- Revisiting the Final GirlLooking Backwards, Looking Forwards
Autumn of 2017 marks thirty years since the publication of Carol J. Clover's "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film." The most enduring premise of this essay—which was originally included in the special issue Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy in the journal Representations and later re-published in an abridged version in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992)—is Clover's theorization of the Final Girl, a term that encompasses the common attributes of female survivor figures in slashers. As Clover famously argues, the Final Girl constitutes a powerful source of identification for the slasher's (mostly) adolescent male audiences.1 Through this concept Clover challenges the pervasive assumption that horror cinema is produced purely for misogynistic men in order to indulge their voyeuristic fantasies against women, advancing a radical rethinking of fundamental categories in Film Studies such as the gaze, identification, and spectatorial pleasures.
The remarkably mobile and infinitely interpretable figure of the Final Girl has evolved into an important concept for theoretical work on film, gender, and sexuality by scholars including Jack Halberstam, Isabel Pinedo, and Kathleen Rowe Karlyn. Despite its unquestionable influence on horror studies and on the directions often taken in this field in the intervening years, Clover's model has been widely critiqued in academia. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Clover's formulation has been the characterization of the Final Girl as a "male in drag" (216), which refers to her presumed masculine aggression and phallic agency. One of the central arguments in "Her Body, Himself"—and one that has led to many misconceptions that continue to surround Clover's theory today—is that the Final Girl is gender non-normative or, in Clover's words, "boyish" (204): "Just as the killer is not fully masculine, she is not fully feminine…. Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance set her apart from the other girls" (204). In fact, as Clover clarifies at some point, the Final Girl is not even a girl, but an "agreed-upon-fiction" (214); she merely stands-in for male desires, a subject for a man to identify with, to use "as a vehicle for his own sadomasochistic fantasies," "an act of perhaps timeless dishonesty" (214). Significantly, and against the comprehension of the Final Girl as a strong, feminist heroine who turns the knife on the killer—an interpretative framework that has largely determined the reception of "Her Body, Himself"—Clover states: "to applaud the Final Girl as a feminist development … is, in light of her figurative meaning, a particularly grotesque expression of wishful thinking" (214).2
Another reading strategy that has persisted in the contemporary circulation of Clover's theory—that the very raison d'etre of the masculinized Final Girl is to become a source of identification for teenage males—was challenged by Barbara Creed as early as the 1990s in her book The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Creed's contribution to these debates largely pivots on her insights into the "monstrous feminine," a concept that has turned out to be equally groundbreaking and long-standing in horror criticism. According to Creed, "the avenging heroine of the slasher film is not the Freudian phallic woman whose image is designed to allay castration anxiety … but the deadly femme castratrice" (emphasis in original, 127). The castrating woman in 1970s horror films, such as the rape-revenge I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978) and the psychotic slasher Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973), points not so much to male fantasies of being subjected to feminine sensations, but to men's fear of (and, importantly, ambiguous fascination with) monstrous women. Like Clover, however, Creed is cautious of reading these images as immediately progressive: "I am not arguing that simply because the monstrous-feminine is constructed as an active rather than passive figure that this image is 'feminist' or 'liberated'. The presence of the monstrous-feminine in the popular horror film speaks to us more about male fears than about female desire or feminine subjectivity" (7). Both scholars agree, then, that horror...