PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

The Final Girl

Jeremy Griffin
Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs

Are the terrorized female survivors in horror films feminist icons, salacious victims, or rather, the only remaining survivor who also manages to conquer the monster?


Thelma and Louise and Women in Hollywood

Publisher: McFarland & Company
ISBN: 0786423137
Author: Gina Fournier
Price: $35.00
Length: 392
Formats: Paperback
Amazon

Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film

Publisher: Princeton
Price: $24.95
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0691006202
Author: Carol J. Clover
US publication date: 1993-03-22
Amazon

Recently I went through this phase in which I felt compelled to watch every single installment of A Nightmare on Elm Street. It started innocently enough I suppose, with a weird nostalgic impulse to see the first one again. But as I’m sure the horror fans in the crowd will attest, it’s hard to watch a single installment without succumbing to the need to see the rest. And so I made a week out of it, or eight days, rather -- one film a night.

It was during number four, The Dream Master, that it finally occurred to me: In each installment, the sole survivor is a woman. This led me to consider every horror movie I had ever watched, and I realized that this was the case for at least 90 percent of them.

Director Brian DePalma (Carrie, Scarface) once claimed that female frailty is a predicate of the suspense genre. In the case of horror films, the suspense arises not from watching some knife-wielding lunatic hunt down his victim, but from the fact that that victim is almost always female. This is a result of mainstream cinema, which has trained us to view female characters as ancillary to males, lacking the same degree of self-reliance. “The guy shines as the star while the girl orbits around him,” says Gina Fournier, author of Thelma and Louise and Women in Hollywood.

Horror films, on the other hand, continuously offer us intelligent feminist heroines, women who can subvert the viewer’s preconceptions of gender by effectively outmaneuvering their assailants, and without all the heavy-handed politics that tend to undermine more “credible” feminist cinema.

In Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol Clover, professor of film studies at University of California, Berkeley, refers to this perennial female survivor as the Final Girl. Charged with the task of tracking down and eliminating the killer, the Final Girl is more or less the embodiment of raw fear: “She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued, or to kill him herself. But in either case, from 1974 on, the survivor figure has been female.”

It is in the film's third act, usually after an elaborate chase sequence, that the Final Girl is at last able to overpower the killer, often by luring him/her into an ad hoc trap of sorts. This is often viewed as the film's most important scene, not just in terms of narrative arc, but because the juxtaposition of the two characters, Final Girl and killer, forces audiences to identify with her and cheer her on.

The horror genre hasn’t had it easy. Roger Ebert has repeatedly blasted films like Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for their story lines and perceived lack of substance, contemptuously referring to them as “dead teenager movies.” Feminist scholars have been tireless in their efforts to draw parallels between horror films and pornography; some have even gone so far as to liken them to snuff films. “The human monsters of such films rarely rape,” writes Linda Williams, professor of film studies at the University of California, Irvine. They "more often kill, but killing functions as a substitute for rape.” Even the Final Girl, in spite of her title, must withstand a considerable degree of torture, both physical and psychological -- as depicted in such films as Halloween, I Spit on Your Grave, and the current Lindsey Lohan vehicle I Know Who Killed Me -- which seems to hark back to the kind of degradations heaped upon women in certain realms of the pornographic.

Film studies professor Barbara Creed says, "The horror film offers an abundant display of fetishistic effects whose function is to attest to the perversity of the patriarchal order.” The perversity, in this case, refers to the latent psychosexual conflicts underlying the violence of most horror films, such as an exacerbated oedipal complex (Psycho) or issues regarding sexual identity (The Silence of the Lambs) and the “patriarchal order” that Creed mentions indicts American culture.

Recently, however, attitudes toward horror films have shifted. Beginning in the '90s, many scholars, film and feminist, have stopped focusing so heavily upon the disadvantages of female characters and more upon their assets. And there are plenty. The Final Girl’s efforts to eliminate the killer are contingent upon her strength, intelligence, and fortitude -- qualities that, in most cases, her male counterparts do not possess. In the Alien franchise, for instance, it is Ripley -- arguably the most ass-kicking of all Final Girls -- who defeats the ruthless space monstrosities, not the squadron of marines or the all-male prison colony.

Sigourney Weaver in Alien

In Friday the Thirteenth Part II, Ginny cleverly dons Mrs. Voorhies’s sweater and appeals to Jason as his late mother, thereby halting him in his tracks. And let’s not forget Sidney, heroine of the self-aware Scream trilogy, who fought off a total of five attackers over the course of three films. This list goes on.

Horror films forcibly challenge the conventional politics of movie-watching, not to mention movie-making. The sexualization of the Final Girl is intended to subvert our assumptions about on-screen gender roles, articulated quite aptly in Scream with Sidney’s (Neve Campbell) scathing summation of the standard horror plot: "Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who’s always running up the stairs when she should be running out the door. It’s insulting.”

Presumably, the “insult” derives from the relationship between the character’s exaggerated good looks and her intrinsic victimhood; DePalma’s “female frailty” adage. The implication here (one of them, anyway) seems to be that for the Final Girl, strength and sexual appeal are, or should be, mutually exclusive. But why? Why does she have to choose between the two? After all, this is what sets her apart from the rest of her group: she is multidimensional. She can be strong and sexy. Is that so unrealistic? (It is interesting to note that Campbell’s character, Sidney, gave this speech only moments before being attacked and consequently becoming the trilogy's Final Girl.)

This is also what distinguishes the Final Girl from the prototypical leading male in most action flicks. We know from the opening scene that the brash, rugged Bruce Willis-type will ultimately prevail, the only question is how (we can usually assume it’ll involve guns and at least one exploding truck). As for the Final Girl, however, the question of her survival is much trickier, because quite honestly, we’re just not used to seeing beautiful women save the day.

Except in horror films.

None of this is to suggest that horror films are any more enlightened than other genres. Wes Craven is certainly not the next Betty Friedan. Nor is this to suggest that the concept of empowering women in the face of capitalist patriarchy is completely absent from mainstream cinema. Over the years, Hollywood has offered films such as Thelma and Louise, Erin Brockovich, and Million Dollar Baby -- seemingly progressive flicks that depict strong, resourceful, independent women who overcome gender-based obstacles. But in these films, the need to draw attention to the woman’s conquering prowess often leads to little more than the not-so-astonishing realization that men and women are pretty much capable of the same things.

Sissy Spacek in Carrie

The overarching message is largely overshadowed by the ham-fisted efforts to make the viewer aware that there is, in fact, a message. Thomas Doherty, chair of the Film Studies program at Brandeis, says the concluding scene in Thelma and Louise teaches us that “the only conceivable fate for a woman with the right stuff is to be driven off a precipice into oblivion.” How could anyone find hope in this?

Meanwhile, the horror genre remains the only genre in which women are guaranteed to save the day. Horror films are not explicitly about gender politics, yet the Final Girl remains an integral part of film, even more so perhaps than the axe-wielding lunatic chasing her through the darkened field, because that’s what really grabs us as viewers. We’ve been conditioned to believe that she won’t make it, that she’s incapable of surviving on her own, and so we’re frightened on her behalf. DePalma’s assertion that female frailty is a predicate of the suspense genre may have been correct, but if that’s the case, then so is female perseverance.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.