In comic books, “women in refrigerators” are the brutally murdered or injured love interests of male superheroes, characters used as devices that provide the men with motivation to defeat their nemeses (Simone). One of the most famous characters who has fallen to the commonplace trope is Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s first girlfriend and potentially his one true love. Gwen was thrown off a bridge in The Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1. Issue #121, “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” and died not from the fall but when Spider-Man’s web jerked her upwards too quickly, snapping her neck. Her death sparked a massive change in comic stories, as the heroes were no longer guaranteed to win. Gwen is famous only for her death, not her life or character, and in my project I explore the pieces missing from her character, the things that would make her more real, and how her death erased what few pieces of her were not directly linked to her relationship with Spider-Man.
I staged an old phone to appear as if it belongs to Gwen Stacy right around the time of her death, including bookmarks in her web browser, photographs, social media apps, and health information. The pink-and-blue color scheme is meant to match Spider-Man’s iconic suit. Gwen was a science student at the same university as Peter, a choice the writers made so that the two would run into each other easily and not because Gwen had any ambitions (Gianola and Coleman 253). From her very first thought bubble to her very last, Gwen spoke and thought only of her relationship with Peter, occasionally interspersed with doting comments on her father, a police captain with the NYPD. A few months before Gwen’s death, her father, George Stacy, died in a fight with one of Spider-Man’s nemeses, and she was still in mourning when she died in the comics. At the original time of writing, Gwen blamed Spider-Man for her father’s death, a point of contention in her relationship with Peter Parker, who she did not know was Spider-Man.
Gwen’s Photos app conveys her story most clearly. In the beginning of the album, Gwen is pictured with Peter, obviously very in love. Then in December she abruptly begins taking pictures of places in London such as Westminster Abbey and the Darwin exhibit at the National Museum. She takes pictures in London for a month, including some photos from a lab there, and then returns to New York in January. She gets lunch with Peter, hangs out with MJ, and on Valentine’s Day we see her ready for a date with Peter. After that, they have pictures as a couple again. In March, she goes to her father’s grave and takes pictures of the flowers there, has dinner with her family the next Sunday, and does more lab work with Oscorp. All of this is to reflect what we know about Gwen Stacy’s life after her father died: she decided to break up with Peter and went to study in London for a few months before returning to New York, reuniting with Peter, and abruptly dying.
Throughout the whole album, Gwen is seen drinking and partying, two things not consistent with the modern depictions and memories of Gwen. Gianola and Coleman discuss how Gwen Stacy was transformed into a saint after her death, innocent and delighted by the beauty of nature, intelligent enough to work in a chemistry lab (258). The collective memory of Gwen is not so much who her character was as who the fans wanted her to be. In her first appearances in the sixties, Gwen was flighty, interested mainly in hooking up with whoever she found attractive, and partied frequently. She was vain and frequently jealous when Peter paid attention to other women. Gwen’s sainthood came with her death, much like how society tends to idealize real people after their deaths even if that person did terrible things.
The photos in the album, which have edited metadata so they have the same date and time they would if Gwen had actually taken them, are meant to contrast and augment the cultivated Instagram feed. Gwen’s public persona, and the one people are able to reference, is sweet, smart, and loving. She posts flowers at her father’s grave and colorful lab work; her “uglier” tendencies are hidden. Arnold Blumberg suggests that because the boys who read the Spider-Man comics were meant to identify with and sees themselves as Peter Parker, they were also encouraged to see Gwen Stacy as their girlfriend. These readers do not want to see Gwen as she was but as they remember her, a perfect innocent who could not be saved, a representation of first love lost.
