An Idea, A Trope, A Character
What is a final girl? It is a common trope of slasher movies and horror films. A final girl refers to the last survivor who is usually a female.
In a sense, the final girl is a trope based on a stock horror character. Similarly, she is an idea (as in a concept) about what the ideal survivor should be.
Indeed, the fact that the final girl represents an ideal is what most feminists find problematic about this trope (more about that further down).
Nevertheless, final girls have come a long way since their introduction in slasher films from the 1970s and 1980s.
Modern final girls seek to disrupt the old tropes. More character than a trope; more female-empowering than a potential victim.
Or is she?
When the term “final girl” was coined by scholar Carol J. Clover in her work Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), she was criticizing the horror film industry’s use of young females as murder victims for entertainment.
The term stuck with popular culture.
Today, the final girl trope is being both, questioned, subverted, and reinterpreted for modern audiences. And dare I say, it has become beloved.
But are we being blinded by nostalgia? Is this trope misogynistic or empowering?
Because it cannot be both.
Feministic or Misogynistic? Empowering or Victimizing?
Most feminists find the final girl trope problematic, even misogynistic. A form of female exploitation for viewer pleasure. Worse, it is patronizing.
Conversely, some feminists find the final girl “empowering“. Women get to survive, defeat the monster, be the hero.
Although I can see both perspectives, I will agree with the former statement. There is something very patronizing about telling young females the only way they can survive the monster is by being a “good girl”.
Pure, genderless, nerdy, shy, almost virginal if not a virgin, plays by the rules, does not upset the status quo. A girl next door type.
Did I mention she is also white and straight? The conservative view of “a good girl“.
Notice it is her friends who drink and get high, who have premarital sex and do not follow the rules the ones who always get killed by the monster.
Hmm, what message are we trying to send?
I understand the need for a black and white morality in horror fiction, but does it have to be so conservative? Because in fairness, I will be one of the first ones to get killed.
Nevertheless, I will disagree with feminists who think the final girl is sexist and demeaning of women. It is not.
First, both males and females get murdered in equal numbers in slasher films. It just so happens there is one female left at the end to confront the assassin.
Furthermore, if it was written the other way, a final guy, they will be the first ones to complain how sexist the male survives and how come the girl cannot be the hero.
No, you can’t have them both ways.
Still, we do need to stop demonizing “bad girls” and perpetuating the moral superiority of “good girls” when by good girls we mean submissive and obedient.
Now, that is sexist as fuck.
Living to Tell
In the end, the final girl trope is about one thing, and one thing only, and it is not gender roles or power dynamics. It is about survival.
The character, whether a “final girl”, “final boy”, heck, even “final gay”, is the one who is left standing to confront the masked killer.
Imagine you are young and are spending with your friends, in the woods, away from responsibilities and cares. Drinking, partying, getting laid, joking, having a good time. And then, one by one they start dying in gruesome ways.
Every single one of them. Maimed, disfigured, brutalized, tortured, beheaded… And you witness all of it. You survived.
You beat the bad guy. It does not make you morally superior.
Indeed, after a fashion, it makes you a victim.
Survivors’ guilt is real. So are trauma and PTSD. Nobody can walk away from the events of a slasher film with their sanity intact. It would not be realistic.
Hence, why perhaps we should not glamorize the final girl so much. There is nothing glamorous to envy. Nor surviving makes her special.
Yet, she lives to tell her story. Surviving is a triumph but is not a true victory.
Was it worth surviving?
Reinvindicating the Final Girl
There has been a movement toward reclaiming the final girl trope but make her beautiful, glamorous, popular, fierce, even powerful.
I think they are missing the point of the final girl.
She is meant to be the girl-next-door, the average, plain one. The girl you are more likely to find at a café than at the mall or the disco.
And yet, the appeal of the final girl is she is average; viewers can identify with her. If she looks like a Playboy centerfold or if she fights like a Charlie’s Angels, it takes away from that.
Let her be average but resourceful. Let her remain working class. The world is full of perfect people saving the day.
I bet those slasher films had as many female fans as male ones for a reason. We could all relate to her.
Thus, as modern authors try to reclaim the final girl, let us not forget what makes her a trope fans enjoy watching and reading about. She is us.
For a modern take on the final girl trope in horror fiction, check out the following books:
- The Last Final Girl (2012) by Stephen Graham Jones
- Final Girls (2017) by Riley Sager
- Final Girls (2017) by Mira Grant (this is a technopunk novella)
- My Heart is a Chainsaw (2021) by Stephen Graham Jones
- Final Girl Support Group (2021) by Grady Hendrix
Also, Halloween Kills, the latest Michael Myers movie opening today, features several final girls teaming up to stop the supernatural serial killer.
To conclude, whether Laurie, Alice, Nancy, or Sally (how come we know them by their first names?), the final girls will remain a staple of horror fiction. After all, someone has to live to tell the story.
But seriously, just once, can we have a final gay?
Reader, are you a fan of the final girl trope? Do you think is empowering or victimizing? Share in the comments.