Cinema’s Women in
Refrigerators : The Fridging Trope
Let’s perform a simple exercise:
Think of films, where the love interest, sister or mother of the male protagonist is raped, assaulted, brutalised or killed—just for the ‘main plot’ to start, where the hero loses his senses, turns into a killing machine and avenges the death of his loved one(s).
Many films, with an angry macho man—a gun or sickle in his hands—shooting the antagonist's brains out or slitting his throat (depending on the weapon)—with black-and-white flashbacks of his beloved running on screen, must have appeared in front of your eyes. If yes, you might have just encountered cinema’s fridging trope a.k.a ‘kill the girl and hero is born’ plot. If not, perform the above exercise again, you will definitely change your mind.
There are a lot of films where a female character’s death is used to plant the seed of a hero’s avenging story and the following character development (if any). Film-makers think of this as a popcorn-grabbing hook but stories like these have long been criticised for being “a hallmark of supremely lazy writing—quickly hurting or killing an established character as “cheap anger” for the protagonist, and devaluing the life of that character in the process”. And, unsurprisingly, that character is mostly a female one.
Within these plots, violence on female bodies is not only exploited to drive the story of the male character but also, aestheticised to make heroes and films look “modern, different and refreshing”, in a ridiculously off-the-mark meaning. The death of a female character is shown in slow motion—while blood oozes out of her body and pools around her, tainting her beautiful clothes, with a sad violin piece playing in the background—while the hero cradles her limp body and vows to take revenge. Suffering from fridging trope, filmmakers make sure that even in her dying moments, the female character’s body must be aesthetic enough to titillate the male gaze. For example: In Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan, there is a scene where “Neela (a brilliant Saranya) is shot to death—in slow motion as the bullets rip into her, while the helpless Nayakan (Kamal Hassan) watches on and then, her body just limply falls off as he is left with her saree in his hands. Even as a dead woman, she has one last job: Gory titillation”. This is how filmmakers try to advertise the fridging trope as an art i.e. yes, the female character dies but at least, it’s pleasing to the eye—brownie points for that!
In films with fridging fever, the quick death of a female character is shown to justify the male character’s anger, maniacal violence and toxic behaviour. It’s just a mere tool—a death that happens only to accelerate the hero’s actions and reactions—nothing more than this. For example: In the rape-revenge film, Kaabil (2017), a penny for your thoughts—what exactly is the role of Supriya (played by Yami Gautam)? She is raped twice in the film and both times, “the focus has been on how Rohan reacts to the crime, ignoring Supriya’s personal trauma and her attempts at living a normal life”. Further, “she is made to undergo the same trauma for the second time, she chooses to ‘sacrifice’ herself to spare Rohan the agony (of what, I fail to understand). The film then revolves around Rohan’s quest for vengeance”. On an honest note, we truly fail to understand why films have to use rape, female sacrifice and death as plot devices for male characters to get some inspiration and go on a revenge-killing spree. The audience is forced to go into a state of amnesia and forget how female characters are conveniently killed in movies, just to add spiciness and adventure to the storyline and, brought back here and there for two or three romantic sad songs.
Talking about romantic sad songs, can we take a moment and commend films like Ek Villian (2014), Ghajini (2008) and Marjaawaan (2019), for selling the same female characters to the public, time and again, whose story value is just their death. That too, so that the hero can feel male rage pumping in his veins and can avenge ‘his’ woman i.e. his honour, dignity and his last chance to make a ‘true man’ out of himself. These stories of long-suffering women in cinema spread the perilous idea that “women are not in charge of their own narratives. The audience isn’t ready to engage with what women have to say about their own distress, because revenge and virtue fantasies built from women’s pain is a norm for Bollywood entertainment”.
The fridging trope is yet another brainchild of cinematic misogyny and sexism, where female characters do not have an iota of agency. They are not only made to wait for male characters to avenge them but also inhumanely discarded once they trigger the right emotions in them. The lesson is simple: Women are not meant to be stuffed in refrigerators, assaulted, raped and killed, just for the gun fights and thrill to start in films. Do not reduce women and their stories to cheap revenge for your films and angry heroes, who desperately need therapy, not coddling.
"Sabahat Ali Wani is a writer, researcher and artist from Kashmir. She loves to explore the intersection of cinema with gender, identity and politics, and believes that the appreciation of cinema is incomplete without its criticism.