The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
In her Afterword, Catherynne M. Valente lays out the inspiration for 2017’s collection of linked short stories The Refrigerator Monologues. Valente was inspired partly by the work of comics writer Gail Simone, who created and popularized the term “Women in Refrigerators” as a way to describe women cape-and-mask heroes, and how they are treated in conventional comics. As for structure, Valente looked toward Eve Ensler’s groundbreaking theatrical work The Vagina Monologues. To no small extent, though, Valente was galvanized into writing this collection because of her anger at how Gwen Stacy is treated in one of the recent (not the most recent) Spider-Man movies. Out of that rich mix, in the hands of this talented, thoughtful writer, comes a story of Deadtown, and the best table at the Lethe Café, where, regularly, the women who associated with superheroes — or were superheroes themselves — and were killed, imprisoned, depowered, or driven mad, come to tell their stories.
The Refrigerator Monologues features black and white art by Annie Wu and a series of stories, each narrated by a different woman. Most, not all, are dead. The six stories are knitted together by vignettes from the first speaker, Paige Embry, who opens and closes the book.
The “refrigerated” women are:
- Paige Embry, the science undergraduate who invents the substance that turns her boyfriend into Kid Mercury, and who is killed by her boyfriend’s supervillain nemesis in a way very much like Gwen Stacy died.
- Julia Ash, an analog for Jean Grey. Julia is a superhero, extremely powerful, so powerful that her cadre of male hero colleagues band together to de-power and imprison her. This story features the best name for a super-character ever (Retcon).
- Pauline Ketch, who goes by Pretty Polly, a mad arsonist who meets the villain of her dreams in a sanitarium/prison. He goes by Mr. Punch, after the murderous clown puppet.
- Bayou, an Atlantean princess and punk rocker who fell in love with a half human, half Atlantean male superhero named Avast. Like Julia Ash, Bayou is deemed too powerful for Avast’s buddy-bros, so they imprison her.
- Daisy Green, talented actor and girlfriend of The Insomniac, whose life devolves into a long downward slide as she and The Insomniac grow closer.
- Samantha Dane, artist and photographer, who is murdered and shoved into a refrigerator as a taunt to her arty superhero boyfriend Chiaroscuro.
The degree of your enjoyment of this short book will depend mostly on whether you enjoy the different narrative voices Valente employs to tell these tales. If you love Valente’s use of words, you’re going to like this very much. There is a secondary pleasure that almost falls into the category of parlor game: matching up Valente’s characters to classic comics characters. (Pauline is the most obvious here). Valente does create a distinct voice for each character. I enjoyed the story of Bayou, mainly because I was taken with the Atlantean royal fronting a punk band, but my favorite, for the voice, was Pauline Ketch. In other sections, like that of Julia Ash, Valente bends the words in service to creating a sense of multi-dimensionality, of temporal/physical otherness, and I admired it, but something about the immediacy of Pauline’s sharp, southern delivery slam-dunked me right into her story:
Now you might think I’m nothin’ but a coupla guns and a silver medal in gymnastics, but I got me a superpower, too.
I can make anybody like me for five minutes. Ten if I try hard. It always goes to shit after that. Can’t help it, the real me just squirts out all over the place, and the real me is hard to get off your shoes…
The story that is most forced here is Samantha Dane’s, because the art-school superheroes worked the least. While the image of her boyfriend animating graffiti and liberating it from city walls was charming, it was hard to see this as a crime-fighting superpower. The desire to make this story quirky, make it carry statements about art and commercialism, fascism, the tale of the woman who starves her own gift and passion to support the Gifted Male, and end up with the iconic death simply juggled too many elements.
I was confused by the mechanics of the deaths and how one comes to Deadtown. At least two of these characters are not dead but have the use of trans-dimensional portals. One is searching for her dead child, so her visits make sense. For the most part, women arrive in Deadtown wearing what they wore when they died (and this is vividly rendered with Samantha Dane) except for Daisy, who seems to be wearing what she was buried in. I didn’t understand why this would be different, except that the point is that her clothes do not reflect her personality at all.
