It’s February 28, 1998. The top song is Usher’s “Nice and Slow” again; Will Smith, Janet Jackson, Savage Garden, and LeAnn Rimes also chart. The top movie is still Titanic; the fantastic Dark Cityopens at number four.
In the news, the big story is the beginning Kosovo War, as the small Balkan polity rebels against the only-slightly-larger remnant of Yugoslavia, now known formally as Serbia and Montenegro, with the NATO treaty organization quickly intervening. Given that ethnic conflict in Serbia intervened in by major European powers is how World War I started, there is some tension among, say, academically inclined but inexperienced young people taking AP History at the time. Me and my classmates, for instance.
Speaking of me, I remember this being one of my favorite episodes, and I was very much looking forward to seeing it again. I’m apparently not alone: this is a well-loved episode. AV Club and Nerdist both reviewed it positively in their respective revisits to the series, and at time of writing it has an 8.6 fan rating on IMDB–“Heart of Ice,” by comparison, has only an 8.0 and “Baby-Doll” an incomprehensibly low 6.4. So clearly people who vote in IMDB fan rankings have no taste, but again, reviewers like it.
And it does have much to recommend it. It is emotionally affecting, highlights the Tim Drake Robin in a way nearly unique in the series, and is gorgeously animated under the direction of then-TMS animator Atsuko Tanaka (not to be confused with either the voice actress or late avant-garde artist of the same name), whose other work includes key animation on the Animaniacs and Batman Beyond movies, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and your name. Clayface flows and shifts in ways at once imaginative, grotesque, and oddly beautiful, and the camera work when he grabs Robin and holds him over the pit of generic bubbling green chemical is masterful, with a dynamism rarely seen in American animation of this period.
But–and you knew there had to be a but coming, didn’t you?–when it comes down to it, “Growing Pains” is entirely comprised of a fridging. Annie is depicted as a living, thinking, feeling person with agency of her own, but she is in peril from the moment she appears on screen to the moment she dies. (Which, itself, is a decidedly unsettling moment–given her depiction as Clayface’s “daughter,” the disturbingly sexual way she and Clayface gasp and arch at the moment their merger begins, and the fact that he essentially devours her, it is difficult to read as anything other than a depiction of incestuous vore.) Her agency is, in the end, employed only in self-sacrifice, to rescue Robin, and the focus of the episode is on his feelings about her: his desire to protect her, his curiosity about her, his potential romantic interest in her, and his quiet anger and sadness after she is gone.
In short, her sole purpose as a character is to be menaced and then die, as a vehicle for developing Robin’s character. She is a textbook woman in a refrigerator.
And, the question arises, “So what?” What, actually, is the problem with fridging?
To answer that, we must ask a fraught question: what is the moral responsibility of an artist in the process of creating art? Two extreme positions should be dismissed quickly: the first is that the depiction of an act is morally equivalent to the commission of that act. But this is clearly absurd: if I write the sentence “I shot the sheriff,” is that morally equivalent to shooting a sheriff? What sheriff have I shot? Similarly, we can dismiss the related, less extreme position that depiction of an act is less serious than commission of the act, but still shares its morality–that, in other words, writing “I shot the sheriff” isn’t as bad (or good, depending on how one feels about cops) as actually shooting a sheriff, but it’s still bad (or good). But again, that’s absurd; who have I hurt or helped by writing that sentence, in isolation?
The other extreme is equally absurd under examination. This position holds that, since events depicted in art are imaginary, they have no moral value–that there is no such thing as an immoral depiction. Again, this is prima facie absurd; while the event is depicted, the depiction itself exists in the real world. Both artist and audience are real, and the art has an effect on the audience, affecting audiences being what art does. It is there that the moral responsibility lies: since the art affects the audience, it has the capacity to both harm and heal the audience, and thus there are moral considerations in its creation and dissemination.
But this is where things get sticky. An act has a different impact when it is depicted in fiction as opposed to experienced directly–that’s why people don’t flee in mass panic from slasher films–and one of the ways in which that impact can differ is if similar acts are depicted frequently across multiple works. They can have a cumulative effect beyond that of any one instance, and this cumulative effect can reinforce or even create cultural narratives that have profound impact on our lives.
There is a reason we discussed Revolutionary Girl Utena near the end of the previous volume, and it’s not just because I love writing about Revolutionary Girl Utena. It has things to say about stories, and apocalypses, and influences that will extend throughout this project, right up to the very last chapter of the last volume. (Yes, I already know what that chapter will be about, and no, it’s not the Justice League Unlimited finale.) In Annie, we see exactly what Utena was talking about in the figure of the princess: the depiction of girls as helpless innocents in perpetual peril, there to be rescued by brave heroic princes like Robin. (Who, though he looks much younger due to differences in art style, appears to actually be about the same age as Utena herself.) It also explores the consequences of repeating that story over and over again, until young women believe that that is what they’re supposed to be, and men believe that is what women are supposed to be.
Therein lies the answer to “so what?” Fridging matters because fridgings are commonplace. Yes, male characters die too, but they are far more likely than women to die as the culmination of an arc of their own, as opposed to solely to advance the development of others. Men, in short, die because it is the natural end to their story; women die because they’re disposable ways to wring emotion out of men. That’s what widespread fridging says; it reinforces to both men and women that women are less-than, that they exist to support men, that their needs and agency can be set aside for the development of men.
Again: yes, Annie sacrifices herself, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that her suffering is secondary to his, as the suffering of women is almost always treated as secondary to the suffering of men. The episode isn’t about Annie, culminating in her heroic sacrifice; it’s about getting Robin to the point where he sadly, quietly says the word “Murder.”
Cut to black, roll credits.
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