We’ve been talking a lot about horror, and it’s time we talk about the Final Girl. Can the Final Girl exist in gaming?
We kicked off our informal countdown to Halloween with some horror game recommendations, so now we need to talk about a character central to horror: the Final Girl. The Final Girl comes from Carol Clover’s academic reading of gender in slasher films, and it’s entered the popular vernacular to refer to the last woman standing that we root for against the monster. Most recently, The AV Club’s Kyle Fowle published a piece drawing comparisons between modern gaming heroines, using Clover’s writing on authority and empathy as a base. But is that really what’s going on here?
It’s tempting to look at games that draw from this tradition, however indirectly, like Fowle’s reading of the recent Tomb Raider, and categorize their heroes as Final Girls based on their shared survival rate and audience empathy. But that glosses over a big part of what makes the last girl standing a capital-F-capital-G-Final-Girl. To get to the bottom of what it actually means to be a Final Girl in respect to video games, let’s look back at the text that started it all.
Although the germ of the concept can be found in earlier essays, the Final Girl made her formal debut in Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws. The book was revolutionary because it was one of the formative feminist critiques of horror films that recognized the genre as something more than vicious exploitation. The norm at the time the book was published was to read women in horror films as an endless line of victims to be punished for male pleasure. However, in the Final Girl, Clover recognized a more complex exploration of gender and power at play. It was messier than we were first lead to believe. In her reading, the horror film both punished femininity, and ridiculed traditional masculinity with either absent or inept would-be heroes–dead boyfriends and off-screen fathers. It wasn’t necessarily feminist, but it didn’t demand immediate and universal condemnation, either. Instead, the Final Girl turns the conventional analysis on its head: where previous horror films–and feminist critiques of horror films–focused on the authoritative male gaze when condemning and fetishizing women’s bodies, the Final Girl appropriated the gaze for herself. This functions to both invite audience identification and establish her as the hero; in this case, perspective is both power and identity. However, it doesn’t work without the monster.
For Clover, the Final Girl is about interplay between masculine and feminine traits in both the killer and the woman who ultimately takes him down. The monster, in this case, is “distinctly male;” the film often opens with the camera following the victims from the killer’s perspective, affording him a masculine authority and inviting audience identification; he often wields a phallic weapon like a knife to stab his victims. His violence, then, is inherently sexual, and routinely targets women in the most gruesome scenes. A more straightforward reading of these actions coupled with the stalker i-camera that frequently aligns the audience’s perspective with the killer’s might suggest that he is an unmitigated power fantasy for men in the audience, though the trail of hapless male victims and would-be-protectors suggests a more complex reading. That said, let’s think back to our video game stalkers. In a medium where iterative boss fights are the norm, having a monster stalk the main character throughout the entire game isn’t common, but it’s not unheard of. Here, perhaps the best example is Nemesis from Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, the monster armed-to-the-teeth with phallic tentacles and a rocket launcher that systematically picks off each of the protagonist’s coworkers. Going off of this example, this would seem to make said protagonist, Jill Valentine, our Final Girl.
If the monster is “distinctly male,” then the Final Girl is “distinctly female,” but she is also separated from her peers early on; she doesn’t share the same interests, or she might even have a more masculine name. What makes her a Final Girl, though, is that she’s the the only character with a discernable arc. She’s the only one besides the killer who is allowed to look; she is afforded a traditionally masculine investigative gaze when she is the only one who discovers something is amiss. And in the end, she is the one who takes up the phallic knife to stab the killer. In Nemesis, Jill evades the titular monster while building her own arsenal, gradually working her way up to a rocket launcher not too dissimilar from Nemesis’ own. What Clover might call a “female Rambo” on par with Ripley herself.
You see, the Final Girl at her core is not just a girl surviving all her friends, as she is often portrayed in popular discourse. She’s not even a girl who has taken on masculine traits to save the day, inviting player identification as Fowle posits in his essay. It’s about the interplay between feminine and masculine in both the girl and the monster.
The monster–Nemesis in our example–is at once hyper masculine and confused. As Clover points out, the killer in films is often given an undesirable appearance that undermines the power fantasy one might find in his unmitigated authority, a tradition Nemesis’ literally-monstrous appearance upholds. What sets Nemesis and Jill apart from the Final Girl and stalker tradition, however, is that, in a film, Nemesis’ hideous appearance would be something we see from Jill’s perspective only after she has assumed her investigative authority–only after our privileged perspective as audience has shifted from the stalker’s gaze to the Final Girl’s. In Resident Evil 3, and in most video games, this transferal of power never occurs. Jill is always the one we identify with; her authority isn’t brought into question.
Further, there is very little, if any conflict between Jill’s feminine and masculine signifiers. She doesn’t “endure the deepest throes of ‘femininity’” and her final battle against Nemesis does not have the seemingly contradictory actions of crying and shouting, weakness and strength. Jill is strong. She’s got a rocket launcher. She’s got this. Playing as Jill is fun, but it doesn’t make her a Final Girl.
Circling back to Fowle’s example, while not a classic stalker scenario, Lara Croft does have moments of vulnerability in the recent reboot, but they are anchored by the presence of a traditionally masculine protector. She doesn’t need to appropriate the antagonist’s power to defeat him. Instead, most of her weapons and skills are given to her by father figures- patriarchal heroes that are uniformly absent from The Final Girl tradition. There is no room for these men in the world of the Final Girl- just muddled, horrifying mutations.
Which begs the question, can games have a true Final Girl? For Clover’s Final Girl, so much of her authority is in her gaze as it aligns closer and closer to ours as the viewer. In this scenario, perspective is identity. But what does that mean for gaming, where there are so many more sensory inputs and outputs to create that sense of identity?
We set out to find examples of gaming’s true Final Girls but ultimately came up short. It seemed like whenever a woman was in opposition to a monster, there was no question she was the one to root for. Conversely, whenever the girl struggled with her masculine authority and feminine fear, there was a reassuring father figure there to push her on her way. Can there be a game where the player identifies as the stalker, only to see the Final Girl rise triumphant? Will these safe, assuring father figures ever truly be absent, allowing the Final Girl to navigate these less defined gendered boundaries? Let us know what you think, and hopefully we can suss out what Final Girls mean for gaming together.