Arrow - The Disturbing Trend of Fridging Female Characters

It is worth providing an explanation first, I think.

“Fridging” is a term which is used to describe the death of a female character to further the development of and advance the plot for a male character. It is typically the bastion of the lazy screenwriter, given that it is a tired and overused cliché. You need only take a quick perusal of this TV Tropes page, or indeed the Women in Refrigerators website where the concept was first defined, to appreciate quite how proliferated our media has become with this hackneyed trope.

More to the point, though, there is often an inherent misogyny and sexism to this trope. That’s very much self evident, really; when a writer kills off a female character to further develop a male one, then the implicit suggestion is that her story is one not worth telling.

Arrow has engaged in this not once, not twice, but at least five times - this is in a show which hasn’t even begun its fifth season yet. For obvious reasons, that’s not really something to be proud of.

In response to the obvious, immediate counterpoint; Arrow, though focused on a male main character, also acts as something of an ensemble show with the supporting cast. But, I think even more pertinent is the fact that if your efforts to develop the lead are at the expense of the supporting characters, then there is an issue with the writing.

That’s what’s at the heart of this, really. Fridging isn’t just inherently offensive and demeaning, it’s also indicative of bad writing. To revel in cheap angst motivated solely by a quick death isn’t just lacking in originality, it’s lacking anything resembling emotional maturity, and the ability to write something a little more complex.

What follows is a discussion of those five times, and an explanation of just why they were mistakes, and what exactly is so offensive about them. In case you’ve not realised, there will be spoilers across the entirety of Arrow, up to and including the fourth season finale. This article does assume the reader will have at least a basic understanding of Arrow, but it should be accessible for the casual viewer. There’s a summary of sorts at the end, if you want the condensed version however.

Each of the following clips belongs, of course, to the CW Network, and originate from their popular superhero drama Arrow.

Shado (2x09)

This one, of course, is in many ways a textbook example of a fridging. It’s framed explicitly in terms of Oliver, and Oliver’s feelings; Shado’s death isn’t allowed to be about her, and ultimately in her final moments, the character is sidelined in favour of another. It was carried forward as a motivation for Slade Wilson, the second season’s main adversary. He was wonderful, of course, but the fact remains that Shado was cast aside to provide angst for not just one, but two, male characters.

In some regards, this particular instance is to be expected. Given that Shado was on the Island with Oliver in the past, it was arguably a death sentence in many ways; about half the supporting cast who have been on the island did eventually die. It’s even fair to say that this is quite a tense scene, which does work quite well, dramatically speaking. 

But you can’t avoid the fact that, here, a female character was stripped of her autonomy and her agency, with all control taken from her; she was then removed from the narrative, with her death not about her, not completing her own character arc, but being made about the other, male characters.  

Moira Queen (2x20)

It’s worth including this by measure of contrast, actually, because I think that this isn’t a fridging as such. Certainly, it retains key elements of them - Moira is killed by Slade, for revenge on Oliver, to cause him pain. It’s built as a deliberate parallel to Shado’s death, and you’ve unarguably got the basic tenets of a fridging there.

However, it’s important to focus on the one key difference. Here, Moira is in control; she takes command of the scene, and ultimately her death is just as much about her as it is about the other characters. The death is built around her character, and the situation arises from it; Moira dies, ultimately, in one final act of protecting her children. Given that her character arc had been, in many ways, about becoming a better mother, this final sacrifice is also a moment of redemption, and the culmination of the trajectory she’d been taking across the past two seasons.

Ultimately, this is actually an example of a good death for a female character; indeed, it’s a good way to do a death for any character. It’s well written, and it extends firmly from Moira’s character arc. Despite this, though, you can’t consider it in a vacuum - Moira’s death has to be looked at in terms of the trend that developed around it, and that does leave you in a position to question just what, exactly, the Arrow writers are doing. 

Apparently - though I admit I haven’t been able to find a primary source for this - Manu Bennett (the wonderful Slade Wilson) brought it up himself, questioning just why, exactly, every character that Slade targeted to hurt Oliver was female. (Thea, Moira, Laurel, Felicity.) It’s a question that’s worth asking, even if we might not like the answer.

Sara Lance (3x01)

It was with this one, I think, that people first began to notice the problem that was emerging. Third time’s the charm, right? This was, for a lot of people, the beginning of the end; the point at which Arrow just wasn’t really as good as it once had been. I wrote an article about Arrow S3 myself, and though I ultimately concluded it wasn’t as bad as the reputation it earned, I still isolated Sara’s death as one of the biggest problems within it.

