Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The trouble with the problem with fridging

An offshoot of the #metoo movement, or maybe just a byproduct of our general discussion about the representation of women in Hollywood, has been that I’ve been hearing the term “fridging” thrown around lately. It’s come up in particular in relation to Deadpool 2, and the unfortunately clueless reaction of its screenwriters to the charge that they “fridged” one of the characters.

At first I thought the term was a variant of “nuke the fridge,” which is derived from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and I believe is roughly the equivalent of “jump the shark.” (Actually, in researching just now, I've learned it’s described as the point in a franchise when it begins relying too heavily on special effects, thus creating a line of demarcation between when it was good and when it sucked.)

The term “fridging” has nothing to do with that, though it does have vaguely to do with a refrigerator. It turns out the term dates back to when some female character in some comic book (I’m being intentionally dismissive about the details) was killed and shoved in a refrigerator for the hero to find. The resulting angst then fuelled his heroic journey.

“Fridging” more generally refers to any time a female character is written into a story just so that her very early death can lend righteousness to the fury of the hero as he exacts his revenge.

It may be a lazy trope, but I don’t think it’s an example of sexism in Hollywood.

I think we would all agree that a hero’s journey is more interesting if he (or she!) is recovering from a trauma and seeking to set things right. It’s certainly common in any genre involving superheroes or antiheroes or vigilantes of any kind. We don’t feel angry on behalf of the hero unless he (or she!) has lost something. It’s an age-old idea behind story writing.

Want to hear something else that’s been around forever? Love.

Love – the pursuit of love, the lack of love, the loss of love – is probably the single most common element in any story. Even stories that are not explicitly about love often give the lead character a romantic interest or some kind of love-related entanglement. This is likely because we can all relate to the pursuit of love, the lack of love and the loss of love, and we become more engrossed in stories whose details we can relate to. I scarcely need to belabor this.

“Fridging,” I would argue, is a logical outcome of all these things familiar narrative concerns, not some regrettable Hollywood trend that must be reversed. And not, I think, some kind of measure of how we think about or treat female characters in movies, or women in general.

In order to discuss this further we must agree on a couple things:

1. Some protagonists in movies are men. In fact, a disproportionate number in the history of the medium, and even still today.

2. We like to see our protagonists have purposes behind their journeys. 

3. Screenwriting is the art of making everything on screen count and minimizing the flab.

I’m being intentionally simplistic to a point. And the point is this: Not every character in a film can be developed to the extent you would want to develop them. Some movies must contain characters who die in the first ten minutes. Most characters who die in the first ten minutes will not be fully developed.

To say that this character cannot be female is just way too restrictive.

But let’s say, for a minute, we exclude women from being these characters. Let’s say that a male character is motivated by the death of his father, his brother, or his son, just to take the mother, sister and daughter out of the equation. Are we okay with not developing those characters? Or is it only a problem if they are women? Aren’t most dead children in movies also “fridged”? Is the logical conclusion that no character should be killed off in the first ten minutes of any film?

Besides, I’m just not as invested in a movie where a guy wants to avenge the death of his brother.

The problem with the way these issues get debated is that they leave creative types paralyzed about what they can or cannot do. Nowadays, no writer in Hollywood would dare write a female character who needs to be saved, at any point in the story, under any circumstances. That’s a too-extreme outcome to a good impulse. And I think we generally accept it because it is better to have too many female characters seem stronger than they might really be, than too few, which is what Hollywood was on about for way too many years.

But now you include fridging. A female character can demonstrate immeasurable amounts of strength and self-sufficiency in the opening ten minutes of a movie, if you let her. But if she is then killed, the writer is still accused of “fridging” her. Now granted, not all accusations of fridging are meant to imply that the writer only values women for their ability to make men miss them when they die. Some accusations are probably more of the teasing variety. But behind every tease there is a kernel of truth.

If you extrapolate this out to a level that does not really benefit anybody, but for the sake of argument let’s do it, the only way to acceptably handle a female character in a movie is to keep her in the movie for much of its narrative, make sure she has conversations with other women that don’t involve men (let’s throw the Bechdel Test in there while we’re at it), and make sure she is never in a position to need saving at any point during the film.

As I said, I’m being a bit deliberately provocative here. But I hope you see some truth in what I’m saying. A kernel of truth, anyway.

Is “fridging” overused? I’m sure. But we should accuse a screenwriter who uses it of laziness, not sexism. If the result of this discussion is that the death of a female character is never again a source of inspiration for a male character, I do think we will have lost something. We will have lost something more profound than what we lose by no longer having men save the damsel in distress. The man who is unable to save the damsel is a tragic figure upon whom the movies have historically leaned, and I want to live in a world where that is still something I might see.

The steep increase in female protagonists in recent years should hearten us. If only to err in the opposite direction for a while – but probably also because studies have shown that women dictate more ticket purchases than men – Hollywood has recently tried, wherever practical, to cast women as the heroes.

Since this is happening, can’t we live with some of them getting “fridged” from time to time? And does it even have to have a derogatory name like “fridging”?

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