Catherynne M. Valente is the author of the upcoming The Refrigerator Monologues from Saga Press, out June 6, 2017. “A powerful combination of entertainment and sad truths that shines a light on how women are used as vehicles for men’s stories.” —Kelly Sue DeConnick, bestselling writer of Bitch Planet, Captain Marvel, and Sex Criminals.
It all started because The Amazing Spider-Man 2 pissed me off.
Oh, I know it pissed everyone off for one reason or another. But when something pisses me off badly enough, I throw art in its face. And after Spider-Man, I walked out of the theater in actual, real life tears, and not the single tear flowing down a single cheek in mourning for the passing of the elegance of the world or something—big sobs like a big baby.
Let me explain.
It was a Sunday night after a convention in Baltimore. Maybe I was just tired. Maybe I’d spent too long talking about feminism and comic books that weekend already. Now, my partner and I have a post-movie watching tradition. Really, it’s more of a process. We go to a bar and say nothing until our drinks come, then we toast and tear that motherflipping flick apart. We look at it analytically, from every angle. We even have an acronym to order the conversation from most important aspects of moviemaking to least so we don’t miss anything.
So, we went to a Cuban bar. We ordered cocktails with hot peppers in them. We waited. We toasted. And I burst into tears all over again, threw the acronym on the ground, stomped on it, and said, “I have to write something to fix this.”
My partner answered, “Sweetheart, you know you can’t fix Gwen Stacy dying. She was always going to die. She always dies. It’s kind of a thing.”
And I said, “YES I CAN. I’m going to write something and it’s going to be called The Refrigerator Monologues and it’s going to be The Vagina Monologues for superheroes’ girlfriends. I’m going to fix it. Hold my drink. Don’t believe me? Just watch!”
It’s not like I didn’t know Gwen Stacy was going to die. As has been noted, she always dies. But the way the movie was paced, I kind of thought they’d keep that for the third movie, because the Emma Stone/Andrew Garfield chemistry was kind of all that iteration had going for it. So, it blindsided me in a way that Gwen Stacy taking her dive should never blindside anyone born after 1970, and it was a sucker punch, because more or less the last thing Emma Stone does before she quite literally flounces off to meet her doom is snit, “Nobody makes my decisions for me, nobody! This is my choice. Mine.”
I can make my own decisions! Boom. Splat. Death. Girl down.
It felt like such a harsh slap in the face. People so often think of iconic characters as organic things that proceed semi-autonomously while the writer just records their actions, but someone chose to give her those words. They made it through many rounds of editing and screen-testing. Someone chose to have her say that right before it all goes to hell. To make those powerful words the punchline to a sad joke about female agency by punishing her for them, by making sure that no matter how modern and independent the new Gwen might seem, everything is just as it has always been. That old, familiar message slides into our brains with the warm familiarity of a father’s hug: when women make their own choices, disaster results.
I cried because I was furious that I’d been fooled. Fooled into thinking anything had changed. Fooled into thinking that the punchline could ever be anything different. I cried because they baited me with Gwen’s job and her lines and her lab coat and with the date on the movie reel into believing, just once, that the person I’m meant to identify with in superhero stories could be more than a sassy prop.
So we sat in that Cuban bar, and I planned out The Refrigerator Monologues. I babbled about women and comics and how even superpowered women get a damn raw deal, and refrigerators, and Gail Simone, who coined the phrase “girls in refrigerators” to describe the murder, rape, reproductive violence, de-powering, insanity, or otherwise destruction of women in comics for the purpose of furthering a man’s storyline and fueling his manly motivations. I started firing off other names, names from stories that had made me angry over the years: Harley Quinn. Mera. Jean Grey. Karen Page. Betty Banner. Scarlet Witch. And obviously, Alexandra DeWitt.
Then came the fateful question. My boyfriend sipped his habanero Manhattan and said, “It sounds amazing. But how can you possibly do that? You don’t own the rights to any of those characters.”
“Welp,” said I, “I guess I’ll just have to create a completely original, cohesive, analog superhero universe spanning the entire history of superhero comics. The Dark Side of the Canon. Why not?”
Over the next two years, that’s what I did. I sat down at my computer and got angry over and over again. I treated superhero comics the way I’ve always treated fairy tales—as repositories of archetypes, of symbols, of lessons fraught with cultural expectations, taught to children without thinking, instrumental in shaping our views of the world while being dismissed as ridiculous kid stuff by the mainstream. I created characters and interconnecting narratives that are something like the Scarecrow and the Tin Man are to Dorothy’s uncle’s farmhands. Something like a contemporary update of Cinderella as an android or Snow White as a cowboy. Dream versions. Cosmic cousins. If you’re a comics fan, you’ll know who I’m mad about. You’ll get all my little jokes and references. You’ll understand the gargoyles. If you aren’t, these stories, my girls’ stories, stand alone as laser beams fired in the dark against the unfairness of … well … the Super Patriarchy. Look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s the systematic brutalization of anyone with a uterus!
Of course, my guy was right—you can’t fix Gwen Stacy dying. She was always going to die. She always dies. It’s kind of a thing. And I’ll tell you right now, I didn’t save her. The book takes place in hell. I’m not that kind of hero. I can’t swoop in and save the damsel. What I can do is turn on a mic and let the damsel scream.
It’s pretty crass to praise one’s own scribbling, but I’ll say that I’m prouder of The Refrigerator Monologues than anything I’ve written in a long while. It’s utterly unlike any of my other work. It’s angrier and funnier and more cynical and more loving and more punk. I drop more f-bombs and truth bombs and actual bombs than I’ve ever done. I’ve seen people actually flinch when I read aloud from it, because they are so unused to this fancy fairy tale wordsmith lady putting the calligraphy aside and just punching a page over and over until it breaks. I can’t wait to unleash it on the world as we face down another year of splashy comic book movies and probable actual dystopia.
I wanna make you flinch.
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