The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente, Illustrations by Annie Wu
Published June 6, 2017
With sharp and pointed prose, Catherynne Valente riffs on the fates of women in superhero comics in The Refrigerator Monologues. This short story collection tells the stories, in their own words, of the six women who make up the Hell Hath Club, a support group where deceased girlfriends, wives, and others killed because of their association with a comic book hero or anti-hero, meet to share their stories. Although this quick read is often not subtle in its critique of the way women in comics are written, the stories are compelling and Valente’s unique prose fits this concept to a T.
In some ways Valente’s prose reminds me of reading a Neil Gaiman book. Both authors are fountains of unique, imaginative, playful, and sometimes dark ideas, who come up with worlds and concepts so wildly inventive and full of colour that I can’t begin to imagine what being inside their brains must be like. I’d previously read a few books in Valente’s Fairyland series and while I enjoyed the unique turns of phrase and creativity in her world, it didn’t quite capture me emotionally. Despite its short length, I thought The Refrigerator Monologues was more successful at getting me to connect with its characters.
The title plays on “women in refrigerators” or “fridging”, the term that comics writer Gail Simone coined to sum up the common trope in which female comics characters meet tragic ends purely to advance the (straight, white) male hero’s story and character development. As a critique of this lazy writing, The Refrigerator Monologues is incredibly effective.
These women are often just as, if not more, capable as their hero boyfriends. There’s the scientist whose formula creates her boyfriend’s powers, the woman whose own powers grow to such heights that her hero friends view her as a threat and seek to cut her down, and yes, an actual woman in a refrigerator, gruesomely murdered to send a message to her newly powered boyfriend. The voices of all six women are full of rage and regret, and no small amount of bitterness (generally justifiably, although it does make some of the chapters run together rather than stand as distinct voices). They are women who never had the agency in life to be at the center of their stories, to have stories at all that didn’t revolve around the male hero, but here in Deadtown they finally have the chance to share their version of events.
Paige Embry, Julia Ash, Pauline Ketch, Blue Bayou, Daisy Green, and Samantha Dane. They all feel real, and they’re generally well differentiated from one another. Despite all being women in comics who met similar unjust ends, their backstories are very different. I gather from other reviewers that there are echoes of actual comics women here (notably Gwen Stacey and Karen Page) but I wasn’t familiar enough with the genre to pick out these references (except Harley Quinn – that one was obvious even to those who have never read a Batman or Harley Quinn comic in their lives!). Comics knowledge is an asset, but by no means a requirement to enjoy this book though. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre understands the frustration of watching female characters used only to further the male narrative.
I’m not usually one for short story collections, but with The Refrigerator Monologues Valente creates six compelling stories that are seamlessly joined together through brief interludes in Deadtown. The world of Deadtown itself is subtly, but well, drawn and the comic backstories of each character are well thought through. The author has obviously worked hard to construct believably superhero and villain names that are not already in use, and plots and side characters that you could see truly existing as fully fledged comics in their own right.
It’s not a perfect book, I found the Pauline Ketch character grating, and although the critique of the way comics women are written is important, it’s a little heavy-handed. Still, this collection is worthy of admiration. The other women are engaging, their tragic fates induced the appropriate bitterness and pathos in me, and the world-building is tremendous. The Refrigerator Monologues is an insightful and creative read that most will enjoy.