Sara’s death was made worse by virtue of the fact that she was not only Arrow’s first female character, but also their first major LGBT character. It was a huge step forward in terms of diversity and representation - something I’ve written about at length before - and that in turn meant this death was particularly awful. It was the centrepiece of several of the above criticisms - the fact that Arrow was sidelining the narrative of its only LGBT character, and in turn implicitly suggesting their story was not worthwhile.

Season 3 was structured around Sara’s death, but it was never allowed to be about her. She was reduced to a pawn in a larger plot, just a piece in the game between Malcolm Merlyn, Ra’s Al Ghul, and Oliver Queen. (Yes, Sara’s death furthered Laurel’s narrative, but that was far from the main focus. Even Roy was given several episodes of angst and self-blame, for goodness’ sake. Perhaps more pertinent, though, is the fact that it’s not difficult to come up with a motivation for Laurel that isn’t predicated on the fridging of her sister, leading one to ask just what the purpose of this was.)

Of course, there are likely readers looking at what I’m saying and thinking, “well, hang on, what about Legends of Tomorrow?” And, yes, fair enough. Clearly the writers realised they made a mistake in fridging Sara, and then in turn set about remedying this.

What they didn’t seem to realise was that fixing said mistake is somewhat immaterial if you then go on to continue making it.

Laurel Lance (4x18)

It was this death that prompted the most outrage, of course; if you’ve heard anything about Arrow within the last few months, doubtless this death was mentioned in conjunction with it. For a huge number of viewers, this was the final straw - the point at which they realised the show was little more than a shadow of its former self. (Equally, though, I feel the need to point out I’m still watching, and I enjoy… some aspects, at times. But that’s a whole other post, really.)

Laurel’s death, I think, was possibly the most offensive of all the fridgings that have occurred on Arrow. We’ve discussed already the manner in which Shado’s death was a textbook fridging, but in many ways it felt like with Laurel’s death Marc Guggenheim set out to write the definitive fridging. The most blatantly offensive and flagrantly dismissive instance of the concept that could exist - and given the extensive precedent set, it’s perhaps something of a warped achievement.

Eleven Fifty Nine saw Laurel frozen by Darhk’s magic, before she was stabbed to death, in an act intended to hurt her father. She was, quite literally, stripped of all agency and control, for the sole reason of providing some cheap angst for Lance and Oliver and Diggle. (Not that the plotline was developed particularly, or explored for very long; it was essentially dropped after just one episode.)

The eventual death itself did not develop organically from the fourth season’s ongoing character arcs, but rather a decision made by Marc Guggenheim and Wendy Mericle as to which character was most expendable. When the season began, the two executive producers hadn’t decided who would be in the mysterious grave; Katie Cassidy herself only found out just a few short weeks before the episode was to be filmed. Guggenheim and Mericle argued that Laurel’s death would provide the most “pop”, in terms of engaging storylines for the coming episodes; with it we saw a fairly laboured repeat of the storylines that emerged from Sara’s death last year, up to and including Captain Lance grieving over the death of a daughter.

For the third time.

Ruvé Darhk (4x21)

I don’t really know what more I’m supposed to add at this point, to be honest. Having read this far, you no doubt understand the concept of a fridging - this is one of them. Ruvé is killed; Damien becomes apocalyptically angry and threatens to unleash his nuclear rage on everyone. (Of course the first thing he does is go and threaten Felicity, because on this show even the villains understand they’re primarily meant to try and fridge the female characters.)

There was something surprising about this death, I have to say, though it wasn’t anything good. This wasn’t structured as a shock reveal; if anything it felt like an afterthought. 

But I was surprised at the fact it felt like so much of an afterthought. I was surprised at the fact that Marc Guggenheim and Wendy Mericle would walk so blindly into yet another instance of this stupid, overused, cliché rubbish. And so soon after having done the same to Laurel! It genuinely seems like they’re trying to break some sort of record - most egregious examples of fridging in as short a space as possible.

That is not an achievement to be proud of.

Honourable Mentions

There are quite a few more, then, who I didn’t include. In part that’s because it’s dubious as to whether or not they would count as examples of fridging, but also admittedly because I can only embed five videos in an article, and I wanted to pick out the worst ones.

