The final girl is 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. The final girl has been observed in dozens of films, including Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the trope also appears in other genres.
The term was coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Clover suggests that in these films, the viewer begins by sharing the perspective of the killer, but experiences a shift in identification to the final girl partway through the film.
A common plot line in many horror films, particularly prior to the 1990s, 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, a girl or woman, either vanquishes the killer or gets away. According to Clover, the final girl in many of these works shares common characteristics: she is typically sexually unavailable or virginal, avoiding the vices of the victims (sex, illegal drug use, hedonistic lifestyle, etc.). She sometimes has a unisex name (e.g., Laurie, Sidney, Teddy, Billie, Georgie). Occasionally the final girl will have a shared history with the killer. For example, in Halloween II, Michael Myers is revealed to be the brother of Laurie Strode and in Scream 3 the killer is revealed to be Roman Bridger, half-brother of sole survivor Sidney Prescott. The final girl is the "investigating consciousness" of the film, moving the narrative forward and as such, she exhibits intelligence, curiosity, and vigilance.
Usually, the Final girl exemplifies androgynous traits, such as a short, masculine hair style, or wearing little to no make up at all, or male oriented skills, such as being experienced in mechanics, loading a gun, etc. This is exemplified in The Strangers when the Final girl, Kristen McKay loads a gun after her boyfriend admits he doesn't know how to work a gun, and when Marti Gaines of "Hell Night" states that she worked in her father's garage as a mechanic to earn money as a Summer job.
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, although the Final Girl is masculinized, 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 is 'purged' if she survives, of undesirable characteristics, such as relentless pursuit of pleasure in her own right. An interesting feature of the genre is the 'punishment' of beauty and sexual availability, sometimes expressed as "Sex = Death". Since the final girl is punishable for not being a virgin, she can be the one who penetrates the attacker, making it her outlet for her sexual frustration, such as Laurie Strode from Halloween.
The film Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) explains and talks extensively about this popular horror film convention (although in the film, it is referred to as "survivor girl"), even using it as a major plot device.
Examples of final girls
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 an android, 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.
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. He holds up Lila Crane, from Psycho, as 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".
Williams also gives several examples of final girls in the Friday the 13th franchise: Alice in Friday the 13th, and the heroines of Part II, Ginny Fields, and Part III, Chris Higgins. (He observes that Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter does not have a final girl.) 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.
Another example of that is Erin, the daughter of a survivalist father, from the home invasion film, "You're Next", who puts her survival skills to the test, ultimately taking up an axe and defeating the animal-masked assailants, led by her deviant boyfriend, Crispian. Another example is Mia Allen, who becomes possessed in "Evil Dead" (2013), but is later exorcised, and after her friends' deaths, faces off against the supernatural force that had destroyed her friends, ultimately defeating it with a chainsaw.
Also, twists have been put on the Final girl trope. Examples of this would be Amanda Young, from the "Saw franchise". After she survives Jigsaw's gas house, she is later revealed to be an apprentice of Jigsaw, kidnapping the detective who had wronged her, and other victims of the Gas House, exchanging his son's life for his own. Also, Christina Wendall of "Hemlock Grove" appears to be the Final girl of the show after discovering a dead body in the woods, her hair turns white, and she believes that the werewolf is coming for her next, but later is revealed as the werewolf herself, killing females due to her own questioning of her sexual orientation.
Buffy Summers, the protagonist of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series (1997–2003), was deliberately designed by creator Joss Whedon as an alternative to the "final girl" cliché. Buffy is, 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 characters identified as final girls include Sally Hardesty of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Nancy Thompson of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and Wendy Christensen from Final Destination 3.
In the middle 1990s, the trope of the final girl in horror films was "resurrected, reshaped, and mainstreamed". Kearney points to Sidney Prescott (in Scream, Scream 2, Scream 3 and Scream 4). One of the final girl stereotypes was that the final girl is supposed to be a virgin but the Scream franchise challenged that by allowing Sidney Prescott to survive until the end even after having sex. Other examples are Julie James (in I Know What You Did Last Summer and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) as examples of this along with Natalie Simon in Urban Legend and explicitly links these changes to Buffy.
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- Essay: Is the Final Girl an Excuse?
- Teenie Kill & The Final Girl: Gender and the Slasher Film
- Final girl at TV Tropes
- Gender Roles within Scary Movies by Alex Boles