Not Just For Girls: Queer Reconsideration of the Final Girl Theory

Sarah Wagoner
10 min readMay 8, 2023

Carol J. Clover’s Final Girl

The term ‘the final girl’, while popular in horror circles, truly came to fruition in Carol J. Clover’s “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film”, which appears as the first chapter in her book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws. In the breakthrough essay, Clover examines the tropes associated with woman/girl leads in Slasher films, noting the gender-crossing lines between the protagonist and audience. Seeing as primarily young boys made up horror audiences, she questioned how they could relate so heavily to feminine protagonists.

While later cultural phenomena took Clover’s theory as a purely pro-feminist trope, Clover herself argues that its mechanism is more complicated. She notes that the audience is not always on the final girls’ side, ready to “cheer the killer on as he assaults his victims, then reverse their sympathies to cheer the survivor on as she assaults the killer” (23). So the audience is not always siding with the woman, often they are siding against women as the majority of drawn-out slasher scenes are with women victims. Clover complicates the gender politics of the final girl, arguing “The Final Girl is boyish, in a word. Just as the killer is not fully masculine, she is not fully feminine–not, in any case, feminine in the way of her friends” (40).

Clover uses this argument not to congratulate the trope for queering gender lines, but she criticizes it. She argues that the usage of masculinity within the Final Girl is not meant to question gender roles, but to make predominantly male audiences comfortable with identifying with a woman (51–53). Though her focus on masculinity within female characters relies on a second-wave feminist understanding of gender, wherein a person’s assigned gender at birth is directly correlated with their gender presentation. As we reconfigure gender as a social construct, we similarly have to reconfigure masculinity within the final girl and femininity within the final boy.

The Male Ga(y)ze and the Final Girl

Clover argues that the masculine presentation of the final girl is merely used to create comfortability for male viewers, and thus is not fully transformative, but this argument ignores the pre-existing norms for horror women protagonists before the integration of the final girl. Not only does the usage of masculine gender presentation reject the typical gendered norms of women protagonists across Hollywood cinema, but her very actions against the killer are against the grain of the expectations of women in horror.

In the 60s and beforehand, the woman’s primary role was to present as overtly feminine and scream in terror. There was still audience identification, as foundational horror director Brian De Palma even argued, “Women in peril work better in the suspense genre… If you have a haunted house and you have a woman walking around with a candelabrum, you fear more for her than you would a husky man” (qtd. in Clover 41). De Palma’s assumption of the man as a typical protagonist works within the “active/passive heterosexual division of labor” (Mulvey 20) within male gaze theory wherein the “split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one advancing the story” (20). When Mulvey refers to the spectacle, she refers to the role of the erotic image within film; the image which both audience and narrative are obsessed with due to a spectacular difference. Within the “active/passive heterosexual division of labor” (20), the man becomes the active narrative role, leading the film due to the cultural assumption of men as the unmarked category, while assuming women as the other, as the spectacular. De Palma’s argument relies on the idea that within horror, the woman is given the role because she is passive and active characters would break the tension of horror. Clover uses De Palma’s quote to support her argument of the rhetorical misogyny within the masculinization of the Final Girl, but this concept ignores the shift in roles from the pre-Slasher woman protagonist to the Final Girl.

But in the pre-Slasher usage of woman as image, she was the spectacle of the audience’s gaze, with us fearing for her rather than finding strength in her. She does not change or revert the gender roles of the violent forces that subject her. But the Slasher films of the 70s-80s have the typical Final Girl, where we see the normative role of a screaming woman reversed with one character. This is not to say that screaming women were completely replaced, as women’s death scenes in slashers tended to be drawn out and focused on the spectacle of women’s bodies. But alongside the passive woman is an active woman, instead of the binary active man. The Final Girl trope queers the previous role of women in horror, as she rejects the gender role of screaming woman and places the gender expectations upon the killer.

