A term coined by the awesome Carolyn J. Clover, the Final Girl is the one at the end - dirty, covered in blood, about to spend a mint on therapy, but victorious - the one who lives to tell the tale. Clover supposes that the final girl is an impact of feminism on horror movies; a developing gender fluidity in society making unisex women the perfect horror victims: able to feel and display “feminine” terror, but more than willing to pick up a phallic killing tool and perform the necessary “masculine” deed of hunting and maiming, even killing, her own personal psychopath.
As much as I appreciate Clover’s thesis and find it fascinating, I’m gonna have to call shenanigans on it. And here’s why:
Coming from where I stand, the final girl looks to me like every man’s fantasy: young, beautiful, witty if not necessarily smart, and virginal - or, at least a lady in the streets and a freak in the bed (hey thanks, Luda!). She’s kind to everyone, even the nerds; she’s Molly Ringwald at the end of The Breakfast Club, except with a psychopath after her. She has a little bit of a tough streak - 9 times out of 10 she takes out the bad guy, after all. To me it seems that the final girl is nothing more than an accurate reflection of the time and culture’s idea of what femininity should look like.
Let’s take a look at the classic examples of the final girl: Jaime Lee Curtis in Halloween (1978), Adrienne King in Friday the 13th (1980), Heather Langenkamp in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Yeah, all three had a boyish quality to their characters, but we have to look at the decade they were being made in: between the second and third waves of feminism, a time that saw flat chests and linebacker-esque shoulder pads in fashion, giving women the masculine look they thought would help shatter all those glass ceilings. Being tough and boyish was in, and it reflected in the mass media.
Now let’s take a look at some of our contemporary final girls: Neve Campbell in Scream (1996), Naomi Watts in American remake of The Ring (2002) and Kristen Connolly in The Cabin in the Woods (2011). Each are perfect examples of the final girl, the first and the third consciously so. At the same time, they are all contemporary women of their time. All three are far from boyish, though they do have a sweet ‘girl next door’ quality about them. Everything about them reflects their contemporary concepts of accepted feminine norms.
Sexuality of these women follows conventions of their times, too. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, the sexual revolution was just ending, yes - but how much a revolution was it for the supposed nice high school girls of the ‘burbs? In the 90’s, sex was a norm for older teens, and when Neve as Sydney sneaks off to to get it on with her boyfriend during a party; Naomi is a divorcée, breakin’ all the rules; and Kristen? To quote the Director, “We work with what we have.”
In short, it’s my belief that these women are not androgynous beings whose fluid sexuality allows men and women to relate to them – they are the carefully constructed paper dolls of what culture dictated as appropriate during their time. I think there’s a better question here, though. Why do love watching them squirm and scream in terror? I think I have an answer, built from equal parts feminism and misogyny, with a dash of instinct and a tipple of delusions of grandeur... but that’s a different article for a different day.