The ever-wonderful Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues is a series of linked short stories in which a group of women in the afterlife, calling themselves the Hell Hath Club, tell their stories one by one. They’re all women who’ve been fridged – killed or depowered to motivate the men in their lives.
The fridging trope isn’t by any means confined to superhero media, but that’s where the term started; and so the women of the Hell Hath Club are all the girlfriends or wives or love interests of various superheroes.
I’m not generally a fan of superhero stories: the closest I’ve come to reading a superhero comic is Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which kinda counts but not really, and I pretty much can’t stand superhero films, which in my experience tend towards uncomplicated moral dilemmas, near-constant fight scenes that never lead anywhere, and actors whose idea of looking conflicted actually makes them look constipated.
But Valente achieves a surprising amount of variation in her stories, which I really enjoyed. So while we’ve got recognisable superhero heroines like Paige Embry, a scientist who gets killed when she tries to help her superhero boyfriend defeat the villain she helped create, we’ve also got women like Bayou, Queen of Atlantis, whose love interest assumes she needs rescuing from the sea despite her ruling an underwater society; Julia, a woman with superpowers who’s gaslighted and pushed away by the male superheroes because she’s so much stronger than they are; and Pauline Ketch, an arsonist who courts supervillain Mr. Punch, helps him escape from the asylum they’re both trapped in, and is murdered by him for her trouble.
There’s a strange wildness to these stories that I wouldn’t expect to find in a superhero universe. There’s a woman who lives a different life each day of the week, and only knows it for ten minutes every Sunday. There are superheroes who bring art to life, like something out of a China Mieville novel. There’s an undersea palace made of shipwrecks. And that wonderful range, it seems to me, is part of Valente’s point: it’s a rebuke to superhero media that see women as one-dimensional objects to motivate the men in their lives, when women, in fact, have lives just as colourful and wonderful and varied as men.
It’s important, too, that the women tell their own stories – that the microphone is handed to them, as it were, so they get to reclaim their deaths from sexist storytellers. And it’s also pretty interesting that the stories mostly refuse the conservative moral stance of superhero media: Pauline Ketch the arsonist is granted the same space as Paige Embry the scientist, as she’s just as much a victim of misogyny as her “good” counterparts. That’s not to say, necessarily, that the book approves of arson. It just sees superheroes and supervillains as two sides of the same coin, locked in dramatic but pointless conflicts that are utterly irrelevant to the vast majority of “ordinary” people.
If The Refrigerator Monologues has a flaw, it’s that it’s not exactly subtle. For all its variety of tone and subject matter, its six stories make the same point six times. It’s a necessary point, and everyone has a lot of fun while it’s being made. But there’s also not a lot to be said about it. And it’s unfortunate that we only hear from the romantic partners of superheroes, not their mothers or sisters or daughters or aunts or best friends. If there’s one thing we know about misogyny, it’s that it’s endlessly adaptable; it takes a multitude of insidious forms. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be such a problem. And it’s kind of a shame The Refrigerator Monologues only takes a shot at one particular subset of misogynies – especially given that Western culture is peculiarly obsessed with romantic love anyway.
And yet. At the end of it all, we have a group of women, friends and sometimes lovers, telling each other their stories, reclaiming their deaths, supporting each other and singing together – an antidote to the world of toxic misogyny they’ve left behind. The Hell Hath Club is glorious, and I’d love to read more stories from its members.