The Final Boy

But the Final Boy shows us that it is not only the Final Girls’ gender that complicates her textual role. Audience identification with the Final Girl is more complicated when slashers are not necessarily based upon a binary gender system. As Jeremy Maron argues in “When the Final Girl is Not a Girl: Reconsidering the Gender Binary in the Slasher Film”, Clover has a “reliance on a binary gender structure” (2). But we do not have to think of the monster as male and the “phallicized subject/adult…a female” (Maron 2). Queer Final Girl theorists like Maron, instead ask us to think of the masculine/feminine split as symbolic. Maron has specifically made us consider the difference when boys enact the role of the Final Girl, using Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge’s Jesse.

While there are slashers with male survivors who are masculine, the aforementioned performances are coded as between feminine and masculine, similar to how the final girl is between the gender presentations.

Jesse: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge

Like the Final Girl, Jesse is not fully feminine nor fully masculine. While much of Jesse’s queer subtext has come to light primarily from the gay identity of his now-out actor, Mark Patton, the text consistently puts him in a “de-masculinized” (Maron 4) state. Rather than being the husky man de Palma refers to, Jesse is skinny, if not scrawny. His first scene portrays him as a typical high school loser, as he sits in a school bus with two girls “laughing at him” (Maron 4). He sits in a timid position, framing their demasculinizing laughter as a result of his shyness, and thus lack of masculinity. His character maintains timidity throughout the film, screaming just as much as his cis women counterparts. His screams even lack the deepness associated with men’s voices. He has a high-pitched screech that is typically associated with scream queens.

His queerness is tied up with his disinterest in his girlfriend, Lisa (Kim Meyers), who tends to act as the “aggressor… assuming a dominant male role” (Maron 6) within their sex life. She initiates sex with him, often needing to convince him to engage with her outside of a platonic friendship. While he doesn’t outright refuse sex with her, he has to be coerced, acting against the 80s convention of heterosexual boys as always willing and excited to have sex. Again, she takes on that role with Jesse acting the type of the unsure girlfriend.

Not only does he seem disinterested in this heterosexual coupling, but as Benshoff notes in Monsters in the Closet, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) and his murderous actions arise out of Jesse’s homosexual temptations, becoming an “embodiment of Jesse’s internalized homophobia” (248). Nearly all of Jesse/Freddy’s victims are someone Jesse has shown sexual interest in. Perhaps the most potent example is when Jesse attempts to find protection in his best friend Grady’s room. Grady (Robert Rusler) and Jesse have had many homoerotic interactions, in the gym showers, to his consistent dependence on Grady for support, which culminates in Jesse transforming into Freddy in Grady’s room. Jesse is dressed in pajamas, with Grady only wearing underwear. The demonic entity emerges from Jesse’s body, with Grady attempting to escape. Grady is sliced open by the iconic gloves. Right as Jesse is tempted to engage in homoeroticism with his friend, Freddy intervenes, killing him in a manner that reflects male-on-male penetration.

While many slashers have cis male victims, they are rarely treated with an inverted gaze as Grady is. Cis male slasher victims tend to go with quick deaths, earning a quick stab with small introduction to the kill. Whereas cis female slasher victims are given more time on-screen before their deaths, often with their visible fear as a focus of the scenes. That fear is the spectacle of the slasher, as audiences and the killer (whose perspective is often shown in first-person, killer point-of-view shots) together watch the erotic image of the screaming female. Research into gender dynamics in 80s and 90s Slashers have demonstrated that female victims have more screen time displaying their fear than male victims. From a study of the top 80s Slashers, it was determined that female victims had 566.1 seconds of such screentime, with males having 113.7 seconds of such screentime (Sapolsky, Molitor, and Luque 34). Throughout the four-minute death scene, 40 seconds are taken with Grady screaming. Not only does he scream, begging for his parents to save him in his locked room. But he is shirtless, playing into the expected sexualized role that female victims tend to enact. So not only does the final boy have blurred narrative lines as he is made to act both as victim and killer due to his victimhood, but his victims and method of killing are counter to the typical gender norms of male victims in horror.

The final boy is not just a gender-swapped version of the Final Girl, but someone caught in the middle of patriarchal violence (as represented by Freddy) and internal fear (his fear of being homosexual). Jesse is a fascinating and unique case, but the same queering of survival is alive with other Final Boys. The Final Boy ultimately must enact fears and thus a lack of masculinity, as audiences assume masculinity is tied to strength. With strength, we assume the character has nothing to fear.

