The term “final girl” was made popular in the 1990s, when Carol Clover published her books Men. Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. It is used to describe the lone woman standing at the end of slasher movies made popular in the 70s and 80s. This final girl tended toward certain characteristics. She was typically mousey, shy, single, and, more importantly, virginal.
While the characteristics of the 70s final girl might seem outdated, the term is still used pretty broadly today.
The latest female-centric horror film to be released, Happy Death Day 2U, has people buzzing about the main character, Tree, played by Jessica Rothe. I’ve noticed on social media that because she is not the only one standing at the end of the film, that she is being referred to not as a final girl, but as a “survivor girl.”
Modern horror is reaching a turning point in what we expect out of a final girl, and I feel like we should be applying this new term to our modern horror leading ladies.
When you compare the two, I feel like “survivor girl” has more of a connotation of ownership in their own fate. The implication is that they survive because of some kind of skill, and making smart choices. “Final girl” at this point in the game, feels a lot like a process of elimination. “All the guys are gone! All the friends who are too busy getting laid to notice the body count have been hacked up! All the random neighbours have been eliminated! May I present to you….THE FINAL GIRL!”
Today’s “survivor girls” are all manner of personalities and traits, but the one thing they have in common is that they work their asses off, not only to save themselves, but to try to save others as well. They have back stories and emotional range. They aren’t defined by their relationships to others. And they are capable of making smart choices. Erin in You’re Next keeps a cool head and uses her unconventional survival skills to kick some ass, asking for help when she needs it and helping herself when she doesn’t. Jen in Revenge uses everything she has at her disposal to survive her captors, understanding that moving is key and only letting herself break down when she can afford to. Vicki in The Final Girls didn’t make it to the end, but she makes a sacrifice for the good of the group. The list goes on and on.
The first time that I saw Scream I was thirteen, and I was blown away. Wes Craven had been trying to make a point about horror and the modern woman, and while he was poking fun at the genre and the rules and tropes that surrounded horror by the 90s, he was doing something very important. He helped to redefine women in horror, and also shone a light on how arbitrary and restricting assigning specific traits to your lead is. Not only that, but story can suffer if you need to have the final girl achieve certain steps; Scream was anything but predictable, and that was because it was willing to break the rules. I think that anyone who saw that movie, if asked to describe Sidney Prescott, wouldn’t hesitate to say that she’s a survivor.
Horror has evolved a lot in terms of its representation of women over the years. Part of that is most likely that the response has been so positive, but also because it has evolved as society has. Horror has the power to shine a light on societal issues because a lot of those societal issues are what our fears and anxieties are rooted in. Women are increasingly aware of the injustice of being told not to walk down a creepy street alone, to watch each other get to their cars, to not put their drink down out of sight, because what if someone is there with the intent to hurt you? Seeing a smart, capable woman overcome this fear enacted on-screen is something that we crave.
I’m looking forward to seeing even more survivor girls in the years to come, and am even more excited for a day in the future when we can just say, male or female, that they’re the hero.