Posted on January 31, 2016

The Final Girl, Part 1

Dawn Keetley

Horror Homeroom is running a series on the “Final Girl” for Women in Horror Month. We’ll be tweeting Final Girls daily and offering posts throughout the month about how people have conceptualized the Final Girl and how she’s evolved in horror film from about 1960 until now.

For this first post, I simply want to lay out how Carol J. Clover, the critic who coined the term, described the Final Girl, and to point out (very briefly) what came before—and thus how revolutionary the Final Girl was when she burst onto the scene.

At the risk of being reductive, prior to about 1960, women in the horror film were either powerful and (then) dead, or they survived only because they were rescued by men.

My favorite classic horror films, Thirteen Woman (David Archainbaud, 1932), Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936), and Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942), all feature powerful, hypnotic women who have few qualms about leaving a trail of bodies in their wake—and who all wield their gaze (always a mark of power in film) with devastating effect.

Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter

Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter

Unfortunately, all three of the women are dead by the end of the film—punished for their autonomy, their power, their gaze, and their sexuality.

The storyline of women being threatened by the monster only to be saved by men became a staple of 1950s horror films, which tended to back away from the power (however limited) given to women in classic horror. Images like those below from two films directed by Jack Arnold, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Monster on the Campus (1958), abounded. Women were draped, often unconscious, in the grip of the monster and then rescued by lovers, doctors, scientists, the military, the police—a whole array, in other words, of male authorities.

2. 1950s collage

Things began to change in 1960 with the release of Psycho, a film that gave us, in Lila Crane (Vera Miles), the first glimmer of the Final Girl.

3. Psycho, Lila in mirror

Carol Clover described the Final Girl in her groundbreaking 1992 book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton University Press), offering as examples Psycho (which prefigured the Final Girl, in her view), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, featuring Nancy as the “grittiest” Final Girl, according to Clover)—and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986).

Nancy from Nightmare on Elm Street

Nancy from Nightmare on Elm Street

The Final Girl is different from her (more feminine) friends in several ways: she is more observant (“watchful to the point of paranoia,” according to Clover); she is smart, resourceful (demonstrating “competence in mechanical and other practical matters”); she is androgynous, even to the point of masculinity—and she is a virgin.[1]

Most importantly, the Final Girl is a survivor: she meets the killer, takes him on, and defeats him. Her efficacy with weapons, moreover (and they are often phallic weapons that highlight her masculinity), only continues her efficacy with the gaze. She (often alone) sees the killer; she wields the power of the gaze over him before she kills him.

Unlike her friends, Laurie sees Michael (in Halloween)

Unlike her friends, Laurie sees Michael (in Halloween)

Indeed, the Final Girl’s ability to see and to fight the monster serves to align her with him: the killer and the Final Girl are the two most important characters in the slasher film—and they usually share the camera, as the point of view gravitates from killer to Final Girl. They also share gender fluidity. As Clover aptly puts it: “Just as the killer is not fully masculine, [the Final Girl] is not fully feminine.”[2]

Clover pushes her argument about the gender ambiguity of the Final Girl one step further—and it’s been one of the most controversial parts of her argument. Clover claims that the Final Girl is masculine because the audience for horror films is mostly male—and so the Final Girl serves as a point of identification for the male viewer. (This is why the Final Girl isn’t allowed to have sex which, from the point of view of male identification would be homosexual sex!) “The Final Girl,” Clover famously claims, “is, on reflection, a congenial double for the adolescent male.”[3]

Alice from Friday the 13th

Alice from Friday the 13th

Indeed, male viewers are able to experience the “abject terror” incited by the film because they do so through a female body: it would be unacceptable, Clover insists, for a male character to experience abject terror. (Looking to the future, I think this is one of the things that changes in the horror film of the 21st century.)

Of course one wonders, then, what of female viewers of horror? And why can’t male viewers identify with “abject terror” in a male body?

Although Clover ends her chapter by coming back to the femaleness of the Final Girl, she nonetheless problematically asserts that when the Final Girl saves herself, she engages in a “heroism” that is masculine. To put it succinctly, the Final Girl is a (masculine) hero who is anatomically female.[4] Needless to say, one wonders why a “hero” must be gendered masculine. Can’t Stretch from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 be a feminine hero??

Stretch from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

Stretch from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

Despite questions that critics and fans of horror have raised about Clover’s model, it has been profoundly influential. And it’s worth noting that Clover ends by stating quite unequivocally that the Final Girl is “like her name, not masculine but either/or, both, ambiguous.”[5] She brilliantly highlights, in short, how the horror film—the slasher sub-genre, no less—does the critically important work of challenging stiflingly binary gender roles.

As the month continues, we will continue to track what has become of the Final Girl since Clover wrote her book—and we’ll talk about Final Girls in films since the 1980s, thinking about how much they’ve changed. We’d love to hear your thoughts: what are your favorite Final Girls? Is there still a Final Girl of horror and, if so, what does she look like?

[1] Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, pp. 39-44.

[2] Clover, p. 40.

[3] Clover, p. 51.

[4] Clover, 60.

[5] Clover, p. 63.

You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Back to top