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What Happened to Cinema's Virginal Final Girl?

Happy Death Day, Assassination Nation and horror's new last woman standing.

by | March 6, 2020 | Comments

This feature is by Catherine Young, the current USC Annenberg-Rotten Tomatoes Digital Innovation and Entertainment Criticism fellow, a partnership with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Cate is writing on the representation of women in film. 

Horror movie fans will be familiar with the concept of the Final Girl. The term was originally conceived in 1992 by Carol J. Clover as a way to describe the traits of the sole female victim who remains alive to tell the story of a film’s violent crime – or many violent crimes. Clover’s central idea was that, in the films where the trope is evident, the viewer initially sees the Final Girl through the killer’s perspective, but that partway through the movie, they begin to identify directly with her instead.

Final Girls illustrated the moral split between the chaste and the virtuous. You know the deal – the hard-drinking, promiscuous girl dies first, and the demure, virginal girl survives to take down the murderer. She’s the final one standing. Pop culture is replete with characters that fit the bill – Jess Bradford in the original Black Christmas, Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nancy Thompson in The Nightmare on Elm Street – and their existence has become as integral to the slasher genre as the killers themselves.

Lionsgate/Courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by Lionsgate/Courtesy Everett Collection)

But that was then and this is now. The original Final Girl is slowly but surely being crowded out by a newer, more progressive iteration that acknowledges the restrictive ideas that initially gave birth to her. Over the last couple of decades, and particularly in the last 10 years, the last girl standing has looked a lot different from the final girls of the past. Progressively, in films like ScreamThe Cabin In The Woods and It Follows, final girls have complicated the existing frame of the trope by pushing against its restrictions. 

Whether it’s by having sex, refusing to be constricted by archaic ideas of femininity, or simply by teaming up to fight together, these women now survive despite leading lives the genre used to consider wholly immoral and in need of corrective punishment – they’re a new kind of Final Girl. The Final Girls who were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s have become more nuanced over time, and that progress paved the way for the Finals Girls of Ready or Not and 2019’s Black Christmas who directly confront issues of misogyny and sex negativity.

In some ways, the New Final Girl is almost the original Final Girl’s polar opposite. Rather than surviving because of her innocence, naïveté or virginity, the New Final Girl is the woman who makes it to the end of the film alive specifically because of her rejection of the old norms about what makes a woman morally deserving. The New Final Girl embraces drink, drugs, and sex and defends her engagement in each of them. She insists on being seen as a full human being and actively, often violently defends her right to do so. Most of all, the New Final Girl is still an active participant in her own survival – she knows the original Final Girl shouldn’t have had to sand off her edges to stay alive. The New Final Girl is not a virginal survivor but an intentional fighter who asserts her right to exist despite perceived moral flaws.

 © Universal /Courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by © Universal /Courtesy Everett Collection)

In the 2019 sequel slasher Happy Death Day 2U, Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) finds herself once again stuck in the murderous time loop of the first film. Over and over, she relives the same day, and it ends when she is brutally murdered by a serial killer known as Babyface. In the first film, the culprit is Tree’s sorority sister and roommate Lori (Ruby Modine). The two women are both having an affair with the same married professor, and Lori’s jealousy puts Tree in her crosshairs. In the sequel, Babyface is none other than the philandering professor himself, trying to eliminate any evidence of his transgressions.

What makes Tree’s Final Girl status so interesting is that she begins the story as one of the “immoral women” who would usually die in a thriller. Tree is, by all accounts, a typical sorority mean girl. When we meet her, she is recovering from a night of partying and on her way to meet the professor she’s carrying on with. And in fact, she does die, over and over again, punished for her ruthlessness, immorality, and general misbehavior. But through the mechanics of the film itself, she evolves into a New Final Girl through sheer determination. 

© Universal /Courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by © Universal /Courtesy Everett Collection)

In both films, Tree breaks her loop and returns to her life not by becoming more virtuous, but by becoming a more compassionate and considerate person. She improves and grows as a character – including ending her affair – not because those things make her unworthy of redemption, but because they are not the best choices for her as a person. She undergoes significant character growth without ever placing a moral frame on her sexuality or femininity. And through each of the infinite deaths it takes her to get there, she plots and schemes to find her killer and thwart them, determined to prevent her eventual death and save herself. 

Tree is a novel subversion of the trope because it’s her death itself that furthers her character growth. Several times, she intentionally kills herself in service of a larger goal; sometimes to gather more information about her situation and sometimes to undo the murders of other characters. As a result, her deaths then become an intentional sacrifice that signals her increasing virtue, instead of confirming its absence. It’s a large departure from the way the original Final Girls functioned in films like these.

© Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by © Universal/courtesy Everett Collection)

Similarly, the evolution of Halloween’s Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) into a New Final Girl in the film’s 2018 sequel of the same name is particularly notable because the character’s first iteration was in many ways the definitive final girl – most other examples are direct descendants of her legacy. In the first film, Strode is left as the sole survivor of the serial killer Michael Myers’ murder spree – the only young woman in the film who chose to abstain from the usual vices. Her survival largely conformed to expectations for women in horror at the time, and helped to cement the trope in the genre.

