The Final Girl is one of the most recognizable tropes in the horror genre, especially in the revolutionary subgenre, the slasher film. Not only has the final girl evolved dramatically over the years, but there are a few theories attempting to explain the underlying meaning behind the sole survivor’s role.
Slashers tend to follow the same plot of several victims being killed amid increasing terror that climaxes as the survivor defeats the killer or escapes. Merriam Webster’s dictionary definition of the final girl is “a trope in horror movies, referring to the female protagonist who remains alive at the end of the film after the other character’s have been killed, when she is usually placed in a position to confront the killer”. The term was first coined by University of California professor Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book, “Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film”.
As for interpreting what the stereotype actually represents, theorists have come up with two opposing interpretations. The first being that the female character appears to be the embodiment of “womanly ideals”, falling into conservative standards regarding what a woman should be. She’s a damsel in distress, she’s pure, she’s smart and she doesn’t partake in any rebellious behavior as her friends might. On the other hand, some feminists actually believe the trope to be empowering for women. They argue that male audience members being forced to identify with a woman in the climax of the movie is emasculating to a degree.
But who is the final girl? The first notable final girls were Sally Hardesty from arguably the most influential slasher film of all time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and Laurie Strode from Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). The characteristics of these final girls are they are almost always female and almost certainly a virgin. They dress modestly in comparison to their promiscuous blonde counterpart, and is morally superior to her friends. She most likely will not participate in drinking, smoking and/or illegal drug use and is the most resourceful and intelligent.
However, are slasher films are to be taken as feminist rebellion, or as a sexist fantasy meant for a male dominated audience? The end of horror films is often ambiguous. It is unknown if the evil entity is killed, or the final girl escapes and the killer is left behind. This ending signifies that the final girl isn’t a hero, but merely a survivor of unfortunate circumstances. She survives the film, but some only live to be killed in the sequels (see Alice Hardy in Steve Miner’s Friday the 13th Part 2 or Sally from Hooper’sTexas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2). This fate questions the representation to be an expression of patriarchal society; that where possible, independent women must be destroyed or, at the very least, contained.
Yet in recent years, the habit of killing off final girls in sequels has faded. Instead, they often live to face off with their attacker again and again. Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) is the first slasher franchise not to kill Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in any sequels. Prescott also defies the death by sex trope in the way that she has sex and survives. Drew Goddard’s 2012 surprise hit The Cabin in the Woods also challenged the fate of the final girl. Dana (Kristen Connolly) not only survives until the end of the film, but she has the option to choose to save herself as the last woman standing, or let the world end.
The final girls of today have changed from those audiences met 30-40 years ago, but they remain just as badass. The difference in recent years though, is that final girls are choosing their own destinies. These films depict a female character forced to confront her fears. This shows women viewers that their fears are not only survivable but conquerable. The stereotype might have originated as a personified fantasy, but women and their characters reclaimed the trope, empowering audiences everywhere.