An Interview with the Filmmaker Behind “Women, Superheroes, and Refrigerators” Pt 1

I recently had an opportunity to sit down with filmmaker Tristan Nall, and talk to him about his upcoming documentary Women, Superheroes, and Refrigerators.

Journey into Awesome: So tell me a little bit about your project. What exactly is Women, Superheroes, and Refrigerators?

Tristan Nall: In short, it’s a documentary about violence against women in mainstream superhero comics. I use the list written by Gail Simone as a spring board, and kind of go through some of the more famous examples as well as examine how women came into this role and try to debunk some of the counter arguments against it.

JiA: Women in refrigerators, that is, the idea that female characters in comics are on average, treated worst than men is still a controversial idea. You’re saying that you firmly believe women are in fact treated differently in superhero comics?

TN: Honestly, I went back and forth on this a lot while I was working on the project… but now that all is said and done, I can say that I think women are treated differently, yes.

The Death of Green Alex DeWitt in Lantern #54 (1994).

Look at Alex DeWitt, Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend from his debut in Green Lantern comic and the victim the site gets its namesake from. She was introduced in the first issue as Kyle’s girlfriend. Not only is she murdered only four issues later, but the first time we see her she’s wearing nothing but a button-up dress shirt long enough to barely cover her panties.

She was obviously introduced with every intention of killing her. She wasn’t killed off by a writer further down the line who wanted Kyle to go through some kind of personal hell for being a superhero, she was invented by the writer, Ron Marz, because he wanted to kill her, because women seem to be more emotionally gripping victims. He could have just as easily killed off Kyle’s parents, brother, or any number of characters. But he chose the girlfriend instead.

JiA: So she was basically eye candy and something to kill.

Karen Page’s death in Daredevil vol. 2, #5 (1999).

TN: I think so, yes. It’s happened a lot of other times, too. I think Karen Page was killed for a similar reason — a writer just doesn’t know how else to hurt a hero than to kill his girlfriend.

I won’t say that every time a woman is killed in comics it’s just because she’s a woman. I think Gwen Stacy’s death, for example, was a terrific piece of story telling. But far too often women are used as canon fodder for weak stories.

JiA: So aside from Alex DeWitt and Karren Page, did your research reveal any other particularly appalling treatment of women in comic books that you were previously unaware of, or that you now see in a different light?

TN: I would say the biggest one is the shooting of Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke.

The paralysis of Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl) by the Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke (1988).

I’m a huge Alan Moore fan (who isn’t?), and I love that story. I think it’s one of the best insights into the Joker’s psyche any writer has ever accomplished, especially in recent years. But, one of the most important things about that story is that it’s the one where Barbara Gordon is shot by the Joker and paralyzed for the rest of her life. Sure, she becomes Oracle, but that was never the plan.

Why this is so bad is twofold. First, when Alan Moore asked if he could do this to her, his answer has been famously quoted as, “Go ahead and cripple the bitch.” But what I never realized, and the second thing that made it such a strike against a female character, is that Barbara Gordon, Batgirl, a huge figure in the DCU, was just paralyzed for the rest of her life. Why? To make Jim Gordon go insane. She was just a casualty to hurt the male character… I cover all of this in a little more detail in my movie, too, with a pretty adequate chunk dedicated to this particular moment.

[Update: Now you can check out part 2 of the interview!]

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