But in the film’s most recent sequel – which retcons several that had come before –Laurie is now an older woman, driven to extremes by her fixation on stopping Myers’ return. In the 40 years since the events of the first film, Laurie has grown into an obsessive, battle-worn veteran of the war in her own mind. She may not be having sex or doing drugs, but she’s far from the pure, “likable” babysitter we met decades earlier. She is convinced that Myers will return and has devoted her life to preparing for that eventuality. In the process she has lost custody of her daughter and become estranged from her daughter’s family. She is perceived as a lonely old woman too traumatized by her past to move on. 

© Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by © Universal/courtesy Everett Collection)

Of course, Myers does eventually return. But this time Laurie is ready for him, having rigged her entire house to trap and kill him. Whereas in 1978 she was permitted to survive by virtue of her moral purity, in 2018 she fights like hell for that survival, taking active steps to make sure that Myers can no longer victimize her. She takes the lead in tracking Myers down and trapping him on her home turf. After spending years contemplating and preparing for the return of his torment, Laurie has transformed herself into the Ultimate Final Girl through sheer force of will. She has no intention of being defeated yet again.

Critically, Laurie must also protect her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Virginia Gardener) this time around, folding them into a generational legacy of victimization and defense. When the threat they have dismissed for so long reveals itself to be real, they join forces with Laurie to fight and eliminate it – Myers is now a specter that haunts them all, the source of their estrangement and the origin of their familial trauma. Defeating Myers together connects the women as Final Girls of a new generation, forcing them all to overlook their own and each other’s flaws in order to face the embodiment of their fractured relationships. Laurie leads the charge, but her family takes up her mantle. 

This isn’t to say that the old trope never survives. In fact, Allyson’s best friend Vicky is killed during a babysitting job soon after letting her wayward boyfriend into the house. It wouldn’t be a stretch to interpret her death as the same kind of stark moral judgement that historically happened in slasher films. This is especially true given the contrast with Allyson’s own encounter with Myers. After her boyfriend’s best friend inappropriately propositions her, he is immediately murdered while she survives. His overeager instinct to breach her consent should absolutely have been corrected, but death is a disproportionate response. The message couldn’t be clearer: all sexual impulses exist along the same punishable continuum, regardless of how welcome they might be to the participants involved.

 

© Neon /Courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by © Neon /Courtesy Everett Collection)

One of the starkest examples of this shift in recent years is 2018’s Assassination Nation, which explored the trope in thrilling style. Set in conservative Salem, the movie focuses on a group of teen girls who find themselves at the center of a small-town lynch mob when they are blamed for the release of the community’s private information. The girls are not guilty of the mass doxing, but their reputations as “loose women” make them ideal targets for the ire and anger of the town’s men and boys. 

The girls — Lily (Odessa Young), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), Bex (Hari Nef), and Em (Abra) – are known at their high school for their skimpy outfits, their questionable choices in boys, and their perceived promiscuity. They are open about and proud of their burgeoning sexuality and enjoy exploring their relationships to the men in their lives. Lily is dating an abusive high school boy and carrying on an illicit affair with a married neighbor. Bex is trans and keeping her relationship with the popular football player a secret at his request. Sarah and Em are living with their mother Nance, who is implied to be operating a brothel out of her home. 

When the community devolves into ultraviolence, the citizens hunt the girls across the town, determined to punish them for being forced to confront their own once-private sexual shames. As the balance of power shifts, the horror genre tropes follow in quick succession. From a coordinated home invasion to a horde of masked killers to the use of guns and baseballs bats — the most American of weapons — the girls suddenly find themselves in the middle of their very own slasher film.

© Neon /Courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by © Neon /Courtesy Everett Collection)

At another time, all four of these women would be fated to die before the credits rolled. Their proximity to vice marks them as fallen women, and only the morally pure survive the transformative power of abject terror. But as New Final Girls, all four of them not only survive but continue on to restore order to the town. The girls rescue each other from the outsized violence the men are trying to inflict on them (including an attempted rape and hanging) and take up arms to defend themselves both literally and in abstract. The film ends as they deliver a call to action to the town’s girls, surrounded by bodies and covered in glitter, both claiming the righteousness of their femininity and rejecting the ubiquity of patriarchal terror. Through female solidarity they all survive and mete out the violence necessary to do so. 

Assassination Nation is unique in that the girls are explicitly targeted because of their sexuality – usually, this aspect of the genre is left as subtext. But here, the trope is almost deconstructed by bringing both the reasons for their attack and subsequent defense to the surface. They become New Final Girls because, given the plot constraints, their only options are to transform themselves or die. 

© Universal Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by © Universal Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

The New Final Girl is a natural evolution of the original trope. Stories are becoming more egalitarian, and with that comes a necessary examination of the moral dimension of the traditional way women are depicted on film. But in the end, all these Final Girls aren’t as different from each other as we might think. The virtuous distinction that we make between them is largely based on an old patriarchal frame that divides women into Madonnas and Whores, then kills the whores. Part of making the genre more progressive – or dare I say feminist – is rejecting that binary entirely.

Teenaged Laurie Strode and college-aged Tree Gelbman might have led different lives and made different choices, but when it came down to it, they both survived because they resolved to fight and refused to die. The haunting specter of violent masculinity came for all the women mentioned here, and they all triumphed, even under the restrictive gaze of a society that expects feminine perfection. But no matter how stark the contrast may be, these changes are progressive strides that honor the history of the slasher genre in inventive ways while bringing them into the contemporary moment. The Final Girl survived, but the New Final Girl thrives, and she’s ready to fight again another day.


Follow Catherine Young on Twitter @battymamzelle

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