Green Lantern comic, issue #54. 1994

Green Lantern comic, issue #54. 1994

In issue #54 of the comic book Green Lantern, the young hero comes home to discover that his girlfriend has been brutally murdered and stuffed into the refrigerator. Fed up with the violence against female characters, comic book writer Gail Simone created a website, suitably dubbed “Women in Refrigerators,” which lists female superheroes who had been “depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator.” [1] As the phrase gained traction within the comic book world and beyond, it came to represent a trope in popular culture where women were murdered or brutalized in order to further a male character’s story arc. Refrigerators don’t only preserve our food, but can also, through their use and design, preserve social ideas about female roles both in the kitchen and in popular imagination.

Model Refrigerator. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY.

Patent model  of refrigerator, 1873. Farmers’ Museum Collection, Cooperstown, NY.

Our modern conception of refrigeration traces its origins to the 19th century. Exemplified by this model of a refrigerator, patented in 1873 by Robert Taylor of New York, technological advancements spurred the evolution of the icebox. As seen in the original diagram, Taylor designed the refrigerator with an additional “air-space” between the outer and the inner ice compartments (labeled c) so that cold air from the cellar below would circulate around the food and ice chambers, keeping it colder. [2] Although this particular refrigerator would not be used in the home, improvements like Taylor’s and those that came after that used coolants, gas, electricity, or compression, revolutionized the food industry and domestic consumption patterns.  Food could be preserved for longer, which encouraged buying in bulk and eating leftovers. [3] However, refrigerators did much more than merely preserve food. Social ideas about gender roles, particularly in regards to housework, crept into the design features and advertisements as refrigerators firmly entered the domestic sphere after the First World War.

Original diagram for Taylor's model refrigerator.

Original diagram for Taylor’s model refrigerator.

Home refrigerators functioned mainly as luxury items for the elite at the beginning of the 20th century, but as advancements in mass production occurred in the 1920s and ‘30s, prices plummeted allowing average American families to purchase them. Companies advertised these “labor-saving” devices for the “servant-less housewife.” Although the increasingly industrialized kitchen did reorganize domestic labor, often women were burdened by different forms work and higher standards. [4] Refrigerators decreased the need for delivery men, required cleaning and maintenance, and, aided by marketing campaigns, created and reinforced new standards of female domesticity that emphasized nutrition, cleanliness, and efficiency. [5]

Flash forward to the 1990s where Gail Simone once again demonstrates how refrigerators can, even symbolically, reflect and perpetuate ideas about women’s roles.  Although Simone’s world is fictional, this trope reflects very real ideas about where women should be, in the kitchen and out of the main storyline. Time and time again in TV shows, movies, literature, and countless other forms of cultural production, women are relegated to props, objects, and tropes for male-centric story arcs. By understanding how social ideas are embedded within our tools and our entertainment, we can begin to change them. It’s time to get women out of the refrigerator!

– Tori Lee ’16

[1] Gail Simone, “Women in Refrigerators,” March 1999, http://www.lby3.com/wir/.

[2] Robert Taylor, “Improvement in Refrigerators,” United States Patent Office, March 25, 1873, Google Patents, https://www.google.com/patents/US137112?dq=137112&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAWoVChMIhfWau6G7yAIVzzweCh1yngUT

[3] Shelley Nickles, “Preserving Women: Refrigerator Design as Social Process in the 1930s,” Technology and Culture, Vol 43 No 4, October 2002, 706.

[4] Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1983).

[5] Shelley Nickles, “Preserving Women: Refrigerator Design as Social Process in the 1930s.”

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