Whenever I discuss the problems of female representation in horror films, I’m almost immediately bombarded with cries of, “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FINAL GIRL!?” Ah, yes, the final girl. By Carol J. Clover (Men, Women, & Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film)’s definition, the final girl is described as “a trope in thriller and horror films (particularly slasher films) that specifically refers to the last woman or girl alive to confront the killer, ostensibly the one left to tell the story.” Clover then goes on to dissect the character citing things like often having a unisex name (e.g., Laurie, Sidney, Teddy, Billie, Stretch, Georgie), that the female is masculinized through “phallic appropriation,” and that the character must be a female because audiences would reject abject terror if a man were to be under the same circumstances. People are always quick to cite the final girl as the premiere defense of female representation in horror, because a male is almost always presented as the bad guy while the final girl is presented as the hero. Clover’s findings have been analyzed for years, but I think she missed out on the most important characteristic of a final girl. The final girl is actually the worst thing for women in horror.
NOTE: I am focusing solely on films that feature final girls. Obviously there are tons of horror films that do not feature final girls but for the sake of this article, I’m not discussing those films.
Purely from a film making standpoint, final girls are terrible because they immediately force a film to follow a specific formula. Once a female character is presented as pure/virginal or abstains from any risky behaviors, audiences immediately know that this character is our final girl and will be the one to have the “boss fight” with whatever monster or villain portrayed in the film. This immediately yanks any creativity away from the screenwriters because it pigeon holes them when writing a female protagonist. Horror fans are admittedly lovers of nostalgia, so daring to “break the rules” of horror formulas is a huge risk. Does a horror screenwriter create an entirely unique story with unique characters and risk poor box office results, or does he/she sacrifice creativity for a guaranteed successful profit? Nostalgia sells, and it sells very well. There’s a level of comfort involved in knowing what to expect with horror films, and when they don’t follow convention the results are either glorious or disastrous. For example: Lucky McKee’s ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE is very much turning the conventional “teen girl revenge flick” film on its head, and people are either loving it, or hating it. Not only does it leave us with a very specific archetype for female protagonists, but it turns our horror films into predictable disappointments.
The final girl doesn’t just limit the characterizations of female protagonists, it also continues to limit the idea of a female villain. By the most simple definition, horror films focus on the conflict between good and evil. Good and evil are opposites, so by binary convention, horror films’ main conflicts tend to be between men and women. If women are frequently pigeon-holed as the surviving protagonist, it’s only natural that the villain would be a man. In the instances where a woman is revealed to be the villain…it is something that comes out of exactly that, a reveal. From the get go, we know that Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers are men, but with the original FRIDAY THE 13TH, CRY_WOLF, SLEEPAWAY CAMP, or URBAN LEGEND, the killer really being a woman is held off until the last few minutes of the film. The filmmakers hope that we as an audience assume the killer is a man, making the “twist ending” reveal of the killer being a woman to blow us away. Not only is this problematic for women, but it’s problematic for men. This forces storytellers to default men as their bad guys and girls as their heroines. Humans are complex creatures and there are as many villainous women as there are villainous men and there are plenty of female heroines as there are male heroes. Not to mention, where does that leave women that don’t fit the mold of the final girl?
They die. If a female character is not the final girl, we can assume she’s going to bite the dust pretty early on. As SCREAM, HALLOWEEN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and CABIN THE WOODS have taught us, the promiscous blonde is going to be the first to go. The earlier slasher films presented their final girls as blonde, but once the “dumb blonde” became a staple in cinema, the final girl became a brunette. This again forces female characters to become one-dimensional in order to fit a specific criteria, even if it’s going to be 100% the reason they’re hacked to bits. Women (and men) of color are also killed very early on and their characters don’t even fall within the realm of archetype, they’re token.
I wrote a piece for the website Graveyard Shift Sisters covering this topic at length, but I’ll copy an excerpt from that article to further my point. “First off, we need to look at what it means to be an archetype and what it means to be a token character. An archetype is defined as “a very typical example of a certain person or thing.” Think of it like being a stock character. The “dumb blonde,” the “final girl,” “the jock.” These descriptions are archetypes. We see these conventional types of characters frequently because it’s a quick way for the audience to identify and understand where this character falls in the status hierarchy of the film. A token character is defined as “done for the sake of appearances or as a symbolic gesture.” This means that the character is plugged into the mix out of obligation. In horror movies, white people have never been token. We’ve been archetypal, yes, but we have never, ever been token. Our existence has never been obligatory in the sense of horror movies and we’ve never been thrown in last minute to add some hilarious one-liners just because. Or we can look at a film like Freddy vs. Jason. Kelly Rowland plays the only female black character (hell, she’s the only black character) and what is her purpose? Sassily taunting Freddy Krueger. In Scream 2, we see Jada Pinkett-Smith in a movie theatre where she screams at the blonde chick on the screen to “hang up the phone and star-69 his ass!” This is obviously a jab at the stereotypical black-woman-yelling-at-a-movie character and this scene was played for laughs. Are we sensing a pattern here?”
By creating these very specific parameters for our leading ladies to fit into, we’re not only hurting the storytelling, but sending an extremely negative message in regards to female characteristics. We’re perpetuating the idea that if a woman doesn’t look or act a certain way, that her life does not hold as much value as the women that DO fall into the qualifications of final girls. Fat women, women of color, transwomen, and men as a whole are portrayed as villains, sidekicks, or…expendable. It has been said that art imitates life, and if our portrayal of final girls tells us anything, it’s that horror films aren’t far off from reality. Final girls set an unrealistic expectation for women and forces us to believe that in order to survive, there’s only one way to do it. Why must women be virginal, strong, fearless, cunning, and stunning? Women are dynamic and complex, and it’s annoying hearing films praised for featuring a “strong female character” or thinking they get a female representation pass because they have a final girl. If we want to change the face of horror and create interesting stories for female characters, we need to start with the staple and kill the final girl.