Feminist Film Theory 101: Carol J. Clover’s “The Final Girl”

As it’s Halloween this month, it only seems apporiate for this month’s “Feminist Film Theory 101” to focus on Carol J.Clover’s “Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.” and the “Final Girl”. Who is the Final Girl, and is she a true feminist icon?

From its first publication in 1992, Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws” has offered a groundbreaking perspective on the creativity and influence of horror cinema has on our popular culture since the mid-1970s. Clover studied slasher films from the 1970s and 1980s and defined the Final Girl as a female who is the sole survivor of the group of young people.

The Final Girl is the one who gets a final confrontation with the villain and she either kills him herself or she is saved at the last minute by someone else, such as a police officer. The Final Girl has been given a “privilege” of survival because of her implied moral superiority (for example, she is the only one who refuses sex, drugs, or other such behaviors, unlike her friends).

Alice Hardy (Adrienne King) the Final Girl of “Friday the 13th” (1980)

Clover states that the Final Girl is first presented to us through the use of the Male Gaze (see here for previous “Feminist Film Theory 101 which goes into some depth about the Male Gaze). This Gaze is usually the killers, perhaps best depicted by how Michael Myers stalks Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) in “Halloween” (1978). However, during the films, there is a transition where the narrative flips and the audience starts to identify with and root for the Final Girl. As Clover states, “These films are designed to align spectators not with the male tormentor, but with the female victim — the ‘final girl’ — who finally defeats her oppressor.”

What makes horror “crucial enough to pass along” is, for critics since Freud, what has made ghost stories and fairy tales crucial enough to pass along: its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings

Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film, Carol J. Clover

According to Clover, horror films tap into society’s repressed fears of gender. Like the fairytales of the past such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Snow White”, films such as “Halloween” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” focus on the concept of an outside threat and a pure, Virgin ‘princess’ who must defeat evil. Horror films address the concerns of the society at the time,  the late 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of the teen youth culture and sexual freedom which manifested itself in the slasher movie.

The final girl in many movies shares common characteristics: she is typically sexually unavailable or virginal (it is often implied that she may even fear sexual intercourse, or has no desire in it all), and avoids the vices of the victims like illegal drug use or excessive drinking. She sometimes has a unisex name such as Avery, Chris, or Sidney (perhaps this helps the male viewer identify with the Final Girl easier). Occasionally the final girl will have a shared history with the killer (often the killer will be related to her or a potential mate). The Final Girl is the “investigating consciousness” of the film, moving the narrative forward and, as such, she exhibits intelligence, curiosity, and vigilance.

The Monster is always lurking in the shadows, (“Halloween”, 1978)

However, the case can be made that Final Girl isn’t a true feminist character as Clover argues, as she becomes masculinized through “phallic appropriation” by taking up a weapon, such as a knife or a chainsaw, against the killer. She also has a unisex name and is usually dressed in unisex clothes (think of Laurie’s blue shirt or Ripley’s white tank top). For the slasher 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. However, the male viewer must still be able to connect and identify with the character, therefore, we see a very androgynous ‘female’ character.

The relation between the sexes in slasher films could hardly be clearer. The killer is with a few exceptions recognizably human and distinctly male; his fury is unmistakably sexual in both roots and expression; his victims are mostly women, often sexually free and always young and beautiful.

Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film, Carol J. Clover

But, while the Final Girl is the last character to survive at the evil clutches of Freddy or Jason, her long term fate is still questionable. On the surface, the Final Girl may seem like a feminist icon in cinema, but she has to endure one hell of a journey and has been subjected to abuse and terror from the killer. The fact that the Final Girl has made it to the end 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. Perhaps a good example of this is at the end of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), and even though Sally (Marilyn Burns) escapes in the back of a pickup truck, Leatherface is still free, spinning around and brandishing his chainsaw in glee.

A lucky escape for Sally…?

“[adjustments in gender representation] is an adjustment largely on the male side, appearing at the furthest possible remove from the quarters of theory and showing signs of trickling upwards, is of no small interest.”

Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film, Carol J. Clover

The character of Sally doesn’t exactly fit comfortably into Clover’s Final Girl theory, as Sally is rather passive throughout the film. While she ultimately escapes Leatherface and his family, it is simply because she manages to outrun them and escape on the truck. She doesn’t exactly move the narrative forward, nor does she face Leatherface in a showdown of sorts. Compared to the likes of Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), who lures Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) out of the dream world into the real world and sets him alight, Sally is not a true embodiment of the Final Girl trope. However, as we see from the film’s ending, Freddy has not been defeated and he is still out to terrorize Nancy.

More often and not the Final Girl will often be written out of the sequels, or either brought back to be killed (shown in the sequel to Friday the 13th where the character of Alice is murdered) or she institutionalized (as seen by Sarah Connor in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”). According, to Derek Soles it is the tragic destiny of such final girls and this “represents an expression of a patriarchal society where capable, independent women must either be contained or destroyed”.

Since 1992, there has been some dramatic changes in the depiction of the Final Girl, with “Scream” (1996), “You’re Next”(2013) and “It Follows” (2015) being perfect examples of a modern updating of the Final Girl as these female characters are active throughout the film, driving the plot forward and we see the film’s narrative form primarily their point of view. It is also worth mentioning the fact that these ‘final girls’ have a sex life as well, something that the final girl of thirty to forty years ago was denied.

The next generation of Final Girl? Erin (Sharni Vinson) from “You’re Next”

However, there are still issues with the lack of diversity in the Final Girl line-up. The majority of the Final Girls are CIS gender, white, and from a primarily middle-class background. And, films such as “It Follows” and “You’re Next” were directed by male directors, and aimed a primarily male audience. Perhaps we will see the Final Girl evolve into an actual feminist icon, one who is a fully developed character and isn’t an embodiment of the Male Gaze. And, with more female and non-binary filmmakers directing horror films, we will also hopefully see a Final Girl who ticks all the right boxes, and actually survives the monster and more importantly the deadly sequel.





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