The Final Girl needs to die

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Throughout the countless retellings, subversions, and self-aware evolutions of horror (á la Scream), the genre has remained shockingly stagnant in terms of actually covering new ground. Everybody is always like “Look at the Final Girl and how virginal and brunette she is!” For a moment, forget about the Final Girl. We have to talk about the First Girl, or the girl that dies first in the horror movie.

 To talk about the First Girl, first we must talk about the Final Girl. In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, author Carol J. Clover defines her as “. . . the last girl standing at the end of a horror movie, especially a slasher.” Clover points to a series of traits that Final Girls commonly share: virginity, virtuousity, a unisex name, and (usually) being brunette. She then explains how their existence is a mirror of how society consumes horror, and by extension, violence–how society sees violence, how it punishes people for their vices, and how it perceives gender when it comes to horror. 

The impression of the Final Girl is often that of a person who is overtly feminine. Many are unable to access the “genderless” femininity of the Final Girl; she is beautiful without makeup and she dresses modestly. Rather than relate to this character, many women, especially those who are unconventionally attractive, are targeted by horror instead. Transgender women are often explicitly made the villain (Dressed to Kill, Silence of the Lambs, etc…). Clover herself addresses the way “nonfeminine” women suffer in movies. Instead of recognizing the hostility directed at women who don’t strictly adhere to American ideas of what a woman should be like, she writes these characters off entirely. “They were not women at all,” she argues, “because the narrative is simply coding them as men.”

In horror, the narrative punishes women who fall outside the small margins of a “proper woman.” Clover says the bimbo is killed for being too feminine, while the butch is killed for being too masculine. The problem with First Girls is not that they are male-coded, or that they’re too feminine. Their problem is that they do not fit the “right” kind of femininity. 

In her article about The Descent for Jezebel, writer Anna North observed “[The Descent] is pretty misogynist. ‘These women die in order of masculinity,’ [a friend] pointed out, ‘the ones who act the most like men die first.’” A lot of people place female characters into this dichotomy of “girly girl” to tomboy; but in the case of the prototypical American horror movie, the protagonist rarely ventures past the girly girl. When characters do break the feminine mold, as with many queercoded characters, they are usually swiftly (and brutally) done away with.

While Final Girl Laurie Strode (from Halloween) is not overtly feminine, she is: thin, manicured, and conventionally attractive. She wears light makeup and has long hair. She might wear dad jeans and long skirts instead of a micro skirt or skinny jeans, but she is not wearing anything that might attract attention. In fact, she is fairly average. And that is the point. The girls who die first are not being punished for their femininity, they are punished for performing the wrong kind. The root of their suffering is the same; they stray too far from the American idea of what a woman should be. Filmmakers–who are typically cisgender white men – inevitably weave their most tangible fear ofthe breaking of the status quo into their movies. That fear manifests in male killers who fail to embody masculine ideals (i.e. Buffalo Bill, The Silence of the Lambs). 

The Descent is a 2005 British horror flick where a group of friends go spelunking and are killed one by one by “crawlers.” At the end of the film Sarah (the protagonist) learns that her best friend Juno was having an affair with Sarah’s husband who died the year before. Sarah stabs Juno in the leg and leaves her to be eaten alive by the crawlers before running away, tripping into a hole, and falling unconscious. When she wakes up, she sees sunlight streaming into the cave. She follows the source and escapes. Not only does she get to live, she gets to take revenge on those who wronged her. That’s where the U.S. release ends. The UK release reveals that Sarah hallucinated her inexplicable escape. She never got out, and whether or not she will remains unsolved. 
The Aug. 2006 issue of Entertainment Weekly stated that the ending was trimmed because American viewers did not like the “uber-hopeless finale.” Lionsgate marketing chief Tim Palen said, “… by the time you get to the ending you’re drained.” This change encapsulates the weight of the Final Girl in American horror media. If horror is a mirror of the society it comes from, the prevalence and endurance of the Final Girl as a trope serves to remind us how formulaic American society continues to be. So maybe it is time for the Final Girl to die.

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