While I thought Daisy’s story was generally less compelling, I liked the concept in it. Daisy talks about her boyfriend The Insomniac draining her luck, and this idea is a big part of the issue in The Refrigerator Monologues with the conventional comics, movies and television shows. Male cape-and-mask heroes feed on the adoring female gaze. Women characters exist as mirrors, as sounding boards, and, in some cases, as batteries. Like batteries, they are replaceable. In the case of Samantha Dane, whose story ends the book, women are like food for the male super-powered character. That’s the point. It’s not subtle.
Annie Wu’s artwork compliments the prose beautifully, evoking pulpy silver-age comics and shining with her own style.
I think a certain kind of book group would love this book. A book group whose members read comics, or who would be willing to look at classic comics in conjunction with The Refrigerator Monologues could probably have two or even three lively meetings about the roles of women in those stores. Are the roles changing? Are they changing enough? Pour yourselves another glass of wine, everyone flip to Pretty Polly’s story again, and let’s talk about it.
Some books arrive like a strike of lightning, and I had this one read within two days.
For those not in the know, the term “stuffed in the fridge” refers to any female character that is killed off, usually in a gruesome or violent way, in order to motivate or at least upset the more narratively-important male characters in her life. The term was coined by Gail Simone, and derived from the fate of Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt in a Green Lantern comic, in which she was murdered by a supervillain and then literally stuffed in the refrigerator for him to find.
Once you realize what the device is and how it’s used, you see it everywhere. Remember Gladiator, in which Maximus’s nameless wife is killed off by Roman soldiers? She was fridged. So was Mel Gibson’s wife in Braveheart. All those Bond girls who die early on after sleeping with the titular spy? Fridged. Anakin’s mother in the STAR WARS prequels, the wives/girlfriends of countless villains in Arrow, Mrs Winchester in the opening act to Supernatural — all fridged.
And it’s especially prevalent in comic books and their movie adaptations: Gwen Stacey, Rachel Dawes, Elektra Natchios, Jean Grey, Karen Page — the list goes on.
Obviously Catherynne Valente has had enough of this, and so The Refrigerator Monologues serves as a deconstruction of the trope in the format of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. It covers the stories of six women who are dead; murdered in the course of the stories told about their superhero boyfriends. But now they have the chance to tell THEIR stories, without interruption or politeness or intrusion.
Of course, Valente doesn’t have the rights to use the most famous fridged women in comic book history, but it doesn’t take an expert to see that the women featured here are obvious stand-ins for the likes of Gwen Stacey, Jean Grey, Harlequin, Queen Mera, Karen Page and Alexandra DeWitt. That said, Valente has infused her set of short stories with enough originality and creativity that it’s like reading a brand new comic-book universe filled with supervillains, expansive cities, cutting-edge science labs, reality-altering technology, underground crime syndicates, and more.
The world-building is incredible — there’s an entire timeline full of cosmic battles and coming-of-age narratives and explorations of hidden worlds worthy of a thousand or so comic books, and yet Valente is clever enough to keep it all in the background. Whatever amazing adventures are happening in the world of male superheroes (and there seem to be quite a lot), it’s the voices of the dead women who matter here, and that iridescent neon backdrop remains forever out of reach.
It’s in Deadtown that the tale is told: a place where murdered girlfriends come to terms with their deaths, where they can share their stories and shed their tears, and where gargoyles serve their drinks, though the only choices on the menu are creatures that have already gone extinct in the realm of the living. This is a classic Valente setting, one more akin to her fairy tale novels, but which is filled with creative imaginative force.
The Refrigerator Monologues was just the type of book I was looking for without realizing I was looking for it; a shout against all those likeable female characters who end up dead in order to further a story. Even putting aside the sexist element, it’s just lazy storytelling, and yet Valente managed to turn it into something fresh and new — simply by seeing the other side of it.
Perhaps it was just me, but as the monologues went on I could feel her voice change from anger to sadness, as though there only so much death she could grapple with before getting tired. I can’t say I blame her, but I do wish it had ended on more of a note of defiance and change than conciliation. Still, reading this was like a shot of adrenaline, especially for those who have been reading comic books for years. Hopefully it’ll also be a herald of change.