The Cold ShoulderSaving Superheroines from Comic-book Violence

There's a new Bat in Gotham City. Like Bruce Wayne, she's a rich socialite by day and a black-clad vigilante at night. And, also like Bruce Wayne, in both incarnations she's apt to sweep the ladies off their feet. Kate Kane, the new, revamped Batwoman, isn't the first lesbian character to debut in the DC Comics universe, but she might have the highest profile. Last June, DC Executive Director Dan DiDio issued a press release saying the move was intended "to get a better cross-section of our readership and the world."

But the new Caped Crusader may find Gotham City a hostile work environment. Many of the series' previous female characters met with unfortunate fates. An earlier Batwoman was murdered, a female Robin was tortured to death with a power drill, one Batgirl was shot by the Joker, and another one was turned to villainy. In fact, it's so common for female superheroes to be killed in gruesome ways, comic-book fans have a term for it: "women in refrigerators." The phrase was coined in 1999 by comic-book writer Gail Simone, whose many credits include a stint on the Superman title Action Comics as well as current authorship of the Birds of Prey series.

The women-in-refrigerators syndrome got its name from a 1994 Green Lantern story arc, in which the titular hero's girlfriend is strangled and later discovered in a fridge. In an e-mail interview, Simone explains: "I and some male friends started making a list of the characters that had been killed, mutilated, or depowered (also a telling trend, as the more powerful a female character was, the more likely it was that she would lose those powers). It was shockingly long, and almost no one in the already small pool of valid superheroines escaped the wave of gynocentric violence."

But so what? Don't superheroes die all the time in comic books, regardless of their biology? Sure, but as Simone says: "First, there's [always been] a larger selection of male characters, so a handful killed made barely a ripple. Second, they didn't seem to be killed in the same way—they tended to die heroically, to go down fighting. Whereas in many cases, the superLADIES were simply found on the kitchen table already carved up." Furthermore, she points out, most of the men recovered with lightning speed. Take Batman and Batgirl: "Both had their backs broken [Batman broke his in a dramatic Batcave confrontation with the villain Bane; Batgirl broke hers when she was ambushed in her home and shot in the spine by the Joker, never given a chance to fight]. Less than a year later, Batman was fine. Batgirl—now named Oracle—was in a wheelchair and remained so for many years."

Alan Moore, the writer responsible for the story arc that led to Batgirl's shattered spine, provides some insight into the editorial perspective behind the decision. As he told the industry magazine Wizard: "I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon—who was Batgirl at the time—and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project, and he said, 'Hold on to the phone, I'm just going to walk down the hall and I'm going to ask [former DC Executive Editorial Director] Dick Giordano if it's alright,' and there was a brief period where I was put on hold and then, as I remember it, Len got back onto the phone and said, 'Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.'"

Moore later regretted the story arc that retired Batgirl, stating in several interviews that he felt the decision was shallow and ill-conceived. However, Barbara Gordon was far from the only victim of the women-in-refrigerators syndrome. The list Simone created in 1999 included more than 90 female characters, among them Aquagirl, Hawkwoman, Elasti-Girl, Nova, Lady flash, and at least two different Supergirls. In the eight years since, few of the list's characters have returned to life or regained their powers.

Simone also contacted other comic creators, both male and female, asking for their reactions to the list. Her letters were circulated on message boards and fan sites, provoking widespread debate and discussion in the comic-book world. Simone and her compatriots decided to create a website detailing the women-in-refrigerators phenomenon, (now archived at The site includes Simone's original list, along with a number of the responses it sparked.

For female fans like myself, Simone had pinpointed a problem we felt keenly but had not been able to articulate. "WiR syndrome" was the terminology we needed to make our discontent with the industry's sexism coherent, and Simone's list was the ammunition behind our arguments. And it seemed that her observations impacted the industry. "For whatever reason," Simone notes, "the next generation of writers paid a great deal more attention to making fun, entertaining, kick-ass superheroines." Notable examples include characters like Mark Andreyko's Manhunter at DC, or over at Marvel, Brian Michael Bendis's Jessica Jones, Tamora Pierce's White Tiger, and Dan Slott and Juan Bobillo's She-Hulk (thankfully reinvented as much more than a green slice of cheesecake). According to Simone, these characters have generated more female fans.

