The Gwen Stacy Problem: Stop Stuffing Women in the Refrigerator

Carolyn Fenerty, Writer

The media has a habit of using female characters, usually considered disposable, as motivation for male characters’ pain and desire for revenge instead of writing women as independent characters.

The “Woman in the Refrigerator” trope is the clique, plot-driven idea in media of killing off, hurting, brainwashing, or otherwise inflicting physical or emotional trauma to a female character– whether she be a wife, girlfriend, sister, mother, or friend- for the sole purpose of hurting the male protagonist or hero of the story.   The name “Woman in the Refrigerator” comes from the death of Alexandra DeWitt, a girlfriend of Kyle Rayner before he becomes Green Lantern, whose body was stuffed into a refrigerator after she was tortured by an enemy of Rayner. There have, however, been many other woman in the comic book world who were stuffed into the fridge, as well as women in popular movies and TV shows.

This trope takes away the agency of female characters, turning them into victims instead of heroes in their own right, or even simply love interests. It also dehumanizes women by turning them into motivation for sadness, guilt, or anger from the hero instead of their own independent characters, and limits or takes away the relevance of female characters beyond their relationships with the heroes.

Gwen Stacy, portrayed in the Amazing Spider-Man films by Emma Stone, is Hollywood’s newest Woman in the Refrigerator. Although the visual effects and acting (both from Stone and Andrew Garfield‘s Peter Parker/Spider-Man) in her death scene were impressive, Gwen’s death and its effect on Peter sabotage her character by overshadowing her brilliance, kindness, and likability, making her death the most impacting aspect of her character on future films, as well as what Gwen Stacy will be remembered for in the Amazing Spider-Man films.

Green Lantern discovers Alexandra DeWitt’s body in the refrigerator.  

Gwen’s death at the hands of the Green Goblin (portrayed by Dane DeHaan in the Amazing Spider-Man 2) is an iconic scene from The Night Gwen Stacy Died, a major story arc from Marvel‘s the Amazing Spider-Man comics. However, more than forty years later, Gwen’s death is no longer ground-breaking, and it takes away from her character by falling back on a tired trope of men feeling guilty for a woman’s death despite not being the direct cause.

In staying true to the original comics, the Amazing Spider-Man 2 killed off an incredible female character and role model, and took a step backward from the move toward independent female protagonists. Ultimately, the Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a perfect example of one of the most prominent problems in modern media:

Male characters (both villains and heroes) are complex and well-written, and conflict and plot are intriguing and original (for the most part), but the female characters are still seen mainly as plot devices and love interests instead of as their own characters.

Gwen Stacy in the clock tower in ‘the Amazing Spider-Man 2’