It doesn’t matter what the situation or film style, it’s just a fact of nature: watching a female kick ass is 10 times more entertaining than watching a male do it.” So comments a forum feeder on Digital Spy UK. But is it really chance that the designated “final” person in most horror movies — the one who rises above all supernatural, psychological, or criminal adversity — is a woman?
I’ve always loved horror movies. In fact, I’ve been watching them since I was a kid — gore, sex and all. Which explains why I turned out the way I did. Kind of strange. From Friday The 13th to Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween to Leprechaun (a classic and a cult favorite), I enjoyed my fair share of nerve-shredding and nail-biting flicks, the kind of atmospherics that make your blood curl and your eyes nuke out in bloody orgasm (See: Scream. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I Know What You Did Last Summer). After patronizing so many of these movies, however, I have found myself inadvertently falling in love with its token heroine — the so-called “final girl.”
Buzzfeed defines the “final girl” as a female whose investigative nature propels the story forward — a modern-day Carmen Sandiego, if you will. She is pure and chaste, at least in the ‘80s versions during the heyday of slasher films, pre-Scream and pre-Sidney Prescott (who subverted the stereotype, going so far as inadvertently sleeping with the killer). As a reward for her purity, as everybody around her (BFF included) seems to be sleeping with everybody else, she is given her greatest reward: getting to live to see another day. Nancy Thompson, Chris Higgins and Lorie Strode (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) are classic examples of this horror trope.
The final girl usually has a gender-ambiguous name and is designed to face the killer in a final showdown, either just by herself or with third-party intervention. In the horror movies of the ‘80s, the final girl dies in the sequel, paving the way for a new final girl to rise from the ashes and carry the torch.
In a sense, it became a form of cleansing, resetting whatever affinities audiences, mostly male, had established with the previous protagonist, therefore upsetting the hierarchy in which the final girl starts out as a bottom feeder, a.k.a. the underdog. A typical scenario would be that she has previously survived, and therefore has some know-how or insight coming into the next wave of terror. (Again: See Scream and its sequels.)
Maybe the final girl is a widely recognized (and therefore) lazy trope that continues not because of anything new but because audiences have become hardwired over the years.
I thought this fascination might have been a gender thing. After all, I have a propensity towards strong women who have manipulated and butchered me throughout my every life decision. (Hello, Mom!) As it turns out, the final girl in horror cinema is a gender thing (I should have known) — an occurrence explained in a book by Carol Clover that demystifies her through horror cinema’s gender politics. She points out that in horror movies, particularly slasher films, the audience is structurally forced to identify with the resourceful young female.
By liberating the post-Oedipal voyeuristic-sadistic impulse, she says, with a more feminine pre-Oedipal masochistic impulse, it realigns the male viewer and sets him towards his childhood sensitivities of nurture and pure submission to the mother. Fellini mentions that his films are often populated with large, motherly women and motherly prostitutes because of middle-aged men not wanting to let go of that pleasure of unadorned submissions. When applying this logic to slasher films, the spectator then assumes a more submissive approach whenever they identify with the female victim, or more importantly, the final girl who is very much a victim by any measure. She loses her friends and lives to tell the tale — PTSD without the STD.
It’s not always the case, though, that the victim is female and the tormentor is male. In eastern culture, it is the opposite (the east by nature is feminine and is fetishized by the west). Movies like The Ring show an almost deity-like tormentor, wronged by a former love, in the case of Sadako. There is also the girl in Shutter (Is your neck hurting yet?). And let’s not forget, Mitsuko Souma from Battle Royale who is probably the most badass b*tch there is (although she isn’t necessarily a “final girl”), not hesitating to kill any student who stands in her way so she can come out on top.
To be fair, the final girl as dictated by the ‘80s and Carol Clover’s gender-induced assumptions doesn’t really exist anymore, at least not like she used to. The virginal goody-good who never once dabbles in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll has become self-aware of her own fragility and self-contained martyrdom, and has instead chosen to live a little and even out the odds. Since Scream and even I Know What You Did Last Summer, Sidney Prescott and, uh, whoever Jennifer Love Hewitt played has kicked Lorie Strode’s sorry butt well into the not-so-21st century and what is left is a thirsty, gray-haired Principal Munsch in Scream Queens. Heck, take a look at the sorority girls of KKT, and even the designated final girl is less “save-me-mister” and more “Girl, I’ll save my friggin’ self.”
Maybe the final girl is a widely recognized (and therefore) lazy trope that continues not because of anything new but because audiences have become hardwired over the years. We have become accustomed to a certain form of commiseration that not even a pre- or post-Oedipal impulse can autocorrect this phenomenon. Or maybe the final girl of modern horror is on a mission to subvert whatever her forebears have sown throughout the years — that they can have their cake and eat it too, and still be able to survive into the next day. Grrrl power.