But many female fans are still angry over treatment of past characters. Although Stephanie Brown might not be well known to casual fans of the Batman mythos, readers of DC's Batman titles knew her for 12 years as Spoiler, a young and impulsive vigilante with a sunny optimism that made her an endearing foil to Batman's endlessly brooding ways. Robin's girlfriend for many years, Stephanie eventually filled out Robin's tights herself when the former Boy Wonder resigned his post.Shortly after, in 2004, Stephanie met her grisly end by the aforementioned power-drill torture by the supervillain Black Mask. The sequence spanned multiple issues and featured graphic artwork that blatantly sexualized the teenage heroine during her bondage and torture. An action figure of Black Mask, complete with power drill, was subsequently issued. No action figure of the Girl Wonder was ever made.

It felt like comics were backsliding badly. Before Stephanie Brown took over for Robin, I'd gone years without reading a Batman comic. It was a cover picture of Stephanie in action under the brassy logo "Robin: Girl Wonder" that had reinvigorated my interest. Soon I was buying four Batman-related titles every month and splurging for the occasional Teen Titans crossover. Stephanie's brutal death felt like a kick in the gut. I'd been a rube to fall for a promise that DC never intended to keep.

And I wasn't the only one angry about it. Mary Borsellino, a graduate student in cultural studies at Melbourne University, posted a rant on her blog that articulated her "rage and disgust" at Stephanie's treatment. Within two hours, her post had gathered about a hundred comments from like-minded fans.

"I felt like this was a sign," Borsellino wrote in an e-mail exchange, "that this was something that needed to be sustained. So I registered that evening."

Project Girl Wonder was initially dedicated to protesting the treatment of Stephanie Brown, but quickly took on a life of its own. While Stephanie remains the site's official symbol,'s mission has expanded into a campaign demanding better treatment for all women in comics. As the site proclaims: "Batman and other superhero stories are the modern age's fables, and if we don't stop the spread of this rot now they will be irrevocably corrupted by it. Stephanie Brown is a symbol of the need for change. And we're going to see that the change begins." The site attracted more than 100,000 visitors in its first couple months, with hundreds of registered users filling the message boards. In the years since, has organized a letter-writing campaign, distributed literature about the WiR problem to conventions and local comic stores, and sparked a new wave of debate within the industry.

For Borsellino, the Girl Wonder campaign is fueled not only by depictions in the comics, but also by the apparent disdain shown by industry editors toward their female audience. In an e-mail interview, Borsellino wrote: "Less than a week [after Stephanie's death], [DiDio] started shooting his mouth off in an interview, and described Stephanie's death-by-torture as having a 'major impact' on the lives of heroes." This statement bothered Borsellino because it was untrue (Stephanie's death didn't seem to impact male superheroes) and because of what it implied. "It completely failed to acknowledge that anybody could possibly have the girl as their hero. No, the girls are the ones who die and thereby make the boys, the real heroes, sad. It's pathetic." DiDio provoked another wave of outrage when, in response to a question from a fan at a comics convention, he allegedly intimated that Stephanie Brown deserved her torture and death because she had failed to obey Batman's orders to stay out of the fight with Black Mask.

Simone believes the anger against DiDio may be misdirected: "I'm not against shock and repulsion as story elements at all, in fact. I think comics that are slightly lurid are wonderfully compelling, and my own work regularly contains things that are simply inappropriate for anyone, thank God. And thankfully, Dan is dead serious about more diversity in both the characters and creators. It's not just more good female characters we need—it's more good gay characters, more good Asian characters, more good African-American characters, and on and on."

But the reality isn't so rosy. A former industry employee who maintains a blog at recently removed all of her previous posts and replaced them with a 12-part "Goodbye to Comics," in which she referenced the sexual harassment that had been a daily part of her job until she was driven to resign.

DiDio and other industry honchos might make the right noises about increasing diversity and female audiences, but even in death, Stephanie Brown has been treated unfairly. While another fallen Robin (Jason Todd, now resurrected as Red Hood) was honored with a permanent memorial in the Batcave, no sign of Stephanie's service has been installed. According to Coordinating Editor Jann Jones, no plans for a memorial are in the works. For the boys: glorious deaths and dramatic returns. For the girls: punishment, torture, and forgotten fates.

