Is the Final Girl an Excuse?

Carol J. Clover’s 1987 essay “Her Body, Himself,” modified and included in her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film* [Princeton, 1992], was the first to coin the wonderful phrase “Final Girl.” This refers to the final survivor of a slasher film, almost invariably female. Clover’s question is, if the majority of the audience for slasher films are men, why is it that the hero in the end is usually a woman? And since they are, what is the nature of the enjoyment that these young men get out of these movies? Does this phenomenon mean that the men are psychically crossing gender lines to identify with the Final Girl? Clover says that they are. After reading the book and considering her theory, I have a different interpretation.

The Final Girl
One of the big contributions of Clover’s essay is simply the work she put into identifying and defining the standard tropes of horror films. She notes that the Final Girl is usually smarter, more conscientious, and more morally pure than her cohorts, who are usually stupid, sloppy, horny teens. The Final Girl tends not to have sex or use drugs, and is often the first of her group to sense danger, or recognize a moral failing or obligation her group has incurred.

The killer is often a man who is feminized in some way [for example Norman Bates in Psycho or Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs], and there is often a relationship or history of some kind with the person who turns out to be the killer. Over the course of the film, the Final Girl tends to become more and more masculine and phallic, as she becomes more active and aggressive, turning from hiding and cowering from the killer to fighting back or in fact hunting him down. She usually has an androgynous or male-sounding name, like Billie, Max, Teddy, or Alex. She often also has, or assumes, other male-like characteristics. Let’s have two examples that will illustrate these observations:

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 serves well as a ‘textbook example,’ because it is so non-representative; the point of view of the movie is very consciously aware of how it is presenting issues of gender. In the middle of the movie, our hero Stretch is assaulted by Leatherface, wielding an extremely long chainsaw that is turned off. He runs the blade up her leg, eventually pressing it against her crotch as a surrogate phallus. Stretch attempts to put off her murder by sexually engaging him; she provocatively asks “Are you good?... Oh, you ARE good… You’re the best.” She then adopts a mother’s scolding tone and says “No! No good!” when he becomes aggressive again.

Clover makes much of the fact that Leatherface is left sexually confused and impotent in this scene, his chainsaw failing to start when he tries to get it going again. What she does not note, however, is that after a few seconds of it not starting, it does start. He doesn’t kill her, however, as he now has a motherly connection with her, but he humps his chainsaw-as-penis in her direction a few times, in the manner of a young boy, before leaving her. This encounter, in which she has gained a measure of sexual power over him, reduces his sexual threat to her so greatly [in horror movie terms] that in the end, someone else winds up killing him.

Throughout the course of the film, Stretch notably “puts on” the trappings of malehood. She is forced to wear her male friend’s face and hat, thus literally wearing a male exterior. Then at the end she appropriates one of the family chainsaws, already established as a phallic symbol, and cuts a vagina-like wound in her attacker’s chest. She then holds the chainsaw above her head in a reversed version of the same posture [in which Leatherface held the saw] from the ending of the first movie.

Let’s have another example, from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. Over the course of the film, it becomes apparent that the men in Final Girl Nancy’s life are as ineffective as they can possibly be. Her boyfriend, whom she asks to protect her on two separate occasions, falls asleep both times. Her father is often absent, and when she specifically asks him to come home to protect her, he doesn’t. In the face of this, Nancy becomes more and more active on her own behalf, including building a number of booby traps in which to lure the killer when he comes for her. Eventually the killer is vanquished and sent back to his hell-world.

Clover: Men Identify Across Gender
is interested in what I going on in a young man’s mind as he watches these scenes. She wonders: ‘if the young men in the audience were there to watch women be terrorized and killed, then why is it satisfying for them to watch a woman triumph at the end?’ And why is it almost invariably a woman who triumphs at the end?

What she comes to conclude is that the reason the main hero is a woman is that the audience will feel more fear for a woman in peril than they will for a man in the same situation. What she says is surprising is that the male in the audience will identify across gender with the Final Girl. That is, the focus of their excitement will lie with the killer in the first half of the film, but switch to side with the Final Girl by the end [she also notes that the film’s point-of-view also changes from killer to heroine]. She argues that the young men in the audience enjoy a somewhat pleasurable masochistic experience as they watch the killer be bested by the female hero. They see themselves as the Final Girl in the last sections of the film, and cheer her on as they would the male hero of an action film. She is impressed with the gender fluidity with which men can do this.

