You probably know her well. Dark hair, crazed eyes, holding a weapon, and running for her life. This is the “final girl.” One of the most relenting tropes in horror films.
Who is the final girl?
The term was coined by professor and scholar Carol J. Clover in her book, “Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.” Where she defines the final girl as a morally superior teenage girl, who ends up being the only survivor in a horror/slasher flick. The final girl is also highly intelligent, often detecting the killer before the group does. She doesn’t get deterred by carnal pleasures such as drug use, alcohol, and having sex. Hence, her “superiority.” Her style also isn’t as feminine as other women in horror. As most of the time, the final girl has mousy brown hair, conservative clothes, and a gender-neutral name (i.e Jess Bradford from Black Christmas (1974)).
She’s often confused with the “female survivor” trope, another Clover term. But, while both girls are similar, the female survivor has to be saved by a third party at the end, who is usually a man. Whereas the final girl always saves herself from danger, often retaliating with violence towards the killer.
The bimbo and the final girl
The final girl can also work in junction with another horror trope, the “Bimbo.” The bimbo is typically a ditzy blonde girly-girl, who is sexually active and ignores all signs of danger. Due to her lack of awareness, she usually ends up being the first to die. An example of this trope is when camp counselor Claudette Hayes is murdered in the first scene of Friday The 13th (1980) because she goes to a cabin to have sex, despite being warned against it.
Therefore, the bimbo juxtaposes the final girl. Ultimately emphasizing the survivor’s quick wit and unclouded judgment in horrifying situations.
A good woman
While the final girl is light years ahead of the sadistic violence typically inflicted on women in horror films, the trope still tightly exists within the patriarchal gaze, because she benefits from a distinct form of slut-shaming.
The final girl is only upheld and deemed as worthy of survival due to her piety. For example, Laurie Strode in Halloween is allowed to have agency in the narrative because she is abstinent by choice, and isn’t like the “other girls” in school. This is a direct continuation of the biblical Madonna/Whore binary. Where men either see women as chaste marriage material (in the case of slasher films—survivor material). Or the whore, a seductive woman, evil and not worthy of marriage or survival. This reduces women to the archetypes invented to fulfill male fantasies about what a “good” woman is. As a result, this ignores the many layers that could make up an engaging female protagonist.
The male gaze
The final girl’s intelligence also stems from the de-feminization of her character. From the baggy clothes to her scrappy nature, her visual characteristics traditionally connote masculinity.
Blonde hair, pink outfits, and feminine activities such as cheerleading and shopping are rarely included in the final girl’s interests. In this way, horror films that include her incite that stereotypical “girly” attributes imply weakness, or the inability to survive. The final girl must appear less like the bimbo for the audience to see her as capable and for the male viewer to root for her.
Additionally, Clover brings up feminist theorist Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay, “Visual Pleasure and The Narrative Cinema,” where the term “the male gaze” first emerged. Mulvey utilizes psychoanalysis to contextualize the dehumanization of women on screen and claims that men fear women because of their lack of a phallus. The female’s existence, therefore, represents the looming threat of castration.
The final girl plays into this psychoanalytic narrative because she takes up a “phallus” by the end of her film. Usually in the form of a weapon. For example, in Halloween, Laurie grabs a knitting needle, coat hanger, and a knife to escape the killer. To Clover, these pointed objects represent the “phallic appropriation,” that allows her to getaway. This act “purges” of her unappealing characteristics and eradicates her female sexuality.
In this way, the final girl confirms the male-centric nature of the horror industry. She doesn’t actually exist to empathize with and empower young women, but instead to be a palatable form of masculine comfort. The ultimate fantasy.
Where is she now?
Thankfully over the last decade the final girl, while still heavily utilized, has made progress. One of the most beloved examples being Sidney Prescott of the Scream franchise.
Prescott represents the new era of self-aware horror. She falls in line with a few final girl stereotypes but, she was also one of the first characters to actively break them. The biggest deviation being when she has sex with her boyfriend in the first half of the film, and it isn’t detrimental against her fight with Ghostface. Making the film a direct meta-commentary on horror’s tendency to favor virginal women.
Another example, I would argue, is Dani from Midsommar (2019). She’s the last one standing, but not because of her “purity.” She’s just as perceptive as a typical final girl, but she uses her survival to violently execute revenge upon her psychologically abusive boyfriend. Dani sees the power in being the final girl and directly uses it to her advantage. Which adds a much more complex layer of empowerment to her character.
Overall, horror and slasher movies are the near-perfect form of catharsis during this time of year. But, with a critical eye, the final girl we see escape time and time again, might be a much scarier reflection of our own dominant culture than we’d like to admit.
But, there seems to be a bright future ahead. Where the stagnant “final girl” may not be the only lauded horror heroine on screen.