Meanwhile, has expanded to include three regular columnists who keep tabs on the ongoing portrayals of female superheroes in the mainstream and alternative comics; they also recommend comics featuring strong female characters. Academic papers with titles like "The Secret Origins of Jessica Jones: Multiplicity, Irony and a Feminist Perspective on Brian Michael Bendis's Alias" or "Wonder Woman: Lesbian or Dyke? Paradise Island as a Woman's Community" are archived on the site. Two independent web comics are hosted by, and Borsellino says she'd like to see the support for creators expand: "Someday I'd love to generate the funds to get more female creators to conventions, so their work can be seen by editors, and to perhaps have a publishing imprint to get titles into stores, even if only in small numbers."

The future will belong to those creators. "We are making strides at DC," Simone affirms. "I write a book with an Asian lead [The All-New Atom], another with a nearly all-female cast [Birds of Prey], another with a cast of senior citizens [(Welcome to) Tranquility], and another with an openly lesbian couple, among others. That would have been almost unimaginable a few years back. We've got a lot to do, but I'm very optimistic and excited to be part of it."

Borsellino is also looking forward to a brighter future for female characters and fans, but she thinks that groups like hers will be necessary to keep the industry in line. "I want to stand like a watchdog. We're working on forging contacts with media groups, so that the next time DC or Marvel try to do something as sickening as [the arc in which Stephanie Brown was murdered], they'll have to consider that there's this group of very noisy, very angry feminists watching their every move and hitting their speed-dial as they do it."

Both Simone and Borsellino are optimistic about DC's new Batwoman. "I think it could be an amazing book," Simone says. But Borsellino notes that her presence has come with a price. "To get Kate Kane, we lost Cass Cain, Stephanie Brown, and Leslie Thompkins entirely [the latter, though not killed, was exiled to Africa]. Barbara Gordon and Helena Bertinelli were permanently relocated to Metropolis. Onyx has vanished without any follow-up. So that's six female characters—one Asian, one poor, one elderly, one disabled, one Italian, and one black—traded off the team in order to get one rich, white, young, pretty, gay woman."

Hopefully, Batwoman will be strong and capable enough to navigate the streets of Gotham City on her own. But it can't hurt that there's a legion of real-life Girl Wonders to watch her back. We've lost enough of our heroines already.

Shannon Cochran is a writer and comic-book fan living in San Francisco.
This article was published in Super Issue #35 | Spring 2007

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12 Comments Have Been Posted

Steph Brown, gone but not forgotten...

Your comments reflected my life and reactions. I remember long ago being nine years old, and in love with both Robin and Supergirl. I remember wondering at the time: two great characters - why did one get such exciting stories, and the other got such boring ones?

That is my first memory of seriously considering comparative literary values in the popuolar media.

I loved Steph Brown, and like you, picked up "Robin" because she was on the cover. Was... frustrated... by her demotion, death and consequent oblivion.

Good for Gail Simone - I wish I liked her writing more than I do, because I think she's fighting the good fight. I miss Devin Grayson, Louise Simonson - there are so few good female writers in comics, and they are the best equipped to counter the sexism of the industry, if they aren't, like Devan Grayson, driven out one way or another.

Interesting that Alan Moore regrets <i>The Killing Joke</i>. Yes, it damaged a female hero, but I found Barbara Gordon subsequently more interesting as Oracle than she ever was as Batgirl. (And as far as I can see, the current Batgirl is a dead loss.)

The bottom line: women in comics need better stories, not just better fates.

Good stories involving women

"Hajdu suggests that the comics' anti-establishment streak reflected the outsider status of so many comics creators, who were Jewish, Italian, black or even female..."

"The Cold Shoulder" article and the above Washington Post article inspired me to inform you that the comic series "Top Ten"(
by Alan Moore and Gene Ha as well as "Global Frequency" by Warren Ellis et all are both solid examples in my opinion of a general feminist empowerment of female characters in comics. In both, women save the day heroically, often without even dying! In "Top Ten", volume 2 there is even a scene involving a plump, middle aged female officer enjoying sex with her plump husband. How often do you see that anywhere? The leader of the Global Frequency organization is perhaps one of the most hardcore women I have ever seen in a comic.

This reminds me of the very

This reminds me of the very tired trope of The I-Was-Raped Backstory. You need a female character to be taken seriously? Have her be a rape victim. Because, you know, that's the only way for a woman to be "serious" or have legitimate "issues" or, for that matter, be a "character."

