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.
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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, 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 Ginny Field (from Friday the 13th Part 2) has often been viewed as an example of the trope. In The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, Barry Keith Grant stated that, "Ginny temporarily adopts Mrs. Voorhees's authoritarian role to survive. Although circumstances necessitate this, she clearly uses her enemy's strategy to become a phallic mother herself. This posture really questions the positive image of the Final Girl." He then called her "not victorious" when she called out for her boyfriend at the end of the film saying that it was done in a "non-independent manner". John Kenneth Muir references Ginny in Horror Films of the 1980s, Volume 1, saying "Amy Steel is introduced as Ginny, our final girl and heroine, and the only person who seems to have an inkling of the nearby danger. She's more resourceful than Alice and nearly upstages even Laurie Strode during the film's tense finale, wherein she brazenly dresses up as Jason's dead mother and starts barking orders at the confused serial killer." In Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle, Richard Nowell said "The shift in characterization of the female leads was also trumpeted during Ginny's self-confident entrance (Amy Steel) in Friday the 13th Part II. Where the makers of its predecessor introduced Alice as she prepared cabins while dressed in denim jeans and a shapeless lumberjack shirt, the sequel's conventionally attractive lead is established immediately as combining masculine traits with feminine attributes. Ginny exits a battered VW bug in a flowing fuchsia skirt and a low-cut t-shirt." 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.
The character Nancy Thompson (from A Nightmare on Elm Street and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), has often been regarded as one of the most influential horror movie heroines. In his book Horror films of the 1980s, John Kenneth Muir references Nancy Thompson, stating the following:
- "As written by Craven and performed by Langenkamp, Nancy is a rarity in the horror genre: an intelligent and insightful youth who is capable of connecting the important things in her life. Only Nancy can recognize the link between worlds for what it is, and look below the surface of reality because she is already trained to do so, through family history. Nancy is prepared in her battle with Freddy because, one senses, she has already detected the dark truth lurking beneath the affluent surface of Elm Street. She has suffered her parent's divorce, her father's absence, and her mother's alcoholism...Nancy is even compared explicitly to Hamlet...in that Hamlet stamps out the lies of his mother, an act which Nancy will repeat during the course of the film..."
- "So the key to defeating her Freddy...is something that goes against Nancy's most prominent characteristic. She must turn her back on the dream demon. She must take back all the energy she gave him...This is Nancy's crisis: knowing when to dig for truth and confront the lies, and when to turn her back on the corruption and lies she has discovered..."
- "The final girl must actively take steps to protect herself and vanquish evil. For example, Nancy buys a survivalist, self-defense manual and in the conclusion of Elm Street, baits Freddy into chasing her. She then runs him through a punishing course of booby traps...Unlike Laurie, whom Halloween depicts as a victim of unchangeable 'fate,' someone who must mount a defense on the fly, Nancy is armed for battle and ready to rock."
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, Emma Duval, Audrey Jensen and Brooke Maddox are the only female survivors of the massacre in 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 such as Part III's Chris Higgins. He notes that she does not conclude the film wholly victorious, however. 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. Williams also observes that Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter does not have a final girl. But fans also realized the Trish Jarvis was alive at the end.
- Feminist film theory
- Gender in slasher films
- List of film and television clichés
- Misogyny in horror films
- Scream queen
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