The Problem With Superheroes’ Dead Girlfriends
Alex Henderson | On 16, Jul 2013
Let us have a moment of silence for all the fictional females who have died in order to advance a plot or induce heroic angst. (Spoiler warning for several comic books and/or their movie adaptations.)
It’s a dangerous business falling in love with a hero. The role of the love interest is an important one, not to be passed off or sniffed at—a romantic plotline can add extra depth to an action-packed story and help develop the characters. It also provides another level of drama to our hero’s story, be it keeping their secret identity a secret, trying to protect his girl from the evil powers that be, or simply showing that even the strongest, powered-up characters have a weakness: mushy, warm fuzzy feelings where the opposite sex is concerned (or the same sex, of course, but that has only happened a few times).
The female characters that fill these roles do, however, have a nasty habit of being only that: role fillers. Many of them are not granted great amounts of dimension to their own characters, and only exist as the squishy female foil to our hardened hero, beautiful cut-outs stuck in the story universe to advance the plot or create a romantic storyline. That is an issue in its own right, but what is most startling and troubling of all is their frighteningly high mortality rate.
If we’re talking about the dead girlfriends or superheroes, possibly the most famous example of this is Gwen Stacy. She was Spiderman’s girlfriend, played by Emma Stone in the most recent movie adaptation, who, unfortunately for everyone who’s a fan of Emma Stone’s neck, met a rather sticky end in the comic universe. In The Night Gwen Stacy Died, the Green Goblin throws her off a bridge—Spidey, being the hero, goes to catch her spectacularly with his cool web trick, but… makes a serious error and snaps her neck.
This was a major shock and a major development—Spiderman suffered an enormous guilt spiral that lasted long afterward and still rings home in more recent comics. The event was a traumatic turning point for our hero—but what about Gwen? Was that the end she deserved, to be horribly killed off just to induce character development?
Either that, or that lovely lady with her versatile neck vertebrae that will come in handy for showing how evil a villain is. The Green Lantern’s girlfriend meets a fate so terrible it warrants its own trope page, murdered by the bad guys and left strategically to horrify the hero and the readers. She’s certainly not the first and not the last, either—Gail Simone compiled a terrifyingly long list of “Women in Refrigerators”, female characters in superhero comic books who have been maimed, killed, abused, brainwashed, raped, or generally harmed specifically to advance the plot (read: the male protagonist’s character development) or show how villainous a villain is. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency expertly breaks down the “Women in Refrigerators” trope in her YouTube series “Tropes vs. Women”.
We get a high-definition example in the case of The Dark Knight, when the lovely, capable Rachel, a childhood friend and hopeful love interest of Bruce Wayne’s, meets a horrible end at the playful hands of the Joker. To boot, she’s even part of a sadistic ‘you can only save one of them’ scheme involving lying, villainous transformations, and lots of explosives. It’s not fun.
Also, although they aren’t superheroes per se, the Supernatural lads certainly encounter this problem a lot, notably with the character of Jessica, who appears for about ten minutes in the first episode, establishes that she is sweet-natured, sexy, and emotionally supportive to our male lead, and before she’s granted any character development deeper than a teardrop in a swimming pool she’s found murdered and on fire, setting Sam off on his journey. From then on, his luck with women does not get any better. Or rather, the luck of any woman he has a romantic moment with spontaneously plummets.
And don’t even start with Bond girls, who also have a shockingly high mortality rate, often getting a few scenes per movie before dying in some spectacular way. Not before, of course, they’ve ended up in Bond’s bed. Whether they’re spies or sex kittens or serious love interests, they aren’t around for very long, treated by both hero and writer as if they’re fairly disposable.
That’s what girlfriends are for, right? Moral support, inducing angst, showing how evil a villain is, setting the plot in motion with their fiery deaths…
But not every comic and action adventure treats its women this way, of course. Plenty of hero’s girlfriends come into their own and start kicking ass in their own right, and some even survive until the end of the franchise and get a happily ever after. Things are progressing beyond having them as mere emotional hooks with no depth attached—in the most recent Superman movie Man of Steel, for example, Lois Lane actually had her intelligence acknowledged and she figures out Superman’s identity almost right away, instead of insulting her (and the audience’s suspension of disbelief) by having Clark Kent’s silly glasses be a legitimate and effective disguise.
However, the issue of their high rate of untimely and horrible deaths still remains. Why is this a problem? Because it tells us that women are expendable, and the greatest thing they can achieve in life is having an impact on the development of a man. By killing off love interests it also enforces the message that relationships are dangerous. It’s that old horror movie cliché—the girl who’s involved in any sort of love scene will be one of the first to go, because being sexually involved with anyone is not a healthy activity and must be punished by the greater forces of good (read: conniving writers).
And if it’s not a prudish stigma that’s being fed to us, it’s still damaging, especially in the case of a show like Supernatural where one of the main reasons there have been no long-running love interests is because the fans react vehemently whenever one’s even suggested. Everyone who sleeps with the hunky hero must die, to keep the frothing fanbase at bay. This does not include the entirety of the Supernatural crew, naturally, but it’s still disturbing to note that there’s such an ingrained hatred for characters that ‘steal’ the heroes that any women who comes close to a romantic role is doomed for the chop before she even speaks.
The death of a love interest can be an excellent dramatic tool, but the shock wears off when it’s been done so many times, and raises all sorts of subtextual issues when the lives of women, even fictional ones, are treated as disposable.
Written by Alex Henderson
Follow her pop culture blog, The Afictionado!