Unless you've been living under a rock lately, you've heard of director Christopher Nolan's new movie Inception. What you may not have noticed is his longstanding practice of "fridging" female characters.
Inception is a long-generating story, one that Nolan's been working on for over a decade, biding his time and building up enough of a reputation in Hollywood that he could get the backing for his dazzling mindfuck of a pet project. And build up a reputation he has: Nolan has had a string of hits, both financially and critically. On the review-aggregating site Rotten Tomatoes, not one of his films rates below a 75%. His last movie, The Dark Knight, grossed over 1 billion dollars worldwide. There are precious few filmmakers in Hollywood who have so successfully balanced artistic achievements with the culture of spectacle, not so much infusing blockbusters with a decent story as crafting intricate scripts that just so happen to have blockbuster potential.
It's a goddamn shame, then, that he feels the need to fridge the hell out of his women. By way of definition:
fridge, v. to kill off a female character solely for the purpose of giving the story's main male hero a reason to angst. Coined by Gail Simone in response to a storyline in The Green Lantern in which the hero's girlfriend is killed and literally stuffed in his refrigerator. In 1999, Simone started a website, Women in Refrigerators, that lists all of the comic book women who have been fridged.
(In case you haven't figured it out by now, THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ALMOST EVERY CHRISTOPHER NOLAN MOVIE EVER MADE. Also, I am not a scientist or a professional researcher.)
Don't get me wrong: I love Christopher Nolan's movies. Memento is one of my favorites. I own The Dark Knight. Next week I will see Inception for the third time in theaters. But there's always a lingering icky feeling after the credits roll, when I watch the actors' names rise from the bottom of the screen and try to remember whether any of the women listed did anything important other than die. More often than not, the answer is a resounding no. And when they do live, they're usually evil.
Don't believe me? Let's have a look.
Leonard's Wife (Jorja Fox). No, seriously, Leonard's Wife
is her official credit. She didn't get a fucking name either
. Oy. Anyway, she actually sort of dies twice in the movie, once when she and Leonard are first attacked; she survives the attack, but Leonard doesn't remember that, and the loss drives him through most of the film. It's revealed at the end, though, that she was actually the one with the insulin, and Leonard invented Sammy Jankis and his wife in order not to deal with the guilt. So really we get two dead-because-of-her-husband-wives for the price of one. Dead.
CONCLUSIONS: Two dead, unnamed wives inadvertantly killed by their husbands' conditions; one femme fatale. We're off to a bangup start. Movie also fails the Bechdel Test: at no point in the movie do two women even speak to each other.
The Bechdel Test: a litmus test developed by writer Alison Bechdel in 1985 to gauge the agency and autonomy of a story's characters. The test has three parts: 1) Are there two female characters who 2) talk to each other 3) about something other than a man?
CASE STUDY: Insomnia (2002)
Detective Frank Dormer (Al Pacino) hunts for serial killer Walter Finch (Robin Williams) in Alaska with the assistance of a local cop named Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank). After he accidentally shoots his partner and covers it up, though, he and the killer wind up morally entangled, and Ellie gets suspicious.
Kay Connell (Crystal Lowe). Every serial killer story needs a naked, beaten female victim, and teenaged Kay Connell fits the bill. She's already dead before the opening credits, so we only glimpse her in flashbacks and as a bloated corpse on a morgue slab. (I couldn't find any pictures of her that weren't naked and mutilated, so I didn't put one up.) Dead.
Madonna-Whore complex: a psychological condition in which men divide women into ultra-"pure" Madonnas who can never be sullied with sexual intimacy, and dirty, dirty Whores who can never possibly be wives or mothers. As in men's minds, so in culture. For example: every single Taylor Swift video, ever.
CONCLUSIONS: Not so bad. We have two strong, principled, professional women, though one of them is technically an antagonist. We've also got a dead, mutilated teenager and a Whore, but...it kinda balances out? No on the Bechdel Test: no two women speak to each other through the whole movie.
CASE STUDY: Batman Begins (2005)
Taking over the Batman franchise, Nolan took him back to his roots for an origin story, detailing how Bruce Wayne trained himself into a crime-busting machine.
