Arrow is a male-dominated show, and the already-rare female characters are dropping at an alarming rate.
Warning: This article contains major spoilers from Arrow season 3, episode 19, “Broken Arrow.”
The term Women in Refrigerators was coined by comic book writer Gail Simone to describe “comic book women who have been depowered, raped, murdered and/or had their lives ruined specifically in order to fuel the stories of men.”
It refers to a Green Lantern comic book panel in which said hero returns home to find his girlfriend has been murdered and her body stuffed in a refrigerator.
Something Arrow did uniquely in its first season seemed to be flipping the narrative. Two characters were figuratively stuffed in a fridge to fuel Oliver Queen’s journey toward becoming a hero, but Robert Queen and Tommy Merlyn were both men. In a show with a fairly limited female cast, this was a welcome shift in approach.
Seasons 2 and 3, unfortunately, have returned to the status quo.
Season 2: Significant losses
In season 2, we lost our first significant female character in flashbacks when Shado was killed. Not only was Shado shot in the head to create drama between Oliver and Slade Wilson, but she was killed in a situation in which Oliver was ordered to choose between the lives of two women — Shado and Sara Lance.
Both women were reduced to objects for a male to choose from, which left me feeling a bit dirty. Up until this point, though, Arrow had been doing pretty well by its female characters so I gave the writers the benefit of the doubt.
That would soon change.
The next significant female death engineered to create more pain for Oliver was Moira Queen, who died in a similar situation in which Oliver was ordered to choose between his sister, Thea, and his mother. Once again, two strong female characters were reduced to objects for a male character to pick from in an incredibly reductive manner.
To her credit, Moira exercised agency by sacrificing herself to save her children. Despite this heroic end, though, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the main purpose of Moira’s death was to add more fuel on the fire between Oliver and Slade — two male characters.
Season 3: The fridging continues
In the season 3 premiere, Sara Lance was murdered. Adding insult to injury, Sara’s murder was carried out by a brainwashed Thea Queen at the command of Malcolm Merlyn to force Oliver to fight Ra’s al Ghul. Her death was not even about her; all agency that character had was taken away, as I’ve previously written about.
In one way, at least, Sara’s death twisted the traditional fridging narrative as, while it did move Oliver’s story forward, it more directly impacted a female character’s story — her sister, Laurel, was put on the path to becoming Black Canary. But, as mentioned in the linked article above, Laurel didn’t need that extra tragedy in her life to eventually suit up; she had the hero material inside her already.
Sara, plainly stated, was fridged.
And that brings us to our most recent fridging: Thea Queen. Thea, after being brainwashed by Malcolm this season, was then stabbed in the chest by Ra’s al Ghul at the end of the previous episode. Was she stabbed because she was Sara’s murderer? Or for any other reason that might have to do with her? Don’t be silly.
Thea was stabbed and left for dead in order to force Oliver to bring her to Nanda Parbat and accept the title of Ra’s al Ghul so he could resurrect her using the Lazarus Pit.
Her suffering is nothing more than a tool to create further pain for a male character.
This, interestingly, occurred in an episode that saw a male character fake his death before leaving the series and in a season that saw the “death” of Oliver Queen before he returned, complete with a Big Damn Hero moment.
These deaths feel gratuitous, particularly in a series with a limited female cast. The main women left at this point are Felicity and Laurel. The men? Oliver, Diggle, Lance, Ray, and Malcolm. That is more than a two-to-one ratio. If you want to throw Nyssa in for the ladies, I would counter with Ra’s and Maseo for the men.
And while Thea is likely to be resurrected in the next episode via the Lazarus Pit — and it is being heavily hinted that Sara has been or will be as well so she can appear on the spinoff — that does not change the original reason she was mercilessly thrown into a refrigerator.
Dead Men Defrosting
But, this point also brings up the concept known as Dead Men Defrosting. Some may argue that killing for the sake of the hero’s story happens to characters regardless of gender, such as to sidekicks.
John Bartol, however, argues that when male heroes are killed or altered, they are more typically returned to their status quo. Female characters, on the other hand, are “never allowed, as male heroes usually are, the chance to return to their original heroic states. And that’s where we begin to see the difference.”
In the case of Arrow, I would point you to the preview for next week’s episode, which teases resurrection via the Lazarus Pit. “There are waters in Nanda Parbat. They have been used to restore the dead to life,” Malcolm tells Oliver. So far so good?
Well, then we have: “The water changes people in the soul.” This warning narrates a shot of who appears to be Sara in her Canary gear. The preview then closes with Thea being dipped into the Pit and seeming to jump out with a growl.
Changes in the soul? That sure sounds like what Bartol was talking about, particularly in a series that has seen multiple male characters return from apparent death to their status quo.
Oliver and Roy have already been mentioned, but Malcolm Merlyn also falls into this category. He was supposedly killed in the season 1 finale, only to return in season 2 and become a series regular in season 3, putting events in motion that led to both female deaths this season. His actions, interestingly enough, also led to Tommy’s death in season 1. Status quo indeed.
So, what does this all boil down to? Am I asking you to stop watching Arrow? Of course not. The series is still one of my favorites, and I will continue to watch. But that doesn’t mean we, as viewers, shouldn’t be aware of the problematic aspects of things we enjoy. There is a conversation to be had about the trend.
Finally, I’ll leave you with the words of Gail Simone from Women in Refrigerators:
“This isn’t about assessing blame about an individual story or the treatment of an individual character and it’s certainly not about personal attacks on the creators …. It’s about the trend, its meaning and relevance, if any. Plus, it’s just fun to talk about refrigerators with dead people in them. I don’t know why.”
Arrow airs Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m. ET on The CW.