• Mon. May 27th, 2024

The Wicked vs The Woman: the evolution of the ‘Final Girl’

ByLaura Bonetti Terán

Mar 12, 2023
Jamie Lee Curtis, who has played many iconic 'final girls'

Blood-curdling screams and spine-chilling serial killers… It’s the 80s – slasher horror is at an all-time high, and thrill seekers are grabbing onto their cinema seats whilst adrenaline pumps through their veins. Film billboards read Halloween II, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Hell Night, and Friday the 13th – only to name a few. You can expect masks and murders (and a jumpscare or two). Yet, there is a staple in these films that may go overlooked: the Final Girl. She is the surviving woman who victoriously limps towards safety right before the credits start rolling. 

The trope of the Final Girl became so apparent that Professor Carol J. Clover analysed it in her book Men, Women, And Chain Saws. There she dissected the traits of these characters: virginal qualities, overtly observative, and – most importantly – boyish behaviour. Clover writes: “The Final Girl is […] a congenial double for the adolescent male. She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of male competence and sexuality”. This article can only briefly cover some of her many fascinating insights, but reading her work will provide a deeper analysis of the subconscious formation of the trope in cinema… by men. The slasher-surviving woman is not an accurate feminist representation because it is essentially created through the male gaze for subliminal masculine satisfaction. Yes, these films might be your favourite; they are suspenseful, scary, and memorable, but to brand the protagonists as feminist heroes may be entirely wrong.

The horror genre has since grown, both in popularity and creativity. The bounds of the genre have curiously expanded, but the Final Girl trope – or at least a semblance of it – seems to remain. Does the trope remain faithful to its predecessors? While the answer is complicated, it is leaning towards a No. For instance, the trope has moved from the slasher subgenre onto a more extensive array of situations: a Swedish festival; a supernatural generational curse; a deceitful chef’s last dinner; or a meet-cute turned cannibalistic. The thread within these films is that the female protagonists’ lives are in danger. The way to survival may seem straightforward, like in Ready or Not and Fresh, or more uncertain, like in Midsommar and The Menu. 

Furthermore, the modern-day Final Girls seem to stray from the stereotypical qualities present in the original form, and their male counterparts usually put the conditions of danger into place. In The Menu, Anna Taylor-Joy plays an escort, a controversial profession. Her date was aware of the chef’s deadly plans but still hired her for his own benefit. Florence Pugh’s character in Midsommar struggles with mental health while her questionable boyfriend leads her into a perilous commune. The film’s end is ambiguous, with the Final Girl’s own morality coming into question. In Ready or Not, Samara Weaving’s Grace has a horrific night with her in-laws, who aim to kill her due to a curse about which her husband fails to warn her, despite them vowing to spend the rest of their lives together hours earlier. Fresh reveals a charming man working for an underground market demanding human meat, preferably female. The film features not one but two surviving women – both who seek relationships yet are constantly disappointed by men. 

The fact that they are placed in these situations by male characters does not aim to foster a hatred for men. Instead, I believe it represents the widespread transgressions women are prone to suffer at the hands of the patriarchy. In most of the films, men also suffer due to the plot, perhaps symbolising how men can be negatively affected by a misogynistic system. The diverse personal qualities of these women further dismantle the concept of an ‘ideal’ woman to the satisfaction of the male audience. 

In a time when unaddressed societal issues are increasingly being discussed, I believe the modern-day Final Girl can be interpreted as a victory against systematic misogyny. These characters surviving their respective hell-ridden situations are part of a wave of liberal filmmaking. If the trope is characteristic of one thing, then that is the display of feminine rage, which in reality, is continually silenced and suppressed at the request of a toxic society. Seeing these Final Girls navigate and overcome unpredictable situations is inspiring and even relatable. While change does not come as quickly as a two-hour horror film, the evolution of a dubious trope hopefully means progress towards a more equal (and honestly interesting) cinematic experience.

Image: Jamie Lee Curtis” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.