Barbara Gordon (Melinda McGraw): Exists in the movie solely to be Gordon's wife, mother of his children, and a Madonna. The only time she's ever seen outside their home is when she and her children are taken hostage by Two-Face; she puts up absolutely no fight even when the dude has a gun to her son's head. (And while we're on the subject of Gordon's family: Gordon's son is "Jim Gordon, Jr." but guess what his daughter's credited as? "Jim Gordon's Daughter." That's right, she gets no name, and it's made explicit in the movie that she's not her father's favorite. Nice.) Alive, but a Madonna.
ETA: I totally forgot about Judge Surrilo! You know, the female judge who was willing to preside over Dent's prosecution of all the mobsters at once. You know—the one who gets blown up. Yeah, that one. Dead.
CONCLUSIONS: All the women are either dead, evil, or a Madonna. The film sort of passes the Bechdel test in that Ramirez calls Barbara Gordon to warn her that she should leave the house; but that's done at Two-face's gunpoint, so it's sketchy at best. Apparently the only way to get women to talk to each other in Nolan movies is to point a gun at them.
CASE STUDY: The Prestige
Two rival magicians, Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Borden (Christian Bale), duke it out in turn-of-the-century England.
Julia (Piper Perabo). Angier's wife. Drowns—half-naked and bound, onstage—during a botched magic trick; the messup was possibly Borden's fault, and her death incites the antipathy between the two. The manner of her death is of some importance: there's a strong undercurrent through the movie about the sacrifices that magicians make for their craft, and it's understood that women are a necessary sacrifice. See below. Dead.
CONCLUSIONS: Two dead wives, twice the manpain. (Or well, triple, if you count the twins separately.) This story, too, was an adaptation; but, again, Nolan chose to take this project on. Something about dead wives really appeals to him. Sarah and Olivia do speak to each other once, but only so that Sarah can object to Olivia calling her husband "Freddie," so it's definitely about a man.
CASE STUDY: Inception, 2010
A team of extractors led by Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) invades the mind of an energy magnate, but they're dogged by a shade from Cobb's past, Mal (Marion Cotillard).
CONCLUSIONS: A decidedly mixed bag. The very best and worst, packed into one. It also comes closest to passing the Bechdel test: Ariadne and Mal talk, but Mal is technically a projection of Cobb's mind and their conversation was subtextually about Cobb. So it's debatable.
SUMMARY OF FINDINGS.
+ Going through the IMDB database, I counted up the number of named characters in the above movies. (Although as we've seen, "named" is a fairly relative term — "Gordon's Daughter" and "Leonard's Wife," for example.) There were 94 names roles for all of Nolan's major films. (I'll confess I haven't seen Following or Doodlebug. If someone has, please chime in.) Even being generous with what constitutes a name, only 23 of those roles belonged to women.
+ Of those 23, only 17 had speaking roles (more than one line).
+ Of those 17, only 9 were alive at the end of the movie.
+ Of those 9, 5 were antagonists, Whores, or Madonnas.
+ That just leaves the hotel manager in Insomnia (who apparently has a name — I was generous there), Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins, Olivia in The Prestige, and Ariadne in Inception. One of them dies in a later film, and one "dies" in a dream, one is almost a Whore, and one barely has a name.
+ Of the 6 women who are wives in Chris Nolan movies, only Barbara Gordon survives her movie. Of the other 5, 4 commit suicide.
+ Of the 8 women who die, 6 are inarguably cases of fridging. Remember, "fridging" means killing a woman off solely to give the main male hero a reason to angst. The two wives in Memento match this profile to a T, as do the two wives in The Prestige, Mal in Inception, and Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight.
But fridging is obviously only part of a larger problem in Nolan's cinescape. Recent studies have shown that women get only about 30% of the speaking roles in films and tv shows, despite making up half the population. In Nolan movies, only 23% of the named roles are women. I haven't the wherewithal to examine the percentage of speaking roles that belong to women, but I'm guessing that it's not many.
Again, let me be clear that I am a fan of Nolan. I belive he's a visionary. But speaking as a woman who watches his movies, I find myself longing to see someone like me onscreen, who doesn't die horribly. I want to believe that he is better than this. I want to believe that he just hasn't been challenged on it yet.
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