So, let’s take a moment to consider Amanda Waller (shot in the head), Taiana from the Island (snapped neck), and Isabel Rochev (again, a snapped neck). You can make fairly compelling arguments that each of them were fridged, but equally, there are similarly compelling arguments to suggest they perhaps weren’t.

While doing some research for this post, I saw someone suggest that Thea had been fridged, when she was stabbed and nearly died in Series 3. Again, that’s a difficult one, because she ultimately didn’t die, but given the manner in which that was handled (the focus being primarily on Oliver and Malcolm) you can certainly see the similarities.

Well, so what?

I’m glad you asked!

Depending on how exactly you count it, Arrow has fridged somewhere between four and nine female characters. That’s quite the track record for a program that hasn’t even reached a hundred episodes yet. 

It’s also astonishingly poor. 

As I’ve pointed out already, the reasons for this are twofold. There is an inherent sexism to these instances, because it dismisses the relevance of a woman’s narrative, and it is clear that these characters were not valued or considered important. Further, it’s simply bad writing; it’s a tired, lazy trope, which ends up only with the same old tired, lazy, storylines being repeated on a loop. We have more than enough troubled male heroes, motivated by anger at the death of the female side character. Arrow can do better than that.

(The fact that we are expected to buy “Captain Lance dealing with the death of his daughter”, again, as a compelling plotline genuinely baffles me. Yes, Paul Blackthorne is wonderful - so challenge him by giving him some new material to work with! Don’t give us another tepid retread of the same plotline at the expense of further development for a key female character.)

What I do want to stress, though, is that the trend is the problem. Certainly, individual events such as Sara’s death are quite egregious, but it’s when all of them are looked at together that the problem becomes apparent. Had it just been Shado’s death, or Moira’s death, then I doubt I would be writing this article at all. It’d be a couple of disapproving lines, noting that the Arrow team had made a bit of a mistake, but so long as they avoided doing it again, it’d largely be alright. 

I don’t believe that Marc Guggenheim or Wendy Mericle are sexist or misogynist people. Nor do I believe that of Greg Berlanti or Andrew Kreisberg. I have, in fact, repeatedly and publically defended Marc Guggenheim from the abuse he receives from certain corners of the internet. But I do think that there are clear problems, and those problems form a trend; it’s not a trend I’m comfortable seeing in a programme that I love.

And I do love Arrow! That is why I’m writing about it, why I’m engaging with it, and why I want it to do better - after all, who is honestly going to take hours out of their day to write over two thousand five hundred words about a TV show without feeling some level of investment in it? 

That’s why I’ve written this, then. Because I loved Arrow, and I am beyond disappointed that it continually engages in these awful, awful writing decisions. 

So a personal plea, then. If you were at all convinced by this article, share it. If you care positive portrayals of strong female characters in television, share this article. If you care about good writing, share this article. If you like Arrow, share this article - after all, it could just as easily be Nyssa or Thea or Lyla who fall afoul of this next. Equally, if you dislike Arrow, share this article - if notice is taken of what I’ve said, perhaps the show will change more to suit your tastes.

Politely send it to the people who matter. Tweet it to Marc Guggenheim, to Wendy Mericle, to Greg Berlanti, even to Speed Weed himself. 
Politely ask the writers what they think. Ask Brian Ford Sullivan, ask Keto Shimizu, ask Ben Sokolowski, ask Erik Oleson. Ask the Writer’s Room, and the Production Office, and the CW themselves
You could possibly also politely nudge some of the relevant cast members, such as mentioned above. Post it to the Arrow facebook page and suchlike. Share it on fan communities; put it on tumblr, put it on the forums, link it to reddit. Send it to family and friends. Even send it to that one acquaintance you don’t really talk to often - I’ve no doubt discussing this article will give you the opportunity to let your friendship blossom. 

If any of the above have been referred to this page, hi! I would love to talk to you, if you’re up for it. Any chance for a considered debate, I’m there. You can tweet me here, or - if you’d like to have a more in depth discussion - I’ve got a list of contact details, including an email address, which you can find here on my main blog. 

(Anyone else who’s read the article and isn’t one of the above can feel free to contact me as well, I have a lot of free time. As you can probably tell from the 2500 word plus polemic about television!)

Ultimately, I’ve written this because I like Arrow. I don’t like the ridiculous, awful trend of fridging female characters that has emerged. And so I’m calling for Arrow to be become something else. 

Something better.

Related:

Was Arrow Season 3 really that bad?

Vixen Series Review - Arrow’s Animated Adventure

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