The Gwen Stacy Complex and
Age of Agency Gender Expansiveness In Comics
My father always says,
“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
When you’ve been a fan of comic books for long enough, you see how–even in this medium–not only can history repeat itself, it can also distort itself.
Back in the summer of 1973, Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, John Rimta, and Tony Mortellaro produced a story that broke all the rules for Spider-Man and heroes. The story is called “The Green Goblin’s Last Stand.” In this story, Spider-Man’s enemy, the Green Goblin, has kidnapped his girlfriend Gwen Stacy. The Green Goblin throws Gwen off the Brooklyn Bridge. Spider-Man uses his web shooters to catch Gwen. When the web hits Gwen’s boot Spider-Man pulls to stop her fall and slowly lifts her back up. After pulling Gwen to the top of the bridge and into his arms, Gwen isn’t responsive.
Spider-Man then realizes, when he instinctively caught her with a webline, the force of the sudden stop broke her neck. Spider-Man saving Gwen Stacy’s life ended her life. This story becomes a pivotal point in Spider-Man's lore. It is the first time we see a hero lose a love interest. This moment opens not only Spider-Man up to tragedy, the likes of which the audience has never seen before in this medium, but now makes it possible for other comic book protagonists to experience the same thing.
Gwen Stacy's death marks the end of the Silver Age of comic books. As comic book stories become more modern and reflective of the real world, we now see many heroes go through tragedies of loss, usually involving a female love interest. This becomes common to the point of being egregious. There’s an issue of Green Lantern where Kyle Rayner comes home to find that his enemy, Major Force, has murdered his girlfriend and stuffed her in a refrigerator. This shit was so wild that writer Gail Simone coined the term “Women in Refrigerators” or “Fridging Women” (circa1999) as points of reference for when a woman dies (especially gruesomely) or suffers to further a man’s story.
I’m not saying The Night Gwen Stacy Died is the catalyst for women in refrigerators in comics. I think that story is set apart as an end of an era. Not only was it a shock that Gwen died but the fact that in trying to save the woman he loved, Spider-Man inadvertently caused her death. His actions had affected the life of someone he loved, just like the robber he didn’t stop that later killed his uncle. The problem occurs when we see the same type of story attempted but it falls flat because the woman is only there as a love interest and doesn’t exist with autonomy or agency outside of that role.
I remember a time at Marvel Comics where nearly every white protagonist–male or female–that had a solo comic book series was dating a person of color. This feels and looks progressive, but when someone exists solely as a love interest just to go into comic book limbo when it doesn’t work out, then it feels like a rug is being pulled out from under you.
This isn’t to say that gender roles and tropes haven’t been flipped in comics. When we look at Chris Claremont’s run on the X-Men (1975-1991), we see a reversal of roles between team members Jean Grey (Marvel Girl) and Scott Summers (Cyclops). Usually, when there comes a moment of sacrifice, we see it being a choice made by a male character. This time around, however, a calm and collected Jean realizes she is the one best suited to make the sacrifice in order to save her teammates and complete the mission. (Uncanny X-Men #100) Scott, who is Jean’s lover, is hysterical over what is happening. Keep in mind, Cyclops, leader of the X-Men, is known to be stoic and reserved. This man is a full-blown mess in the moment. We don’t typically see men shouting and crying hysterically in this situation. That is a role we’ve stereotypically seen women in. It is here where Chris Claremont has flipped the gender norms and gender tropes as a step towards gender equity. Jean is now stepping into a leadership role in carrying the burden of death. Cyclops screaming out for Jean shows that even the most reserved member of the team can become emotional.
Looking back from the present day, we now see numerous examples of women characters breaking not only gender norms but also specific tropes. Culture critic William Evans pointed out how Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run of Captain Marvel had Carol Danvers dismantling the white savior complex. Kelly Sue Deconnick’s series Bitch Planet deals with incarcerated women (predominantly Black women) that were arrested for being “Non-Compliant.” I was going to say the series started a conversation but really it was a movement of fans embracing this phrase with tattoos of the letters “NC” together, which stands for Non-Compliant.
There have been strides made in the representation and presentation of gender identity in the comics medium. However, (I’m going to do this neat trick where I type and my father’s voice comes out) if you don’t know history not only are you doomed to repeat it but you won’t see when it’s repeating itself or distorting itself.
I’ve talked a lot about Ms. Marvel aka Kamala Khan, Marvel’s first Muslim hero with a solo series. How impactful she was and how we saw her radicalized as into a huge voice of activism in Marvel. In Amazing Spider-Man #26 (May 2023), Ms. Marvel is killed fighting a Spider-Man villain named Rabin. Fighting is a strong word, she disguises herself as Mary Jane and gets stabbed. No, she wasn’t stuffed inside a fridge and thankfully her death wasn’t extremely violent.
Yet, Marvel’s prominent Brown Muslim girl, not even throwing a punch and dying as a decoy for a white woman in a book that isn’t her own? The optics don’t look great. Now there is an editorial reason behind this (she gets resurrected and finds out she is a mutant). But still.
I point out Kamala’s death because it shouldn’t have happened that way. Kamala’s passing doesn’t mirror The Night Gwen Stacy died as a major impact upon the medium of comic books. It’s an example of a woman dying in order to advance a man’s story (fridging). Ironically, she’s not even close with Peter Parker, she is closer with his protege Miles Morales. It’s important to know the history of this trope so that they don’t become the norm when we look at the history of comic books. It's also important to know the history of women being fridged so that it can be called out when it occurs in plain sight.