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As above - Women and diversity in comics

Yeah. This is mildly interesting - but my question is - though I'm interested in the topic - women and diversity in comics - but IF there has been this great big campaign against the cavalier treatment of women characters, leading to a mass movement of wimmin comics fans - and this was, what, five years ago - and I've just stumbled across the story now - HOW COME I HAVEN'T HEARD OF IT BEDFORE?? Why hasn't it been on CNN?? Salon? Loads of other mainstream and internet news sites? Indymedia, for that matter?! Why not on Facebook? Twitter complete with trending hashtags? Youtube?

This issue obviously got quite some support, but obviously whoever planned it wasn't good at getting the word out. Maybe mainstream media don't want to feature it: but you must force them, Occupy-like! :)

People have heard of Gail Simone's words: whereas noone outside fangirldom has heard of this!

And what is it doing now??

Let me tell you what I think: Basically, I think you're on a losing wicket, as we Brits say, &its demeaning..

Women and diversity in comics, continued beg for "recognition" for good service, as either fans or on behalf of female writers! Lemme tellya: if the black civil rights movement had gone on like that, it never would have got anywhere!

Women must demand what is theirs by right. Noisily and very scarily, till there is nowhere for the men to hide. Bra-burning. Comics-burning. Urinating on comics' CEOs' desks (well if Courtney Love could do it!) Incidentally: I nominate for first ceremonial bonfire Moore's The Killing Joke: as total and pretentious trash, and only partly bcos it's misogynistic! I heard about that occasionalsuperheroine blog..which now has been taken off/made nonpublic yet again, it sadly seems. WOMEN - BE CONSISTENT. IF you say you hate the currents comics industry - mean it and keep on saying it &be MEAN!

Having said that - I am for cruel forthrightness in politics: but I would rather the entertainments industry returned to more of a semblance of civility! Villains don't have to do strings of sick stuff: they're not..


..if we can just scale it back down, to proportions of sexism more like the paternalistic "old days"?? (See: I don't even think women have made much social progress since the 1970s: since Roe vs. Wade & equal employment there has been little; in fact the religious right has succeeded in driving it back!)

Wouldn't sexism be more tolerable (for now) if it WAS sexism; rather than women-hating MISOGYNY? Like: Robin saying to Batgirl in 1960s: This isn't a job for girls = sexism. *Whereas*: Joker on Barbara or Black Mask on Stephanie is *misogyny*&vile, & should be stamped out - by a Women's Decency League, if nothing else! >:)

Don't think I'm alone in calling for/predicting a return to an older gallantry! The kids are all going for it now: why do you think Twilight is popular? It's popular with girls: &the boys will have to follow: or find themselves girl-less. In fact, I don't know why some talented feminist artists don't team up with some writers including Meyer-types!And create their own comics! (No drills.)

Same as the first! :)

And another thing which strikes me - I've been checking round the blogs - is this invidious influence that a rather nasty man like A Moore has had for years.. Apparently he has "legions of fans - worldwide" however many that may actually mean! Many in 3rd world nations like the Philippines: which I find disturbing: still I'm sure they have plenty of misogynists over there: so much has to do with ignorant religion!

Of course, there are women writers, particularly YA writers, who sell MULTIPLES of any numbers A Moore is capable of - and YET it seems to me that the comics industry never gives them any credit! When you look at the numbers, cold and hard, you'd think that the Big Two would be interested in teaming up w some YA writers: and in persuading the biggest sellers, like Rowling, for instance, to write s for comics! But they never do. Lazy, self-satisfied and content with movies, are these companies. Or maybe the screwed-up departments responsible for comics are so fixated on making their comics seem..

Same as first..

.."adult" which most are really not - that they're terrified to cater for kids any more - missing out on a vast market - ninnies! There won't be any comics fans in 20 years at that rate: because kids won't learn how to read them. All modern comics corps suck, for this reason alone.

Another thing that burns me is that female blockbusting authors, who seem to be YA ones at present, ~always seem to get lots of stick~ for harmless entertainment; whereas male writers responsible for vile trash - such as Moore - rarely do. Instead, they are rewarded by fanboys. Some might say it's bcos the YAs sell more &are more visible to the media &special interest groups. I suspect it's just because they're women. Look - Rowling gets the Christian right after her; Meyer the Mormon-bashers &religion-haters in general! Anyone who hadn't read her work might think it was religious propaganda! It's not. They read all sorts of things into characters' relationships with her being Mormon - well why can't feminists do that to comics??

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The Cold Shoulder | Bitch Media

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