Conclusion

Other final boys, while not explicitly queer are forced to enact this same balancing act of masculine strength and fear of the patriarchal order. Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman) in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter is a young boy, defeating Jason (an overtly masculine figure who invades the peace of his mother-led house) with his love for special effects. Tommy tricks Jason by dressing up as a younger version of him, using the psychological tricks typical of previous Final Girls in the Friday the 13th series.

In the past decade, there have been a few examples of explicitly queer final boys and girls. Gay teenager Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur) of the Chucky TV series rides the similar line between victim and killer as the killer doll enacts revenge upon those who have bullied him. Eventually Jake feels remorse for the cycle of violence he perpetuates, forgiving his previous tormentor and protecting her from Chucky’s reign of terror. Like Jesse, Jake’s urges are channeled through the killer, and the death scenes. But, he finds strength to fight against Chucky without reverting to denying his own identity, as Jesse is forced to in Freddy’s Revenge.

Queer women are slowly joining the Final Girl roster, textualizing the lesbian themes which can be read within her masculine presentation. Namely, Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) of Bodies Bodies Bodies is an explicitly lesbian character who is even shown interacting with a current girlfriend, Bee (Maria Bakalova) and an ex-girlfriend, Jordan (Myha’la Herrold) (who is believed to be the killer). The film itself has a clever twist, showing that each death was an ironic accident and the murder-mystery plot was concocted by the paranoia of the individuals. The drama and suspense is primarily made from the previous romance. The film not only includes lesbiansism, but highlights the complex dynamics of relationships under the typical horror tropes. It is also notable for lacking the patriarchal killer figure.

By no means do I intend to state that we are in a new era of Queer Final Survivors, as there are so few examples to pull from, even in 2023. I should note that there is a distinct lack of transgender Final Survivors and queer people of color. Rather, I mean to state that the Final Girl theory needs to integrate queer theory, as the trope doesn’t just question misogynist norms, but heteropatriarchal norms. As we slowly integrate Queer Final Survivors, we must analyze their adaptation of those norms to explicitly queer characters.

Works Cited

Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, Manchester

University Press, 1997.

Bodies Bodies Bodies. Directed by Halina Reijin, performances by Amandla Stenberg, Maria

Bakalova, and Myha’la Herrold. A24, 2022.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Princeton University Press, 1993.

Friday the 13th. Directed by Sean S. Cunningham, performances by Betsy Palmer, Adrienne

King, and Kevin Bacon. Paramount, 1980.

Friday the 13th Part 2. Directed by Steve Miner, performances by Amy Steel, Steve Dash, and

Betsy Palmer. Paramount, 1981.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Directed by Joseph Zito, performances by Corey Feldman,

Ted White, and Kimberly Beck. Paramount, 1984.

Mancini, Don, creator. Chucky. Universal Content Productions and Syfy USA Network, 2021.

Maron, Jeremy. “When the Final Girl is Not a Girl: Reconsidering the Gender Binary in the

Slasher Film.” Offscreen, vol. 19, no. 1, Jan. 2015, https://www.libproxy.uwyo.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/trade-journals/when-final-girl-is-not-reconsidering-gender/docview/2064736379/se-2. Accessed 1 May 2023.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures, Palgrave Macmillan, 1989.

A Nightmare on Elm Street. Directed by Wes Craven, performances by Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, and John Saxon. New Line Cinema, 1984.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Directed by Jack Sholder, performances by

Mark Patton, Kim Myers, and Robert Englund. New Line Cinema, 1985.

Scream VI. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, performances by Jasmin Savoy

Brown, Jenna Ortega, and Devyn Nekoda. Paramount, 2023.

Sapolsky, Burry S., Molitor, Fred, and Luque Sarah. “Sex and Violence in Slasher Films:

Re-examining the Assumptions.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 1, Mar. 2003, pp. 28–38, https://doi-org.libproxy.uwyo.edu/10.1177/107769900308000103. Accessed 3 May 2023.

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Sarah Wagoner

Literature Major, GWST Minor, Graduate Student, She/Her, focus on politics in media, Professional email: sarahwagoner6@gmail