The final girl is a trope in horror films (particularly slasher films). It refers to the last girl or woman alive to confront the killer, ostensibly the one left to tell the story. The final girl has been observed in many films, including The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, Alien, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. The term was coined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992). Clover suggested that in these films, the viewer began by sharing the perspective of the killer, but experienced a shift in identification to the final girl partway through the film.
Usage of the term
The original meaning of "final girl", as described by Clover in 1992, is quite narrow. Clover studied slasher films from the 1970s and 1980s (which is considered the golden era of the genre) and defined the final girl as a female who is the sole survivor of the group of people (usually youths) who are chased by a villain, and who gets a final confrontation with the villain (whether she kills him herself or she is saved at the last minute by someone else, such as a police officer), and who has such a "privilege" because of her implied moral superiority (for example, she is the only one who refuses sex, drugs, or other such behaviors, unlike her friends).
However, the term "final girl" has been used more recently in a broader sense, outside the slasher genre, and to females who are not morally pure, or even who survive together with other survivors, provided the other survivors are not the main focus of the struggle. The stereotypical virginal girl contrasted with her girlfriends' promiscuity is largely out of use today. Furthermore, slasher films have declined in popularity in recent decades, being replaced with science fiction horror in the 1990s and supernatural horror in the 21st century. It has been argued that the most common female character trope of 21st century horror is the Dysfunctional Mother.
A common plot line in many horror films is one in which several victims are killed one-by-one by a killer amid increasing terror, culminating in a climax in which the last surviving member of the group, usually female, either vanquishes the killer or escapes.
The final girl trope has evolved throughout the years, from early final girls most often being damsels in distress, often saved by a strong male (such as a police officer or heroic stranger), to more modern final girls who are more likely to survive due to their own abilities. According to Clover's definition, Lila Crane from Psycho (1960) is an example of a female survivor and not a final girl, due to her lack of moral purity, who is saved by a male (Sam Loomis, not to be confused with the Halloween character of the same name) at the film's ending. Laurie Strode from Halloween (1978) is a final girl, but one that is saved by someone else (also named Sam Loomis).
On this basis, Tony Williams argues that, while 1980s horror film heroines were more progressive than those of earlier decades, the gender change is done conservatively, and the final-girl convention cannot be regarded as a progressive one "without more thorough investigation.” Furthermore, in many slashers, the final girl's victory is often ambiguous or only apparent. The fact that she is still alive at the end of the movie does not make her a victorious heroine. In many of these movies, the end is ambiguous, where the killer/entity is or might be still alive, leaving viewers uncertain about the future of the final girl (a notable example being Jess Bradford in 1974's Black Christmas). The viewers wait for a send-off or sequel bait, and are felt that they are left with a apparent victory. Tony Williams also gives several examples of final girls in the heroines of the Friday the 13th series, such as Chris Higgins from Part III. He notes that she does not conclude the film wholly victorious and is catatonic at the end of the film. Williams also observes that Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter does not have a final girl, despite Trish Jarvis surviving at the end. Additionally, Williams notes that final girls often survive, but in the sequel they are either killed or institutionalized. A notable example is Alice Hardy who survives Friday the 13th (1980) only to be killed in the beginning of Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981). Derek Soles argues that the tragic destiny of such final girls represents an expression of patriarchal society where capable, independent women must either be contained or destroyed. In more recent films, this has started to change, with the final girl no longer being always doomed, a notable example being the Scream series.
According to Clover, the final girl in many movies shares common characteristics: she is typically sexually unavailable or virginal, and avoids the vices of the victims like illegal drug use. She sometimes has a unisex name such as Avery, Chris, or Sidney. Occasionally the final girl will have a shared history with the killer. The final girl is the "investigating consciousness" of the film, moving the narrative forward and, as such, she exhibits intelligence, curiosity, and vigilance. Another trope of slashers (particularly in the 1980s) is "death by sex", where sex scenes are shortly followed by violence, with the participants being murdered in gruesome ways. More recent horror movies challenge more of these tropes. Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the words of Jes Battis, "subverts" the final girl trope of B-grade horror films. Jason Middleton observes that although Buffy fulfills the monster-killing role of the final girl, she is the opposite of Clover's description of a final girl in many ways. Buffy is a cheerleader, a "beautiful blond" with a feminine first name, and "gets to have sex with boys and still kill the monster". Sidney Prescott in Scream also survives despite having sex.
One of the basic premises of Clover's theory is that audience identification is unstable and fluid across gender lines, particularly in the case of the slasher film. During the final girl's confrontation with the killer, Clover argues, she becomes masculinized through "phallic appropriation" by taking up a weapon, such as a knife or chainsaw, against the killer. The phenomenon of the male audience having to identify with a young female character in an ostensibly male-oriented genre, usually associated with sadistic voyeurism, raises interesting questions about the nature of slasher films and their relationship with feminism. Clover argues that for a film to be successful, it is necessary for this surviving character to be female because she must experience abject terror, and many viewers would reject a film that showed abject terror on the part of a male. The terror has a purpose, in that the female, if she survives, is "purged" of undesirable characteristics, such as relentless pursuit of personal pleasure. Certain films, like The Witch (2015), can be said to subvert traditional expectations of a final girl.