While Clover’s perspective is interesting and certainly very generous to men, it has some drawbacks and limitations. Most notably, though it explains the results of why these movies invariably include these patterns, it does not explain why the pattern came to exist in the first place, nor why it is so powerful that it is repeated again and again. It doesn’t explain what men would get out of this cross-gender identification, aside from simply psychically siding with the hero, and a diffuse pleasure from becoming dislocated from their gender. Finally, although it is a very interesting question to consider, Clover’s formulation does not ultimately offer a great deal of insight into either the movies or their audience. It is an observation more than an explanation, and as such is very interesting, but doesn’t leave us with much useful information.

“Justice” Buys An Audience’s Pleasure
One of the most influential things I ever read on film morality was an analysis of an Alfred Hitchcock television show. The writer gave the specific example of one of the more famous episodes, in which a woman kills her husband with a frozen roast, then cooks and serves the roast to the detectives that have come to investigate. It was seen as necessary that justice be restored at the end, and what the article noted as Hitchcock’s genius was that he didn’t have to show a dramatization of justice being restored in order for it to be effective, he merely told the audience that it was. In this particular example, Hitchcock came on at the end and said “the woman later went to jail,” and that was all it took.

The important point is that justice must be restored at the end, or else the audience will not allow itself to enjoy all of the violence and murder that has come before. If the woman is able to get away with the murder, most people in the audience will feel uncomfortable about what kind of behavior they have “supported” by enjoying a movie in which the heroine gets away with killing. If we know that she later went to jail, we can get an evil enjoyment out of her crime, knowing it is all “made okay” by the fact that she later went to prison.

I think there’s a similar principle with slasher movies. The young men in the audience legitimately enjoy all of the torture, terrorizing and murder of what are almost invariably young women in these movies. What’s more, these women are usually the types that the males in the horror movie audience want and cannot attain: “hotties” of any and all varieties, usually ones who have rejected men like those in the audience in the past. So there is an impetus there to see these types of women “get what they deserve” by being tortured, raped, murdered… or all three.

Final Girls Excuse the Audience’s Sadism
Let’s add to this another feature of how many men view women: as either “Women” or “Whores”. As Clover quotes director Sam Peckinpah in her book: “There are women and there’s pussy” [P. 139]. I think this split also works quite actively in allowing men to enjoy watching the “victim” women in horror films be tortured and raped; they’re “whores.” But the Final Girls aren’t; they avoid sex, and they’re invariably shown as smarter and more conscientious than the other women. So they’re different; they’re “women.” The very presence of these “women” tells a viewer that part of the point of view of the movie is: “Not all women are whores.” And if not all women are whores, this knowledge makes possible the enjoyment of watching the torture and murder of those who are.

And how do the women who are not whores earn men’s respect? By being more like men. So in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy learns how to build booby traps and sets them as she turns to attack Freddy. It is only before she becomes active in these ways that she is sexualized; Freddy’s hand comes up between her legs, and soon after she is pulled into a pool and we are invited to oogle her breasts. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Stretch, after literally wearing a male exterior, assumes the phallic instrument of power that has been used against her. What’s more, she symbolically turns her opponent into a woman by carving a vagina-like wound into his chest.

This assumption of male-like qualities helps to make the Final Girl an “Okay chick.” In this way a guy can relate to her, as he respects that she’s not afraid to kick some ass when she needs to. What is important is that the Final Girl is NOT a helpless “whore.” That Final Girls on the whole do not want to have sex is one of the few areas in which they preserve their difference from most men. However, this distinction serves an important purpose: it explicitly sets them apart from the “whores.”

Once these women have been split into two types in the male audience member’s mind, he is free to enjoy getting off on watching the “whores” be tortured, terrorized and murdered, because the presence of the smart, active Final Girl as “woman” tells him “not all women are like that.” The Final Girl slaying the killer at the end restores justice and order, thus excusing—and enabling—all of the prurient thoughts the male audience member had all along.

This would also indicate why it is vitally important that the Final Girl be a girl; a man who vanquished the killer would not balance the perceived view of women. Thus all of the torture and murder the male audience member enjoyed would remain unbalanced by a more positive image of womenhood, and he would start feeling guilty about seeing all of these women as "whores." Having a prominent woman be obviously capable, intelligent and effective assuages the guilt of watching the torture and murder of women who aren’t.

Clover believes that men vicariously enjoy the rape, torture and murder of women in slasher films, but identify across gender at the end to root for and empathize with the surviving woman. Although one can greatly appreciate her generosity of spirit toward men, the truth may be much darker. I believe that the presence of an intelligent and effective woman triumphing at the end of a horror film excuses the guilt a man might otherwise feel from his vicarious enjoyment of watching women be terrorized, tortured, and murdered.

*Amusingly, my used copy of this book arrived with the DVD Cum-Loving SheMales III tucked inside the pages.