The differences in how Gwen presents herself in her Photos app versus her public page highlight the second focus of my project: public and private data, and how those forms of data affect how we are remembered. Gwen’s party photos are kept where those who would grieve with her cannot see them, locked behind a passcode. Her Instagram profile, on the other hand, is open and visible to everyone. The cultivated persona Gwen presents through Instagram is another form of the “packaging” Sontag describes, arranging and preserving photos for the future (5). The Instagram album emphasizes the images Gwen was willing to show others, the ones that proved that “the program was carried out, that fun was had” (Sontag 9). Her Photos app similarly provides evidence of the places she’s been and things she’s done, but only for her and the select people to whom she shows her physical phone. After Gwen dies, her private data–phone calls, iMessages, iTunes, saved articles, and especially unpublished photos–are lost. Her social media profile would exacerbate the nostalgia that erased what few parts of Gwen’s identity that were not one-hundred percent connected to Peter or her father.
As I’ve implied through the last few paragraphs, Gwen’s Instagram page, or public data, acts as a memorial to her through which others (fictional loved ones or real-world fans) can mourn her. Instagram accounts, once memorialized, do not appear any different from a regular account. As time goes on, they remain a snapshot of that time before the person’s death. When I first created the Instagram account, I followed some accounts made by fans of other characters such as Mary Jane Watson, Peter Parker, and Harry Osborn for added realism. A few of the accounts followed back, and several other people have also decided to follow this fake account. In doing so, they unwittingly created a network of the sort Graham et al. describe, a secondary set of mourners beyond Gwen’s family. I also used the account to post a tribute to Captain Stacy, Gwen’s father and the second man around whom her life revolves. The post is tagged with a cemetery in New York and corresponds with a visit scheduled in Gwen’s calendar, establishing a connection between mourning in the physical world and the digital world. Gwen’s memorial page, however, is purely digital and can be “visited” in whatever moment the viewer chooses. It also does not have the same weight that a grave does; there is no gray stone or cross to indicate that Gwen is dead and rests beneath the viewer’s feet. The post is meant to highlight the difference between physical gravesites and Website memorials.
This project is meant to be something of a critique of how female characters in comics have very little to them, but it was more difficult than I expected to create a true personality for Gwen and represent it through her phone. Because there is so little information about Gwen’s life beyond Peter, anything I came up with was pure speculation. The things my project lacks–conversations with other people, evidence of mourning beyond surface-level examples, evidence of Gwen’s ambitions and plans for the future–are the same things that the comics lack. In the end, I felt that sticking purely to what was expressed in canon provided a stronger basis for the project. Even with what little information I had, I was able to construct a trip to London, friendships with other women, and an interest in science-based art.
Representation of women in media has changed quite a bit recently, illustrated by the recent release of Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman; some things, however, have not changed. The Gwen Stacy of The Amazing Spider-Man series still revolves around Peter, still has no defined ambitions, and, most importantly, still dies to further Peter’s character development. What is the purpose of her death, when the shock value from the sixties has worn off and superhero stories are already dark and steeped in desperation? Her ignored backstory aligns nicely with the idea of forgotten data, the things we lose when a loved one dies. Companies like Apple cannot unlock someone else’s phone without a court order, rendering a dead person’s phone a useless brick of encrypted information. What pieces of our lives will be lost when we are gone, and will our families even know to look for what is missing?
Blumberg, Arnold. (2003). The Night Gwen Stacy Died: The End of Innocence and the Birth of the Bronze Age. Reconstruction. 3.
Gianola, Gabriel, and Janine Coleman. “THE GWENAISSANCE: GWEN STACY AND THE PROGRESSION OF WOMEN IN COMICS.” Gender and the Superhero Narrative, edited by MICHAEL GOODRUM et al., University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2018, pp. 251–284. JSTOR.
Graham, Connor, et al. “Gravesites and Websites: A Comparison of Memorialisation.” Visual Studies, vol. 30, no. 1, Mar. 2015, pp. 37–53. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/1472586X.2015.996395.
Simone, Gail. “Women in Refrigerators.” LBY3, Beau Yarbrough, March 1999.
Sontag, Susan. “In Plato’s Cave.” On Photography, Penguin Books, 1997, pp. 3-24.