Bad things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to okay people. Bad things happen to everyone. Good things happen to…well, somebody, probably. Somebody somewhere else.
Being a superhero causes a lot of collateral damage, and we’re not just talking about crossover events that level a city block. Start dating a guy who has a superpower and/or a secret identity and suddenly you’ve got a target on your back with a sign reading “FOR CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, SHOOT HERE”.
Ever wonder what those hapless wives and girlfriends of superheroes think about this trend? Imagine knowing that your ex gets a dramatic pose and a lost love to avenge, while you get a cosmic prison, a room in an insane asylum, or an eternity wearing the godawful clothes someone picked for you to wear in your casket. (Really, these shoes with that dress? Come on now…)
Catherynne Valente’s latest book The Refrigerator Monologues (due out this June) is a collection of six stories told from the point of view of women who have been “refrigerated”: stripped of their powers, driven insane, strangled and stuffed in a fridge, basically removed from the stage in order to move the “real” hero’s story forward. Written in Valente’s delightfully off-kilter style and with illustrations by Hawkeye‘s Annie Wu, the women of the Hell Hath Club swap tales while hanging out at the Lethe Cafe in Deadtown, the city where the fictional go when they die.
As afterlifes go, you could do worse than Deadtown. Sure, you’re stuck with the clothes you were buried in, you can’t have any food unless it’s something that’s been lost to the living, and everything’s covered in Gothic architecture and gargoyles. On the plus side, the gargoyles are really nice (good neighbors, and they’re excellent baristas), and you can have all the food you want for a song. Or a story. When your only job is being dead, finding a way to pass the time is a top priority.
What matters is entertainment. Eternity takes forever. The infinite expanse of time just does not know when to quit. The dead fear boredom the way mortals fear death. And it’s not like you can kill yourself to escape. Deadtown will do anything for the delight of distraction.
The favorite stories of the Hell Hath Club are how they came to be in Deadtown in the first place, and I can already see some of you out there starting to get annoyed. Hey, not every female character gets horrifically murdered, you’re probably saying. There are plenty of stories where the woman is the kick-ass hero. Indeed there are. But that isn’t what this book is about. This is about the women who suffered in the name of story progression, in a way that male characters are hardly ever asked to. This is about the tropes.
They’re all here: the high school sweetheart, the team member who stumbles across too much power, the bereaved mother, the doting wife waiting for her super-powered spouse to come home after a night of fighting crime. There’s even the psychotic girl who stands by her murderous lunatic guy because she’s the only person who can love him for who he really is.
If that last one sounds a bit familiar, it’s because Valente based all of these stories on existing characters. Obviously for copyright reasons she had to substitute her own names, but she’s not exactly subtle about it. (One of the Amazon reviewers kept referring to the characters as things like “Totally Not Gwen Stacy”, which, okay, that’s actually pretty funny.) Being Valente though, she takes a look at the original characters from a slightly different angle. What if it was the high school sweetheart who came up with the secret formula? Is it possible the psychic teacher for gifted children doesn’t have their best interest at heart? Did you ever consider the fact that there are other industries where women choose a name for their “secret” identity? One of my favorite “what if instead…” options was a look at where a punk-rock Atlantean princess who’s rebelling against her mother would go if she wanted to get really shit-faced, and how Atlantis would be if it was a real city (with real slums and real grunge band hang-outs.)
We don’t live in Atlantis because it’s a pristine paradise. We live there because we’re weird, gross aliens and Brooklyn’s full.
All the moments of humor and bitingly sarcastic commentary are balanced out with moments that are much darker. Remember, these are all characters who suffered awful fates, and some of the things they go through are deeply upsetting. Sometimes it’s a comic-book tragedy (her mind was brutally taken over so she could destroy an entire civilization in another solar system), and sometimes it’s a lot more mundane (her complete failure to put her life back together meant she turned to prostitution and, oh look, now she’s on heroin.) The worst of it is covered very briefly, so I’m not sure that there are any scenes that warrant anything more than the mildest of trigger warnings, but it’s still pretty grim. The story about Julia Ash just about broke my heart.
Mostly this book gave me reasons to get angry. I’m angry that male heroes are celebrated for going out and punching things to avenge their murdered son, but a mother being sad about her lost baby just makes everyone uncomfortable. I’m angry that it’s much more common for females than males to go mad from a sudden boost in power, to the point where all her comrades have to “save” her (read: remove all the power that was too much for her poor woman-brain to handle). And most of all I’m angry at any trope that churns out passive creatures who’s only role is to be waiting in the window, dosing themselves happy with Xanax (or worse), always wondering if this is the night the protagonist doesn’t come home, until the villain decides to kill them to get back at the hero because emotional pain packs so much more of a punch.
And as irritated as I am by that, it doesn’t come close to how bitter the characters in these stories are, both at the way their lives turned out and the fact that it took dying for them to realize what a raw deal they were settling for. I imagine this book will make quite a few people angry for a lot of different reasons; this has the potential to start some heated “how dare you!” arguments. And that’s good, I think it needs to be talked about. Whether or not you think Woman In Refrigerator Syndrome is a real problem, you have to admit that things have reached a really strange point when it happens often enough that we actually have a name for it.