Finally, A Final Girl for the Twenty-First Century

Vicki Madden | 3 April 2017.

Anyone who knows me knows I love a good Final Girl. As a long-time horror film devotee, this unique figure has fascinated me ever since I first encountered her in the form of Alien’s Ellen Ripley.

Final Girl 1

Alien‘s Ellen Ripley, bad-ass. AVPWikia

As Ripley shows us, the Final Girl is a bad-ass – she’s the last woman standing who’s left to defeat the monster through sheer wit and ingenuity (though occasionally, she still requires a man to rescue her – a trait inherited from the classic gothic stories of yore, no doubt). The Final Girl, as Carol Clover first described her in her seminal essay “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” (1987), is “intelligent, watchful, level-headed; the first character to sense something amiss and the only one to deduce from the accumulating evidence the patterns and extent of the threat [1].” In other words, the Final Girl is the audience’s point of identification – we root for her because, unlike almost everyone else in a horror film, she knows what’s up and she’s prepared to do something about it. She also comes with a few other common features, such as a gender ambiguous name, à la Laurie Strode (Halloween, 1978) and Sidney Prescott (Scream, 1996), and a “pure” disposition, which sets her apart from her binge-drinking, sex-having friends.

Final Girl 2

Halloween’s Laurie Strode, survives because she’s a virgin, and also a bad-ass. ElectricSheepMagazine

For a genre that is so often criticised for its misogynistic portrayal of female torture, horror desperately needs its Final Girls to restore some balance and remind viewers that women are capable of being more than damsels in distress. But that’s not to say that Final Girls aren’t problematic. The mere fact that, traditionally, this figure has had to remain virginal and “untainted,” an embodiment of outdated assumptions regarding “proper” femininity, raises a huge red flag. There’s also the issue of Final Girls taking on male characteristics (“man[ning] herself,” as Clover puts it [2]) in order to defeat the baddie. Thus, as Clover warns, “[t]o applaud the Final Girl as a feminist development… is, in light of her figurative meaning, a particularly grotesque expression of wishful thinking [3].” And in 2017, an age in which women’s rights are constantly under siege and it often feels like we’re in the middle of an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, we need our Final Girls to be a bit more nuanced than they were twenty years ago.

Final Girl 3

Sorry Sidney, there’s a new Final Girl in town, ScreamWiki

In other words, we need Final Girls like the ones Anya Taylor-Joy has given us. In the past year alone, the newcomer has portrayed not one but two Final Girls that finally bring the trope into the twenty-first century: first in Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2016) and subsequently in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2017), though for length, this article will limit its discussion to the former.

Final Girl 4

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch (2016), Everythingisscary.com

In The Witch, Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin (gender ambiguous name, check), an adolescent girl accused of witchcraft by her family. What separates Thomasin from your average Final Girl is her choice to revel in her own damnation (read: sexual liberation). At the film’s conclusion, Thomasin, the last surviving member of her dangerously pious family, is visited by none other than Satan himself – in the guise of the family’s sinister billy goat, Black Philip – who asks her, “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously? Wouldst thou like to see the world?”

In direct defiance of Puritanical feminine ideals, Thomasin gives in to these desires, which feel almost absurdly innocent to our twenty-first century sensibilities but were clearly enough to damn her for all eternity in the 1600s. She then willingly joins the coven of witches that previously terrorised her home, which culminates in a mid-air orgasm as she dances naked in the woods. Finally, then, we’re treated to an unapologetically feminist Final Girl who subverts not only the confines of her time, but also her trope.

Final Girl 5

Thomasin in the film’s final scene

Whereas the classic Final Girl must remain pure and “man” herself to defeat evil, Thomasin challenges our very conceptions of the abject by embracing her “witchiness” and indulging in her desire to live freely. That the price of her liberation is complete ostracisation and, indeed, damnation, indicates precisely the extent to which patriarchal society punishes women who refuse to stay in their “place.” After all, what is a witch but someone who simply repudiates social norms? And indeed, what does it say about contemporary society that for a Final Girl to finally get off, she has to come in the form of a Puritan-era witch?


About Vicki

Vicki is writing her PhD on the gothicisation of mental illness in post-World War II American literature with an emphasis on the uncanny. When she’s not nose deep in taboo subjects and psychoanalysis, she enjoys writing gothic stories of her own and watching a healthy mix of scary movies and romantic comedies.

Article edited by Katie Goh.

Works Cited

[1] Carol J. Clover, “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film,” Representations, 20, 187-228 (p. 207).

[2] Clover, p. 210

[3] Clover, p. 214.

3 responses to “Finally, A Final Girl for the Twenty-First Century

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