What Is a 'Final Girl'?

Talking about one of my favorite tropes.

In the space of three months, two separate movies riffing on the same trope open in U.S. theaters. This isn’t a new concept. There’s a history of similarly-themed films released around the same time; however, what’s unique about this upcoming pair is that they both hinge on a specific phraseology that’s situated outside of mainstream culture - the final girl.

In two weeks, Final Girl opens in theaters.

A few months later, so does The Final Girls.

The tag ‘final girl’ might be familiar to those with more than a passing interest in film theory, particularly genre studies. The term refers to the last remaining girl in a horror movie, who outwits the killer through her adherence to a set of unspoken rules. She survives when her friends are slowly picked off one-by-one. It was coined by film academic Carol Clover in her textbook Men, Women and Chainsaws. Clover’s lengthy tome posits that the ‘final girl’ emerged after an epoch of slasher movies in which the female characters had the IQ of a doormat and were constantly skewered/bludgeoned/minced/stabbed and so on while their male counterparts lived.

In the ‘80s, a wave of intelligent young women unconcerned with satiating their own hedonistic desires took over the genre. Gone was the dumb blonde running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door; the stereotyped floozies chugging yards of lager and boinking the football team; the brain dead morons investigating a terrifying sound in an unlit basement. Clover’s defining characteristics state that a final girl is typically a virgin, has no interest in ridding herself of that virginity, doesn’t smoke, drink, drug, and can at times possess a unisex name. While not fixed, those exciting attributes often feature at the core of most female horror film survivors.

Both Final Girl and The Final Girls (that’s not going to get confusing) put the ‘damsel-in-distress’ trope to pasture. The former stars Abigail Breslin as a young woman targeted by four teenage boys who’d quite like to have their way with her. Their idea of a fun weekend is to ritualistically hunt defenseless women. She flips the tables on them with her pantheon of kill skills. A bit like I Spit On Your Grave but without the hideous inciting event. The latter is a horror comedy that bagged much more favorable reviews after its SXSW debut this year. It takes the intertextual meta angle by throwing Taissa Farmiga and her teenage cohorts into an old slasher movie they’re watching at the theater. The Last Action Hero meets Scream. Will either of these final girls live up to the standard? Let’s take a look at five who’ve seen it all before.

Sally Hardesty: ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’

Sally’s experiences with ole Leatherface influenced the title of Carol Clover’s book. She seems slight and unassuming but somehow keeps her shit together through the world’s worst dinner party. And that’s after she’s watched all of her friends get chainsawed to death.

Laurie Strode: ‘Halloween’

Laurie Strode conforms to another of Clover’s tenets — she’s related to the killer. Yep, the Haddonfield babysitter is stalked by her own brother after he makes hash of her friends with his trusty butcher’s knife. Bonus points: She manages to keep the two kids she’s responsible for alive.

Sidney Prescott: ‘Scream’

She survives the trauma of her mother’s rape and murder before the killers turn their sights on her. The self-aware nature of the movie means Sid sleeps with her boyfriend and yet still survives. That wasn’t her murderous boyfriend’s intention though.

Ellen Ripley: ‘Alien’

It’s been argued that Lt. Ellen Ripley isn’t a final girl. Granted, she has sex, drinks, and smokes. But she outlives an entire squad of marines and a prison of hardened convicts who can’t survive the acid-blooded creature.

Nancy Thompson: ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’

Poor Nancy’s chance for getting nookie is quickly revoked when her boyfriend gets sucked into a bed and erupts moments later as a stream of bloody goo. She uses her smarts to ward off Freddy Krueger, weakening his grip by telling him she’s simply not afraid of him.

There’s still a major downside to being a final girl - the machinations by which she survives. Alright, so it’s good news that she manages to outsmart a superhuman villain and live to tell, but to what kind of life will she return? One with no boys, no booze, no fun. This is documented in Men, Women and Chainsaws as a punishment that is the only way male audiences will go along with a woman as victor. A final girl has to undergo what’s described as ‘abject terror’ for men to give a movie the thumbs up. That specific reason sounds like antiquated bunkum, but the proof is there. It’s like Randy says in Scream, sex = death.

While Final Girl looks like bargain bin fodder, there is hope that in the future the final girl representation will continue to progress within contemporary popular culture. After all, the bleach-blonde Buffy bagged the boy and made time to kill the monster.

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