Theorizing the Final Girl: Carol Clover and the Cultural Value of SCREAM

By Anna Grace Lee

“What’s your favorite scary movie?” Early in Wes Craven’s 1996 slasher movie, Scream, the killer asks the protagonist, Sidney, this now-iconic question. Sidney replies that she doesn’t watch scary movies, because “They’re all the same, some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who’s always running up the stairs when she should be running out the door. It’s insulting.” The ensuing scene, ironically, shows Sidney running up the stairs to escape the masked killer– however, she also fights back and cleverly uses her computer to call 911. It’s this kind of twist on classic horror tropes that distinguishes Scream from other horror movies of the time.

Sidney’s response to the killer’s taunt epitomizes the fun and ingenuity of Scream: its self-awareness helps center the movie on female characters in a way that partially subverts the sexist bullshit typical to horror movies. Scream focuses on young women and the way they choose to live their lives – especially their sexual lives – and how society reprimands them for their choices, no matter what they are. It’s not an entirely feminist movie, but its meta style and repositioning of classic horror techniques makes it a piece of popular culture worth examining through a feminist lens.

Scream’s most notable self-reference is when a character lists the “rules” of the slasher movie genre. Randy, the horror-loving Blockbuster employee of the bunch, says: “There are certain rules one must abide in order to successfully survive a horror movie. Rule number one, you can never have sex. Sex equals death, okay? Number two, you can never drink or do drugs. It’s the sin factor… And number three, never, ever, under any circumstances say, ‘I’ll be right back.’ Because you won’t be back.” The movie shows characters breaking every one of these rules, leaving the audience to wonder which rules the narrative will follow and which it will rewrite. 

Nadya Mikhaylovskaya Scream Illustration for Anna .png
Art by Nadya Mikhaylovskaya

Scream still follows most of these rules, despite its ironic allusion to them. Though the movie allows Sidney to survive in spite of her sexual activity, the movie still very much relies on the visuals of beautiful women dying. When a woman is killed in Scream, she is tortured: the killer plays games with her or kills her in an overly expressive and creative way. When men die, it’s generally quick, and the camera doesn’t spend much time with them. The one aspect of the “sex equals death” rule that Randy omits is that that rule mainly applies to female characters. Tatum (expertly played by a blonde Rose McGowan), Sidney’s best friend, is connoted as the most promiscuous character in the movie (she delivers lines like “Stu was with me last night” with a wink and a smile) especially compared to Sidney, who rebuffs her boyfriend’s advances when we first meet her character. Thus, in traditional horror-movie style, it would follow that Tatum is punished for her sexuality and killed in one of the most graphic ways possible — electrocuted, with her head stuck in a garage door. 

If you’re a horror fan, you’re probably familiar with the trope of the “final girl” – a term coined by University of California, Berkeley film professor Carol Clover in the late 1980s – which refers to the sole female character who lives to defeat the killer at the end of the movie. In Scream, Sidney is the final girl. While this role might seem like an example of a feminist hero, Clover argues that in fact, the final girl lives because of her adoption of masculine-coded traits and therefore does not constitute a feminist character. In other words, the final girl succeeds because she is not “fully feminine.” She’s, in essence, not like other girls, and that is why she is not subjected to the graphic deaths that the other girls are. She exhibits apparently masculine-coded traits and yet is still recognizable, visually, as a woman. The male spectator can thus align with her emotionally, as she is similar to a man, but he can also objectify her sexually by virtue of her appearance as a woman. Sexually objectifiable as she is, the final girl doesn’t have sex. She doesn’t accept the phallus in that way and is therefore able to wield the phallus herself. She wields the phallic weapon, the knife, and is thus masculinized in the moment of her triumph over the killer. She is not a feminist hero because she is constructed by men and typified by the male violence to which she inevitably resorts.

Though Clover’s argument here makes some sense if looked at specifically within the realm of the slasher genre, it is also deeply flawed. Firstly, to define any action as masculine is not valid unless one can specifically define masculinity — which is difficult to do because masculinity doesn’t exist within a vacuum; its definition and behaviors are distinct based on chronological, cultural, social, and political location. Secondly, to say that violence is inherently masculine implies that conversely, passivity is feminine — which in itself is a sexist and regressive notion. 

Clover theorizes that slashers are the best movies to study if you want a glimpse of contemporary sexual attitudes and gender constructs. She writes, “slasher films present us in startlingly direct terms with a world in which male and female are at desperate odds but in which, at the same time, masculinity and femininity are more states of mind than body.” I disagree with her implicit assertion that masculinity and femininity are typically states of body rather than mind, but I wonder if she’s right about slasher movies like Scream –– do they show archetypes of men and women and their interrelation in clearer ways than other movies, and what does it mean if they do?


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