Examples of final girls
While the character Mari Collingwood in the original 1972 version of the film The Last House on the Left has been viewed as primarily a victim, the 2009 remake of the film portrays the Collingwood character as more aligned with the "final girl" archetype. In Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas notes that that 2009 version of the character manifests traits of the trope.
An early example of a "final girl" can be found in the film Black Christmas (1974), where Jess Bradford, played by Olivia Hussey, is a well-developed character who refuses to back down against a series of more or less lethal male antagonists. Jess is technically not a final girl according to the narrow definition, due to lack of virginity, but being a sole survivor of an early major influential slasher she is often analyzed together with final girls.
According to Clover, Laurie Strode (from Halloween, Halloween II, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, Halloween Resurrection, and Halloween 2018) is another example of a final girl. Tony Williams notes that Clover's image of supposedly progressive final girls are never entirely victorious at the culmination of a film nor do they manage to eschew the male order of things as Clover argues. He holds up Strode as an example of this. She is rescued by a male character, Dr. Samuel Loomis, in the ending of Halloween.
Before the release of Alien 3, Clover identified Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise as a final girl. Elizabeth Ezra continues this analysis for Alien Resurrection, arguing that by definition both Ripley and Annalee Call must be final girls, and that Call is the "next generation of Clover's Final Girl". In Ezra's view, Call exhibits traits that fit Clover's definition of a final girl, namely that she is boyish, having a short masculine-style haircut, and that she is characterized by (in Clover's words) "smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance" being a ship's mechanic who rejects the sexual advances made by male characters on the ship. However, Ezra notes that Call fits the description imperfectly as she is a gynoid, not a human being.
Christine Cornea disputes the idea that Ripley is a final girl, contrasting Clover's analysis of the character with that of Barbara Creed, who presents Ripley as "the reassuring face of womanhood". Cornea does not accept either Clover's or Creed's views on Ripley. While she accepts Clover's general thesis of the final girl convention, she argues that Ripley does not follow the conventions of the slasher film, as Alien follows the different conventions of the science fiction film genre. In particular, there is not the foregrounding in Alien, as there is in the slasher film genre, of the character's sexual purity and abstinence relative to the other characters (who would be, in accordance with the final girl convention, killed by the film's monster "because" of this). The science fiction genre that Alien inhabits, according to Cornea, simply lacks this kind of sexual theme in the first place, as it has no place in such "traditional" science fiction formats.
The character Ginny Field (from Friday the 13th Part 2) has often been viewed as an example of the trope. In The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, Barry Keith Grant stated that, "Ginny temporarily adopts Mrs. Voorhees's authoritarian role to survive. Although circumstances necessitate this, she clearly uses her enemy's strategy to become a phallic mother herself. This posture really questions the positive image of the Final Girl." He then called her "not victorious" when she called out for her boyfriend at the end of the film saying that it was done in a "non-independent manner". John Kenneth Muir references Ginny in Horror Films of the 1980s, Volume 1, saying "Amy Steel is introduced as Ginny, our final girl and heroine, and the only person who seems to have an inkling of the nearby danger. She's more resourceful than Alice and nearly upstages even Laurie Strode during the film's tense finale, wherein she brazenly dresses up as Jason's dead mother and starts barking orders at the confused serial killer." In Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle, Richard Nowell said "The shift in characterization of the female leads was also trumpeted during Ginny's self-confident entrance (Amy Steel) in Friday the 13th Part II. Where the makers of its predecessor introduced Alice as she prepared cabins while dressed in denim jeans and a shapeless lumberjack shirt, the sequel's conventionally attractive lead is established immediately as combining masculine traits with feminine attributes. Ginny exits a battered VW bug in a flowing fuchsia skirt and a low-cut t-shirt." Ginny's adoption of the monster's own strategy, in Part II, brings into question whether the final girl image is in fact a wholly positive one.
Sarah Connor was a timid young woman for the most part in the first film, The Terminator. She learned of the Terminator from Kyle Reese, and that he had come for her. By the end of the film, when it was down to her versus the Terminator, she had become a tough-as-nails heroine, and defeated the Terminator by luring it into a hydraulic press, where she crushed it. By the second film, she had become a hardened warrior, in danger of losing her humanity.
The character Nancy Thompson (from A Nightmare on Elm Street and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), has often been regarded as one of the most influential horror movie heroines. In his book Horror films of the 1980s, John Kenneth Muir references Nancy Thompson.
Kearney points to the character of Sidney Prescott in the Scream franchise. One of the final girl stereotypes was that the final girl is supposed to be a virgin, but the Scream films challenged that by allowing Prescott to survive until the end – even after having sex.
Heyes from the 2016 slasher film ''Terrifier'' has been observed by some critics to be a darker depiction of the "final girl" archetype. Having been driven insane by the events in the film, Heyes becomes a killer herself.
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