The final girl is a trope in horror films (particularly slasher films). It refers to the last woman alive to confront the killer, ostensibly the one left to tell the story. The final girl has been observed in many films including Alien and Halloween. The term was coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Clover suggested that in these films, the viewer began by sharing the perspective of the killer, but experienced a shift in identification to the final girl partway through the film.
A common plot line in many horror films is one in which a series of victims is killed one-by-one by a killer amid increasing terror, culminating in a climax in which the last surviving member of the group, usually female, either vanquishes the killer or escapes. According to Clover, the final girl in many of these works shares common characteristics: she is typically sexually unavailable or virginal, and avoids the vices of the victims like illegal drug use. She sometimes has a unisex name such as Avery, Chris or Sidney. Occasionally the final girl will have a shared history with the killer. The final girl is the "investigating consciousness" of the film, moving the narrative forward and, as such, she exhibits intelligence, curiosity, and vigilance.
One of the basic premises of Clover's theory is that audience identification is unstable and fluid across gender lines, particularly in the case of the slasher film. The final girl is no longer the damsel in distress. During the final girl's confrontation with the killer, Clover argues, she becomes masculinized through "phallic appropriation" by taking up a weapon, such as a knife or chainsaw, against the killer. The phenomenon of the male audience having to identify with a young female character in an ostensibly male-oriented genre, usually associated with sadistic voyeurism, raises interesting questions about the nature of slasher films and their relationship with feminism. Clover argues that for a film to be successful, it is necessary for this surviving character to be female because she must experience abject terror, and many viewers would reject a film that showed abject terror on the part of a male. The terror has a purpose, in that the female, if she survives, is 'purged' of undesirable characteristics, such as relentless pursuit of personal pleasure.
Examples of final girls
An early example of a "final girl" can be found in the 1974 film Black Christmas, where Jess Bradford, played by Olivia Hussey, is a well-developed character who refuses to back down against a series of more or less lethal male antagonists.
Before the release of Alien 3, Clover identified Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise as a final girl. Elizabeth Ezra continues this analysis for Alien Resurrection, arguing that by definition both Ripley and Annalee Call must be final girls, and that Call is the "next generation of Clover's Final Girl". Call, in Ezra's view, exhibits traits that fit Clover's definition of a final girl, namely that she is boyish, having a short masculine-style haircut, and that she is characterized by (in Clover's words) "smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance" being a ship's mechanic who rejects the sexual advances made by male characters on the ship. Ezra notes, however, that Call fits the description imperfectly as she is a gynoid, not a human being.
Christine Cornea disputes the idea that Ripley is a final girl, contrasting Clover's analysis of the character with that of Barbara Creed, who presents Ripley as "the reassuring face of womanhood". Cornea does not accept either Clover's or Creed's views on Ripley. While she accepts Clover's general thesis of the final girl convention, she argues that Ripley does not follow the conventions of the slasher film, as Alien follows the different conventions of the science fiction film genre. In particular, there is not the foregrounding in Alien, as there is in the slasher film genre, of the character's sexual purity and abstinence relative to the other characters (who would be, in accordance with the final girl convention, killed by the film's monster "because" of this). The science fiction genre that Alien inhabits, according to Cornea, simply lacks this kind of sexual theme in the first place, as it has no place in such "traditional" science fiction formats.
According to Clover, Laurie Strode (from Halloween I, II, and H20) is another example of a final girl. Tony Williams notes that Clover's image of supposedly progressive final girls are never entirely victorious at the culmination of a film nor do they manage to eschew the male order of things as Clover argues. He holds up Strode as an example of this. She is rescued by a male character, Dr. Samuel Loomis, at the end of Halloween.
Alice is the first character that follows the trope in the Friday the 13th franchise. In Horror and the Horror Film, while discussing the characteristics of the final girl, Bruce F. Kawin stated that "Alice overcomes Mrs. Voorhees by herself while the final girls in Halloween and Terror Train are saved by men. Alice had the greater influence on later films."
The character Nancy Thompson (from A Nightmare on Elm Street I, III and New Nightmare), has often been regarded as one of the most influential horror movie heroines. Many critics have praised the character for her wisdom and strength. Louis Peitzman of BuzzFeed said "Nancy doesn’t make it through her second Nightmare on Elm Street film, but she dies after delivering another killing blow to Freddy Krueger. And before that, she teaches a new generation of teenagers how to defend themselves against Freddy. For those reasons, she earns the distinction of fiercest Nightmare Final Girl."
Kearney points to the character of Sidney Prescott in the Scream franchise. One of the final girl stereotypes was that the final girl is supposed to be a virgin, but the Scream films challenged that by allowing Prescott to survive until the end - even after having sex.
Lila Crane, from Psycho, is another example of a final girl who is saved by a male (also named Sam Loomis) at the end of the film. On this basis he argues that, whilst 1980s horror film heroines were more progressive than those of earlier decades, the gender change is done conservatively, and the final-girl convention cannot be regarded as a progressive one "without more thorough investigation". Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the words of Jes Battis, "subverting" the final girl trope of B-grade horror films. Jason Middleton observes that although Buffy fulfills the monster-killing role of the final girl, she is the opposite of Clover's description of a final girl in many ways. Buffy is a cheerleader, a "beautiful blond" with a feminine first name, and "gets to have sex with boys and still kill the monster". Other examples are Julie James (in I Know What You Did Last Summer and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer), Kirsty Cotton in Hellraiser and Natalie Simon in Urban Legend. In the movie The Final Girls, Taissa Farmiga is known as a final girl. Sally Hardesty of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Clear Rivers and Wendy Christensen from the Final Destination films are well known examples. In the 2015 TV series Scream, where Emma Duval, Audrey Jensen and Brooke Maddox are the only female survivors of the massacre of Lakewood. The Canadian TV series Slasher had as example of a final girl of the Waterbury serial killer, the Executioner, Sarah Bennett. Tony Williams also gives several examples of final girls in the heroines of the Friday the 13th series sequels Part 2 (Ginny Field) and Part III (Chris Higgins). He notes that they do not conclude the films wholly victorious, however. Both Ginny and Chris are catatonic at the ends of the respective films, and Alice survives the monster in the first film only to fall victim to "him" in the second. The final girl in Part 2 is carried away on a stretcher, calling out for her boyfriend (which Williams argues again undermines the notion of final girls always being victorious). Moreover, Ginny's adoption of the monster's own strategy, in Part II, brings into question whether the final girl image is in fact a wholly positive one. Williams also observes that Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter does not have a final girl.
- Feminist film theory
- Gender in slasher films
- List of film and television clichés
- Misogyny in horror films
- Scream queen
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- Essay: Is the Final Girl an Excuse?
- Teenie Kill & The Final Girl: Gender and the Slasher Film
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- Gender Roles within Scary Movies by Alex Boles