The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente is a super meta, feminist, hilariously sarcastic novella about women in comic books. I’ve said before that Valente can be hit or miss with me, I love her and even the misses are still fantastic but sometimes her books don’t resonate with me. This one though? This one I devoured and I am considering going back for a second helping. It’s… great. If I’m really honest, it’s probably more of a four and a half star read (partly because I have higher expectations for a Valente book) but I’m rounding up to five. If you are even just a minor comic book fan, or a feminist, you NEED to read this one. Guys, really go read it.
The book is more like six short stories compiled together; much like the play Valente used to inspire her title (did I mention this book is SUPER meta?). There are six different women, each one interacting in various ways with the superheroes and villains Valente ‘created’ for this world. For the most part, these characters are directly pulled from Marvel and DC with the serial numbers very lightly sandpapered. Honestly, Valente’s snark at Batman is worth the price of the book alone. I mean, I love Batman but half of my love is the fact that he’s so eminently mockable. Valente takes various famous comic book women, I recognized four of the six but my comic book knowledge tends to be more from cultural osmosis and TV/Movie retellings than from actual comic books, and then tells their stories from their point of view. These women all tell their stories and how the conflicts of superheroes and villains cost them their lives. She doesn’t change the endings.
Gwen Stacy Page Embry still dies for example, but the story is about HER, and not Spiderman Mercury Boy.
The main reason I don’t give this a full-hearted five stars is that Valente isn’t changing the narrative here. Much like Women in Refrigerators, the other famous feminist work from which Valente cribs her title, this story is simply pointing out the problem. These women are dead; their bodies serve the narrative of someone else in the greater story of this universe. Yet, by putting the focus onto these women, and not the heroes around them, we can see the terrible waste left in the wake of our heroes. It’s something we already know, but I think still worth pointing out. If Valente revisits this world, and I believe she’s indicated that she has an interest in doing so, I would want to see the narrative changed. I already know that women die in comic books (and so many other stories about heroic men), I want to see them take back their lives and become the heroes themselves, or defy the narrative in other ways. (See also: why the Wonder Woman movie is my everything right now)
My favorite story in the book is the second, which belongs to
Jean Grey Julia Ash, who is punished over and over for being more than the people around her think she should be. It’s tragic and infuriating, and thus completely effective.
Go out and get this book. Seriously.