Empress Jessamine Kaldwin dies ten minutes into Dishonored. It’s not a spoiler or a surprise—her death is stated blatantly in the game’s promotional material, and it is her demise that jettisons main character Corvo into his journey for revenge. One might say her death is the most important thing about her, and that she exists solely to affect the emotions of the hero. Such a state is both unfortunate and so common in pop culture that it has its own name: fridging, wherein a character close to the protagonist is brutally done away in order to propel the hero into action. The trope has come under heavy fire in recent years, as fridged characters (often attractive love interests) are inherently devalued and shown to only be important in terms of how the protagonist reacts to them. The only difference between a fridged characters and a sexy lamp is that a dead human usually prompts greater sympathy from the audience.
By virtue of her demise catalyzing the plot, it has been suggested that the Empress is a textbook case of fridging, and she is ultimately a prop in Corvo’s story. However, there is another argument to be made here: while Jessamine’s death does indisputably get the ball rolling, that’s not where her story ends, and the game knows it. In its handling of Jessamine Kaldwin, Dishonored dodges the fridging trope by giving her power and importance that are widely felt and subsist long after her death.
I am pretty tired of the ‘oh, Dishonored isn’t ACTUALLY sexist’ articles popping up, because wow. Jessamine’s death is basically the TEXTBOOK example of fridging - she barely gets a few words out and we barely learn anything about her before she dies to drive the entire plot, and Corvo/Daud’s manpain forwards. Just because people talk about her after she’s dead doesn’t mean she isn’t a female character that was fridged??
The entire point of fridging is the usage of a female characters as story props. Jessamine is a plot device. The game did a bad thing. Please just accept it and stop trying to make excuses. I love Dishonored too, it’s such a great game but it did a terrible job representing women and people of colour.
Named female characters in the game are murder targets, housekeepers, or a small child. The only major female character is the small child, who you could very easily argue is used as a pawn or a prop herself. The game features no women with distinct power that don’t require Corvo’s protection or intervention.
The only woman with power is killed within the first 10 minutes.
Thank you for your response. I’m happy to see my posts drive discussion about this game.
I actually addressed the notion of her being solely a prop in the essay itself. Though it’s true we don’t hear much about Jessamine before her death, we get significantly more information about her post-mortem—it’s people talking about her, yes, but also her talking about herself. One of the critical parts of the “fridging” phenomenon is that the character be lost in the process: once their lives are over, they serve no further function. That is not the case with Jessamine, who we actually learn more and more about as the game goes on. If we’re to suggest that fridging is just a character dying and their death affecting those around them, we start to suggest that any and all character death at all is fridging. I find that that actually weakens the point against fridging to regard it this way, and lessens the focus on what is truly insidious about it: (usually female) character erasure.
Also, I do agree with your point about the place of women in Dishonored, but I think the game’s more thoughtful about it than you’re suggesting. Becky Chambers wrote a really great essay on this topic for The Mary Sue, and pointed out something very interesting. Typically in fantasy settings where women are regarded as second class citizens, this is used as an excuse to remove them and their stories from the narrative, because, well, that’s just the way things are around here! Though women are certainly oppressed in Dunwall, Dishonored doesn’t remove them wholesale from the story, and actually takes time to look at their oppression as what it really is. It’s true that it would have been nice to see more women with more agency in the game, but I think there’s something to be said for how the game thoughtfully approaches the concept of gendered oppression.
Also, though the main game only has a few women of note to speak of, the DLC are helpful in introducing more. I actually have another essay on female agency and power in the Dunwall underworld, and if you’re interested I hope you’ll give it a read.