What do all the Final Girls in horror movies have in common? They all reinforce terrible sexist stereotypes that sometimes are quite hard to understand.
By now we shouldn’t be talking about how movies are based on a series of horrible stereotypes, not only on a cultural level, but also in terms of gender. Perhaps one of the genres where gender stereotypes have been exploited the most is horror. Although many of us love this genre so much, we can'tdeny that even today there are many films with harmful messages, and perhaps that's mostly noticeable in the character of the Final Girl. However, even when these characters reinforce sexist attitudes, many people see it the opposite way. Let me explain. The other day I was discussing this at a meeting and some people whose opinions I've always valued said I was mistaken. According to them, the horror genre was actually one of the first to put lead female characters on screen and, although they’re probably right about this, I don’t think this solves the horrible stereotypes. But now, let me tell you how I actually proved their argument wrong.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
To start with, what’s the final girl? This is a term coined by Carol Clover, author of Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, which basically refers to the archetype of the last surviving woman in horror, especially slasher films. So, the main traits of this character is that there’s something that makes her stand out from the rest and for that reason, she’s the one who deserves to live. If you take a look at classic horror films, generally they’re teenagers, (subtly) beautiful, and obviously pure girls that not even evil can destroy that easily.
It’s no news that in old slasher movies it’s always the “promiscuous” woman the one who gets killed first, while the one who doesn’t really care about her looks and prioritizes moral values is the one that survives. But what does this say about how gender is understood by our society? What’s the message? Well, we don’t have to be geniuses to see that this is only a way in which cinema has reinforced ideas on how women must act throughout their life. I mean, popular culture and all its products are always a reflection of our society, our fears, and insecurities. Also it's the best way to “educate” or force a belief in a specific audience. Think about that time when AIDS started to spread; it was probably around that time when the stereotype of the promiscuous dying first was set. And that is because horror has an effective tool to communicate a message: fear.
So, for a long time the morally pure or superior were often depicted as the ones who could have the tools to defeat evil, so the Final Girl was definitely the one that came to stay. Now, even though these lead characters who are, as my friends were saying, strong, smart, and resilient, as Clover states, some of them share a quite disturbing aspect: they all have gender neutral names, which means that it’s not that the movies portray strong women just like that. Yes, they’re women, but their personification is based on a masculinized idea of the hero. So, if you want characters with masculine features, why not just use male actors? According to Clover, as spectators, we wouldn’t feel that related nor wouldn’t be as scared if all those horrible things happened to a male character, which, in a way, also exposes how we are still so attached to outdated gender principles.
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
But what about recent films in which the protagonists or Final Girls aren’t portrayed as those pure creatures defeating evil? In her article for Bitch Media, Vanessa Willoughby points out that Wes Craven’s movie Scream changed the formula (well, not completely). In this particular film we’re introduced to a completely different kind of Final Girl. Sidney Prescott (and then again the unisex name) is smart, tough, and more importantly, ditches the old rule of purity when we see her having sex with her boyfriend during the movie. Besides that, she doesn't run or just tries to survive. She wants to get this murderer and stop him, which talks about a new initiative that hadn’t been so explored before. So, if she’s presented as this modern female character who stopped being a passive agent and revolutionized the nature of Final Girls, why is this trope still being so problematic?
To start with, the simple act of including strong female characters does not immediately mean you’re actually defeating sexism. It’s a matter of equality, so it’s supposed to be two-sided. The problem is that these movies, even today, continue to base their stories on the formula man-villain vs. woman-hero, and by doing so, the gender stereotypes are still reinforced.
Moreover, it’s not just a matter of women vs. men, but also a matter of diversity and representation. If you take a look at the whole lore of the horror genre, all these girls are white, skinny, and traditionally beautiful girls. What about race, body types, breaking beauty ideals, and age? Aren’t other lives as valuable as those of the standard Final Girls? At the end of the day, these movies still set those unrealistic expectations and standards that are as harmful as sexism. In an article for the website Icons of Fright, BJ Colangelo points out that diverse characters are most of the times used as tokens. It’s that diversity quota that films need to have to make people happy, but at the end of the day, it's a void resource without any value. It’s even a matter of joke many parodies resort to. For instance, black characters are always the first ones to die. If you take a closer look at these characters, this isn’t only a matter of color or sexual morality. Most of the time, the victims are those who aren’t up to the social standards of the time.
Perhaps the only film I can think about that actually goes against this formula, and correct me if I’m wrong, is Get Out. But just one movie isn’t enough to change the sexist and racial roots of a genre that refuses to change that easily. Perhaps if we stopped prioritizing our own nostalgic obsession with these classic films and started asking for more relatable and realistic stories, films like Get Out might start changing the course of the genre. But I don’t see this happening anytime soon.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
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