The Final Girl: Now More Than Ever
The women’s rights movement was at a historic peak in the 1970’s. Between 1971 and 1972, the 92nd Congress had passed more women’s rights bills than all previous legislative sessions before it. Eisenstadt v. Baird gave unmarried women legal access to birth control and just a year later the monumental ruling of Roe v. Wade made abortion legal across the country. Then in 1977, Gerald Ford established a national commission to investigate women’s rights issues which resulted in federal funding that eventually led to the National Women’s Conference, an event that Gloria Steinem has deemed as of “the most important events in American history that no one knows about.” One year later, John Carpenter's Halloween was introduced to the American culture and immediately became part of the national zeitgeist.
Now you’re probably asking what Halloween has to do with any of this. Let me speculate for you. It’s 2017 and in America, the civil unrest is at an all-time high. Party versus party clashes have never been more publicized at a more consistent and more aggressive level. A lot of film analysts have correlated the nation’s general sense of fear to the reason that genre films have performed so outrageously well this year. In a country that is divided and afraid on both sides, droves of people are rushing out to be scared of something that isn’t quite as real.
It’s one of the most beautiful aspects of film, when a movie can directly tap into the mental state of the country's brain trust. Wall Street exploited the excess of 1980’s capitalist-centered culture, The Social Network was able to tap into the vein of a society that was learning how to change and profit through the internet, even Star Wars was the story of a successful heroic rebellion in a world that had become intrinsically distrustful of their government. When we can connect with a film it does well. When we resonate with a film on a deeper and more human level it drives success and cultural impact. Thus the slasher craze of the late seventies and early eighties.
In America, the entire population was coming to terms with accepting the simple fact that women are equals. Now you may look at the slasher subgenre of horror, as many do, and write it off as a phallic-image filled misogynistic boy’s club. Don’t be so quick to dismiss it. While the “final girl” is now a common piece of nomenclature, it was a shiny new concept when the likes of John Carpenter’s Halloween and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas.
The movies would generally start from the killer’s point of view and then flip the script and have the audience rooting for the lead female protagonist by the end of the movie. A movie that was glossed over in an overly masculine sheen was subliminally reminding people that women were just as courageous, brave, strong and powerful as men. (If not more so.) The slasher genre has long reigned as a staple in the world of horror. With it comes certain tropes. Much like The Breakfast Club, the slasher introduced the idea of a cast of stereotypes into the horror world. You had the jock, the nerd, the loner, the party girl. And then you had the final girl. The creation of this stock group was instrumental in furthering the importance of the role of the female lead. It created the idea of the everyman which further helped stabilize the reality that these women exist in every group, in every situation all over the world.
Don’t get me wrong. The slasher genre isn’t perfect. It can be analyzed in a number of ways, Carol Clover famously looked down on the final girl, a term she coined, in her now famous analysis of film culture Men, Women and Chainsaws. The final girl was often looked at as a way to slyly make a comment on youth culture and promiscuity at the time. Often virginal, boyish and abstaining from most drugs and alcohol, the final girl became a conduit for film to make a statement about women of the era. This is not necessarily a wrong analysis. It is also important, however, to look at these women for what they often were. They are resourceful, they are competent and they rarely need the aid of men to overcome adversity. While Laurie Strode stands strong among the ranks, it’s in A Nightmare on Elm Street where we are introduced to Nancy Thompson, who uses wits, traps, and intuitiveness to defeat dream demon Freddy Krueger without the help of any man at all. In even just the six years between Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the role was changing.
As with all things, the slasher evolved. After reaching fever pitch popularity in the eighties, the genre was all but dead when another master of horror, this time Wes Craven, directed Scream in 1996. All of a sudden, the slasher was back with a vengeance, but again tapping into the mindset of America and the evolution of society as a whole, rules had changed. This time our final girl broke the cardinal rule: she had sex. Yet, Sidney Prescott still comes out on top and defeats the killer and cementing herself in final girl history as one of the best and most iconic of her role. So suddenly it’s the end of the nineties, we are moving into a new millennium, and the rules have changed.
While Carpenter and others before him had created the general architecture of the final girl, Craven updated her for the time, which wasn't a shock, as he was the mastermind who had created the previously mentioned Nancy Thompson. It’s of no surprise that the slasher was able to make this comeback as the nation was becoming more self-aware and the movie was able to tap into the sense of self-awareness and help bring the idea of “meta” takes on cultural tropes a reality. It also became more evident as to why the final girl was able to make these steps in her creative growth. The country had more women in power: Madeline Albright, Janet Reno and Ruth Bader Ginsburg all became prominent women of stature. Women were also finding a more stable foot in Hollywood as leading roles, with movies such Twister and Pretty Woman becoming pop culture iconography and even smaller screen successes such as Roseanne and Friends. Even in the world of musical entertainment, females had become global superstars. Artists such as Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and the Spice Girls took the world by storm.
In the last decade we have seen the role grow as we have grown with her. The genre was getting introduced to women who could kick ass in any situations. Sarah in The Descent was part of an all-female cast that defied the odds and came out on top in a knock-em-down bloody brawl. Marybeth of the Hatchet franchise and Erin from You’re Next became formative women that were rarely even terrorized or tormented by the proverbial slasher and turned the tables by being more formidable than their would-be murderers. Mia from The Evil Dead remake proved that you could even be a former drug addict now and still survive through a torrential bloodsoaked rainfall. Jay from It Follows is a sexually active teen who boldly faces off against an unseen evil.
So that brings us to 2017, a year where horror undoubtedly reigned supreme. And on the top of the already wildly successful slate of films, we have two new age slashers with Victor Crowley and Happy Death Day. It’s hard to say it’s not a sign of the times. We are unfortunately living in a day and age where we seem to be backsliding. The people in power are actively working to take steps backwards. Instead of progressing and recognizing women’s rights on the societal scale that should be happening, we are instead seeing a push back against the female right to choose what to do with her body, the choices she makes, and we have still not managed to close the gap in areas such as female representation in media, pay wage, and unacceptable sexual behavior. With recent allegations proving true in Hollywood, it can’t help but feel like we are regressing, not progressing.
That’s why we need the slasher now more than ever. We need the genre to evolve past where we are roadblocked as a nation. The female hero needs to continue growing and changing, and now more than ever, we need her to not only grow with us but to grow past us. At her best, the final girl rings triumphant over all odds. She is not beyond adversity but she overcomes it. Every slasher I have ever watched, I’m always at the finish line cheering for Laurie, Nancy, Alice, and Sidney. We need to keep cheering, louder and more aggressively than ever.