In a genre which built a large portion of its popularity upon the brutalization of women and girls, the Final Girl trope emerged during the golden age of horror in the 1970s and 80s. Coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, the phrase typically refers to a woman who is the sole survivor of a killer or monstrous crisis. But surviving isn’t the only thing Final Girls are expected to do—they must also be paragons of moral virtue.
While the meaning of this popular phrase has warped, evolved, and simplified for most who use it, its origins can’t be denied. The earliest Final Girls were simply damsels—think Laurie Strode, who cleverly and steadfastly escaped the terrors of Michael Myers, but was still ultimately saved by a man, Dr. Sam Loomis. Laurie is a good girl who shrugs off dating and sex to look after children. As such, she’s rewarded with her life in ways in which her morally inferior friends aren’t.
Of course, the distinction between amoral survivors and Final Girls began to thin a little as slashers progressed in the 1980s. Heroines could unwind a little, but at the cost of closure for viewers. Like Michael vanishing in the end of Halloween, many slashers wrapped up on an ambiguous note, implying the danger was far from over. And when a Final Girl triumphed in a film, sure enough there would be a sequel that would either see her killed or institutionalized, as was the case for Alice Hardy in Friday the 13th Part 2.
A notion of change in the genre began with Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1992. A prime example of exactly the kind of girl that would meet the most humiliating and gruesome deaths in horror films, Buffy Summers (Kristy Swanson) was a blonde, perky, boy crazy, cheerleader. She also happened to be destined to bring down the ever-present threat of blood-thirsty vampires. This concept was so revolutionary and popular that it spawned a series of the same name in 1997, headed by Sarah Michelle Gellar. And while Buffy may not have always been technically alive, at least she always came back! But was Buffy an example of leaps and bounds of progress within the Final Girl trope, or does her status as a Chosen One surpass subverting expectation and create its own conflicting niche all on its own?
The very foundations of the Final Girl trope were rocked with the premiere of the Scream franchise. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) was a heroine unlike anything audiences had seen in horror before. The movie itself was a deconstruction of the genre, poking fun at the conventions and formulas that had shaped horror for decades. But Sidney was a teenage girl who, while coming with her own baggage of a tragic backstory, never had to bear the burden of being perfect. She was suspicious, slung curse words, partied, flirted, flashed skin, and even eventually had sex. But rather than signing her death certificate, her personal exploration—though ill-advised, contextually—seemed to give her only more strength. After all, it wasn’t long after she had sex with her boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), that she put him down once and for all.
At last, Final Girls started to look like... well, real girls. From the seed that Sidney Prescott planted, modern finals girls have bloomed. Mia Allen (Jane Levy) in Evil Dead. Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) in Happy Death Day. Grace Le Domas (Samara Weaving) in Ready or Not. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in the revitalized 2018 Halloween reboot.
However, progress doesn't mean perfection. While there are certainly plenty of women who feel empowered by these strong, gritty heroines, it is simultaneously true that the trope itself has some harmful foundations and connotations. For one thing, it keeps violence in media heavily centered on women. While Final Girls may be heroes, they are still brutalized to traumatizing ends—and to extents far greater and more drawn out than their masculine counterparts.
For another thing, “Final” often—though not always—implies that the woman or girl left standing at the end of the film is alone. She’s made of tougher stuff. She’s not like other girls. But she’s also not really like the boys, either. And while the use of Final Boy has been thrown around a bit, it hasn’t quite taken off, and it’s rarely considered seriously. Besides, the expectations of a Final Boy are wholly different to that of a Final Girl—their only real requirement is that they’re not a complete jerk.
In our society, it’s generally expected that men are going to survive. They’re the protectors. The action heroes. In horror, the Final Girl trope throws women a bone. But really, if you take a look at the state of the world—especially when you start to consider the intersectionality of women so greatly underrepresented in film—women face violence every day. From oppressive micro-aggressions to stalking to domestic violence, sexual assault, and murder, women are in a constant state of fighting for their lives. Girls begin preparing for crises when they hit puberty—maybe even sooner. It’s common practice for women to face oppression head on, throwing everything they have into a fight. And painting the women who don’t happen to survive it as weak or less than a Final Girl is a pretty bad look.
The problem beyond all this, of course, is that most Final Girls are straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied women. Sure, that’s the kind of leading ladies you’re going to see across all film genres, but if a trope is going to be hailed for its nod to feminism, let’s not forget those who carried the movement on their backs.
Then again, do women within further marginalized communities even want to see their stories copy and pasted into the realm of the Final Girl? I certainly can’t speak for everyone, but if I turn the question on myself, my answer is… not really? Don’t get me wrong, I get immense amounts of satisfaction from seeing women covered in blood and pulling one over on an evil man who thinks he’s too clever to lose. But the implication that it’s a special and unusual outcome grates. The fact that women have to suffer to be seen as strong is exhausting. The black and white morality of the trope has gotten old.
If it were just a smattering of Final Girls within the genre, it would be a fun and mindless romp. But it’s so pervasive a concept in conversations centered around horror media that it has begun to lack complexity. For me, some of the most empowering representations of women in horror have come from characters you might not typically call heroes at the end of the day.
In the 2009 film Jennifer’s Body, teenage Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) is the victim of a sacrifice to the devil, but since she wasn’t the virgin her killers believed her to be, she rose from the dead as a succubus. The film draws heavily on the conflicts of queerness, and while Jennifer is never framed as anything less than a villain, she’s a wholly sympathetic one. She is a victim of both a violent atrocity and the expectations of small town sexuality. She has spots of cruelty even before her monstrous transformation, and bouts of insecurity long after. Basically, the only thing that sets her apart from an average teenage girl is her appetite.
In the 2019 film Us, the Tethered are doppelgängers from a painful, mirrored life, bound to the actions of their counterparts above. Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their children (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) come face to face with their terrifying doubles while on vacation. As the Tethered spill out all across Santa Cruz to take the lives of their privileged counterparts, audiences are shown the truth of the matter—Adelaide is the Tether, and she switched with her doppelgänger Red as a child. So who is truly the villain in a deadly war of the oppressed? It’s a complicated turn—and it’s magnificent.
These complex examples of women in horror are a lot more difficult to name than the laundry list of Final Girls. But what does it say that some connect better to the villains rather than the heroines? The complete moral superiority expected of women is exhausting enough to experience in real life—the gentleness, the forgiveness, the purity—that seeing it over and over again on film just feels like propaganda at this point. Good women can still be flawed and messy. And letting yourself be a woman who makes mistakes or enjoys life or breaks the mold shouldn’t be punishable by death.
Related: Female Villainy in Horror Movies
When all is said and done, is the Final Girl trope a problem within the genre? Or is it ultimately a problem within our culture? And which is influencing which?
And the question we’ve all come here to consider—are Final Girls empowering? Yes. But also no. I’m not saying the trope should be obliterated from existence, or even from future films. I’m just saying it’s the start of a conversation, not the end of one.