You Must Stuff Your Fridge Before Venturing Forth 1

Gail Simone’s con­cept of the “woman in the refrig­er­a­tor” has proven to be a use­ful and broad­ly applic­a­ble tool.  Named after an unfor­tu­nate girl­friend of the Green Lantern, the woman in the refrig­er­a­tor is a woman who is killed (or some­times seri­ous­ly injured) pri­mar­i­ly as a way for the writer to moti­vate a male char­ac­ter or com­pli­cate his back­sto­ry.  In the ur-example, Kyle Rayner, then the Green Lantern, comes home from a busy day of Lanterning to dis­cov­er that a vil­lain named Major Force has bru­tal­ly mur­dered his girl­friend, Alexandra DeWitt, and stuffed her in Rayner’s refrig­er­a­tor as a sadis­tic prank.  This moti­vates Rayner to find and tor­ture Major Force in revenge, and marks the moment when he real­izes he will have to be more care­ful and respon­si­ble with his new-found Lantern pow­ers.

It’s thus become pop­u­lar on the Internet to refer to any woman killed as a plot device early on in a story as hav­ing been “stuffed in the fridge” or sim­ply “fridged.”  Sometimes “fridg­ing” is used to refer to any char­ac­ter who is killed as moti­va­tion, but the rel­a­tive fre­quen­cy with which this hap­pens to female char­ac­ters, often in sto­ries with very few female char­ac­ters to begin with, leaves the term and the trope with an unavoid­able gender-bias.  Like most tropes, the stuffed fridge is not nec­es­sar­i­ly evil or ill-intentioned, but its all-consuming pres­ence and fre­quent gen­dered nature cer­tain­ly war­rants fur­ther exam­i­na­tion.

BioWare’s famous 2000 RPG Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn opens by stuff­ing two peo­ple into the fridge, one man and one woman. By look­ing at the ways these fridg­ings dif­fer, we can learn a lot about how this trope works and see how some weird gen­der pol­i­tics come to light even in this appar­ent­ly equi­table dual-fridging moment.

So, let’s Meet the Stuffing: Baldur’s Gate 2 opens short­ly after the events of the first game, after you and your party have been cap­tured and impris­oned by a mys­te­ri­ous wiz­ard who plans to do var­i­ous Dark and Terrible Things to you in hopes of unlock­ing the fell mag­icks con­tained in your soul.  Your party con­sists not of whomev­er you fin­ished BG1 with, but rather your­self, Imoen (a young woman with a Mysterious Past and your child­hood friend), Jaheira and Khalid (a mar­ried pair of trav­el­ing do-gooders that were old friends of your late fos­ter father) and Minsc and Dynaheir (a fan-favorite, hamster-obsessed berserk­er and the witch he is sworn to pro­tect).

Once you get out of your cage, you can free Minsc and Jaheira, but Dynaheir and Khalid are nowhere to be found.  Talking to Minsc reveals that Dynaheir has been killed by the vil­lain’s ser­vants some­time before you regained con­scious­ness.  He vows revenge before return­ing to his pri­ma­ry con­cern: Boo, his ham­ster.  Dynaheir has been fridged to anger Minsc and give him a rea­son to stick with the party.

After you free Jaheira, she reveals that she has no idea where Khalid is.  Traveling fur­ther through the dun­geon, you later dis­cov­er Khalid’s life­less body strapped to an oper­at­ing table.  Evidently, the wiz­ard used him as a guinea pig of sorts, such that he is not only dead, he is beyond any hope of res­ur­rec­tion (a sta­ple of high-level D&D play).  Khalid has been fridged to anger Jaheira and give her a rea­son to stick with the party.

A fridg­ing is char­ac­ter­ized not sim­ply by the mere fact of a character’s death, but also by how the other char­ac­ters react to it, and how that death works in the con­text of the larg­er plot.  In both of these cases, the deaths serve to moti­vate their respec­tive bereaved into stick­ing with the player-character and con­tin­u­ing with his/her quest.  But it’s how these fridg­ings dif­fer that’s inter­est­ing.

Dynaheir is killed off­screen and Minsc already knows this before the game starts.  When you ask him about her, he’s clear­ly upset, but he’s more con­cerned with fac­ing evil, and tak­ing care of his ham­ster than mourn­ing Dynaheir.  His in-game bio points out that because he allowed Dynaheir to be killed, he fears he won’t be allowed to join the Ice Dragon Berserker Lodge back home in Rashemen.  So con­vinced, he redou­bles his efforts and com­mit­ment to find­ing the vil­lain, and will stay with you unless you start slaugh­ter­ing inno­cent civil­ians or polite­ly ask him to leave.

Later in the game, if the play­er keeps Minsc in the party and picks up Aerie, the elf Cleric/Mage, Minsc will even­tu­al­ly declare Aerie to be his new witch, effec­tive­ly replac­ing Dynaheir and offer­ing Minsc anoth­er chance.

