Horror films have a complicated history of female representation. According to a 2022 report by San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, horror is the only genre more likely to star a female protagonist. While it’s great that women are so frequently represented in the genre, this representation is not always positive. Often, women in horror are reduced down to one of the following tropes: the “Final Girl,” “The Femme Fatale,” or the “Good for Her” heroine. Horror films must do better in their female representation.
In 1992, University of California, Berkeley professor Carol J. Clover coined the term “Final Girl,” to refer to the last surviving female at the end of a horror film. While the Final Girl’s counterparts might indulge in drinking or casual sex, the Final Girl remains uncorrupted and is able to survive while others are killed off. This hinges on juxtaposing the Final Girl with women who may be deemed less moral by society.
The Femme Fatale, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a seductive woman who lures men into dangerous or compromising situations,” is a trope seen with female villains. While the Femme Fatale is more sexually liberated than the Final Girl, this portrayal can vilify female sexuality.
The “Good for her” trope refers to films which center a female character’s revenge arc after overcoming a traumatic experience. While this arc can feel empowering and even cathartic, it remains problematic because the lead up involves further female violence and brutalization.
The Final Girl : Laurie Strode, Halloween.
In Halloween (1978), Laurie Strode embodies all the quintessential Final Girl traits. She is smart, reserved, and disinterested in sex and partying unlike her peers. She is presented to us as the foil to her “dumb blonde” friends, who fall victim to the killer, Michael Meyers.
Femme fatale: Jennifer Check, Jennifer’s Body
Jennifer Check transforms into a man-eating succubus after a satanic ritual goes awry in Jennifer’s Body (2009). Throughout the film, Jennifer frequently uses her sexuality to lure her victims, weaponizing her attractiveness to lead her unsuspecting victims to a discreet location before eating them alive.
Good for her : Mary Mason, American Mary.
American Mary (2012), a gory horror about an underground body modification community, follows medical school dropout Mary Mason’s quest for revenge. After being sexually assaulted by one of her professors, Mary kidnaps him and performs increasingly extreme plastic surgeries on him.
Horror films must stop relying on harmful tropes that perpetuate compartmentalizing and damaging portrayals of women. As the horror genre has evolved over the years, representation must evolve with it to embrace nuanced and empowered female characters. By breaking free from these limiting archetypes, horror films can not only reflect the diversity of women’s experiences but also promote more authentic narratives.