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.
Regardless, Dynaheir’s fridging follows the standard fridging pattern and would thus not really be worth writing about ((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.)) 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.