry primarily aimed at heteronormative males, that would look gay. The only real option is to pick the hero's love interest, who is usually the primary, if not only, female character in the title.

To aid in the hero's feeling of helplessness, the female character is killed while he's elsewhere. Despite all his power, he utterly failed in his ability to protect his loved one, adding a layer of angst on top of helplessness.

In theory, the female character could fight back, but the harder that she fights back, the less sorry that the hero will feel at his failure. And if she fights back and wins, then you don't have this trope, so you can't go in that direction. So if you really want the emotions to land true, especially in the melodrama that is comics, you need the girlfriend to go out like a chump.

Female characters usually don't come back from this for very good reason. First and most important, if she were to come back, that would undermine the emotional and ethical journey of the title character, the very person that the comic is about. Second, she's usually a secondary character in that title, so having a permanence to the death gives a moral imperative to the hero. The imperative of permanence means that the hero's choice will be permanent, and so they will now weigh upon him more. The hero's perceived perception of the stakes becomes heightened. More is on the line. The girlfriend's death makes the hero's choices matter more than they ever had before.

If overused, this strategy quickly loses all moral and emotional imperative. By design, it must remain rare inside any single title. Even across titles, it must remain relatively rare. If used too often, this trope quickly descends into cliche.

Outside of melodrama, the device really has limited use, which is why you generally don't see it.