This arc thus fol­lows a tra­di­tion­al fridge arc: woman dies, man gets angry, man goes on a roar­ing ram­page of revenge, man meets new woman, man vows to pro­tect new woman bet­ter, man lives hap­pi­ly with new woman (or occa­sion­al­ly dies to pro­tect her).  The first woman serves, in the con­text of this story, mere­ly as a form of moti­va­tion, a plot device with a name.  There are a few addi­tion­al prob­lems unique to this story: Dynaheir is killed off­screen and we never see her corpse, imply­ing that she is of so lit­tle value to the dev team as to not even war­rant her own sprite.  Also, I’m try­ing not to read too much into the fact that Dynaheir is the only black recruitable NPC in Baldur’s Gate 1 and she’s killed off­screen and hid­den from sight.  Perhaps the devel­op­ers only killed her because they want­ed to add Valygar Corthala, and they were oper­at­ing under the assump­tion that black peo­ple in videogames are like the Highlander.


There can only be one?

Regardless, Dynaheir’s fridg­ing fol­lows the stan­dard fridg­ing pat­tern and would thus not real­ly be worth writ­ing about1 were it not for how dif­fer­ent it is from Khalid’s fridg­ing.  When a woman is taken from a man, the man takes things into his own hands, vows revenge, and finds a new woman to pro­tect.  So, what hap­pens when a man is taken from a woman?

When Jaheira dis­cov­ers Khalid’s body she, not unrea­son­ably, reacts strong­ly.  She cries, she lash­es out at attempts to com­fort her, she offers a sor­row­ful prayer to her god, and is large­ly silent for the rest of the dun­geon.  It’s a sur­pris­ing­ly effec­tive scene.

Later in the game, if the player-character is male, it is pos­si­ble to romance Jaheira, despite the fact that she’s only been a widow for a week or two.  This romance arc, like so many videogame romances, cen­ters on play­ing ther­a­pist to her as she works out what to do now that Khalid is dead.  She ques­tions you about your plans and your com­mit­ment to the same sort of druidic bal­ance to which she is devot­ed. She main­tains an atmos­phere of quiet sor­row through­out, even once she has worked through her feel­ings and start­ed a rela­tion­ship with the player-character.

The con­se­quences of Khalid’s death linger in a way Dynaheir’s don’t.  The game spends much more time on Jaheira’s grief than it does on Minsc’s– Minsc’s grief scene con­sists large­ly in how dis­ap­point­ed he is in him­self, where­as Jaheira grieves for the loss of her hus­band.  Minsc’s grief must be short and direct, because we don’t want to deal with its con­se­quences and because it would be uncom­fort­able to watch the mus­cly comic relief show gen­uine emo­tion.  But Jaheira we expect to grieve, because she is a woman, because the plot must break her before the play­er can fix her with romance.  Minsc under­goes a tragedy, but gets to respond on his own terms and in his own way, but Jaheira’s inner world is can­celed for the pur­pose of a romance with the player-character.  If Dynaheir must die to give Minsc a rea­son to be angry, Khalid, like Uriah the Hittite, must die so the king can date his wife.

Dynaheir, a proud, strong woman, is killed so her asso­ci­at­ed man can have moti­va­tion.  Khalid is killed so that Jaheira, a proud, strong woman, can become the player’s girl­friend.  The two fridg­ings dif­fer in many ways, but are sim­i­lar in that they both treat women as plot devices, and as prizes to be won or lost.

I’ve often won­dered if Aveline Vallen’s arc in Dragon Age 2, many years later, was writ­ten part­ly in response to Jaheira’s.  Aveline, anoth­er proud, strong war­rior, also loses her hus­band (Ser Wesley) at the begin­ning of the game, and can also come to love anoth­er man (and even­tu­al­ly marry him).  But she remains off-limits to the pro­tag­o­nist — for all the player-controlled Hawke can try to flirt with her, it never pro­gress­es beyond the occa­sion­al one-liner.  Aveline choos­es her new hus­band, and though the play­er must help her to over­come her hes­i­tance, Hawke is never an option.  Aveline, proud war­rior that she is, is no prize to be won, and the death of her hus­band serves as more than just a con­ve­nient removal of obsta­cles.  Wesley may also be stuffed in the fridge, but Aveline gets to han­dle this tragedy on her own terms.

  1. Save, of course, as yet anoth­er tired exam­ple of this trope to chalk up on what­ev­er dark score­board aca­d­e­mics use to keep track of these things. []

Bill Coberly

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Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!

One thought on “You Must Stuff Your Fridge Before Venturing Forth

  • Tom Coberly

    The rela­tion­ships between Minsc and Dynaheir and between Khalid and Jaheira are very dif­fer­ent, to begin with, which leaves me unsur­prised that Minsc’s and Jaheira’s respons­es to loss are not par­al­lel. Minsc is Dynaheir’s body­guard, honor bound to pro­tect the witch, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly attached to her. (He could never be unfaith­ful to Boo, any­way.) Khalid and Jaheira have been mar­ried for a long time, as well as being com­rade Harpers. (Well, a long mar­riage is implied, at least.)

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