While writing my novel The Pioneers, I managed to do something far too difficult for male writers: I created likable, strong female characters. The best of them was Nina Stark: she’s smart, she’s quick on her feet, she’s an engineer. I spent a lot of time developing her story. Over time, she developed an unexpected romance with my protagonist, Randall Holmes. And then, I did something awful.
I threw Nina in the fridge.
Now, it didn’t take too long for me to reconsider. I’d worked too hard on Nina, done too much with the character, to just throw her away. But at first, it all seemed so sensible, even necessary. Randall Holmes, I’d kept telling myself, was a tragic character. Romance will make him happy, so obviously that has to go. And yet my first instinct in correcting that problem was to kill off Nina.
For those who may not understand my remark about throwing Nina “in the fridge”, perhaps I should explain:
“Fridging” is the popular term for a comic book trope in which a female character is killed, maimed, raped, or otherwise brutalized, purely in order to advance a male character’s story line. It owes its name to a particular incident in Green Lantern #54, published in 1994, in which the title character comes home to find a supervillain has strangled his girlfriend and stuffed her in the fridge. This inspired comic writer Gail Simone to create the website Women in Refrigerators in 1999. Simone’s site began with a simple list: a list of female superheroes and other female comic book characters who had been “fridged”.
Simone’s website has since become something of a grim virtual memorial: a remembrance for the comic book women who’ve been mistreated and cast aside. Her purpose in creating this website wasn’t to burn anyone, or to bash men, or be a “social justice warrior”. It was to start a conversation: to get people to ask what it means for our society that we’re willing to cast off women, using their deaths simply to advance a male character’s plot. In her own words, the point of her website has always been, “If you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won’t read comics. That’s it!”
The fact that I so readily considered fridging a major female character bothers me. Fridging sends a lot of bad messages. It make the female character appear helpless and useless, suggesting every woman, however capable, still needs a man to come to her rescue. But just as bad, it reaffirms toxic masculinity by suggesting that, even for a superhero, the only acceptable masculine response to personal loss is violence and rage.
Over the years, I’ve lamented many times the difficulties male sci-fi writers face in trying to create strong (and likable) female characters. The damsel in distress is an easy trope to fall into, and often one’s first attempt at a strong female character ends up being…well, a bitch. We’re so conditioned to seek strong, dashing male heroes and demure female supporting characters that it’s hard to let women take the wheel.
I managed to get past that by looking to female role models, from Star Trek: Voyager‘s Kathryn Janeway to my own mother. And yet I still nearly fell into the fridge trope. It’s something I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with: how easy it was to cast a female character into oblivion after so much hard work. To me, Nina’s near-death experience served to underscore the need to be vigilant: to keep myself from falling into such outdated tropes.
My biggest goal with The Pioneers was to create a realistic depiction of the future. I wanted this story to be believable, not just in terms of science and technology, but in terms of characters. I wanted characters who readers could relate to, who seemed like real people one would encounter in the real world. That meant characters who were well-intentioned but flawed. It meant creating characters who had their untapped strengths and glaring insecurities. It meant making women strong and men broken and vulnerable. It meant male characters who are moved to tears, who grieve and fail. And it meant female characters who save the day.
Our world is changing, and despite the best efforts of some in our society, rest assured that change will continue. So I’d like to conclude with an urgent message to my fellow male sci-fi writers: let the ladies win. Take your female characters out of the fridge. Let them excel. Let them lead. And let them save the day. Some of the strongest people I know are the incredible women in my life. They have carved out an existence in a world that places immense barriers in their path. They have to be strong, because the world we’ve made for them does them few favors.
Let the women win. Let them save the day. They’ve earned it. – MK