Gender and Identification in Slasher Films

By Kiana Carbajal

In an excerpt from “Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film,” author and renowned professor Carol J. Clover discusses the slasher genre of horror films and their representation of masculinity and femininity. In order to understand Clover’s analysis of slasher films, we must first understand the common trope of the Final Girl. Clover describes the Final Girl as the one character of stature who lives to tell the tale. In the midst of all the chaos and murder in a slasher film, the Final Girl remains “intelligent, watchful, and levelheaded.” Most importantly, she is the first character to notice that something is wrong and recognize the evidence. Because of her watchful eye, the Final Girl is essentially the “only character to be developed in any psychological detail.” For example, in Friday the Thirteenth Part 2, the Final Girl–Ginny–is the only character to recognize that Jason is a real and present threat. Her observation and perspective is unique because it accurately reads the situation and most closely resembles the audience’s outside view.

Clover expands the concept of the Final Girl by raising a question of who the audience identifies with while watching a slasher film. With the target audience for this genre of films generally being young men, it is assumed that the audience will identify with male characters. But with most of the young male characters being killed off early in slasher films, the only other option for a male character that the audience can identify with is the killer. Clover explains this through her claim that “point of view = identification.” Slasher films commonly provide scenes where the audience is able to see through the killer’s eyes. This is present in Jaws, where the audience becomes the shark swimming through the waters of Amity Island as it prepares to attack unsuspecting swimmers, and also in Friday the Thirteenth Part 2, where the audience is Jason as he hides behind trees and leaves as he quietly observes the teenagers in their summer camp cabin. With this first person POV, Clover suggests that the audience is forced to identify with the killer. However, as the film progresses, the audience learns more about the Final Girl, and the number of killer POV shots decreases, which alters the audience’s identification from the killer to the Final Girl. By the end of the movie, the audience cheers as the Final Girl takes control of the situation and takes down the killer. 

With the switching of identification from a male character to a female character, Clover implies that character identification is not limited to a specific gender. Working under this claim, the number of characters that audience members can identify with increases, which brings into question how secure an audience member’s identification with the killer is. Even though the audience sees through the killer’s POV as they observe and interact with their victims, the audience may not necessarily understand or agree with the killer’s action, making this a very loose form of identification. This can also extend to identifying with characters of the same gender, considering a general young male audience. In Friday the Thirteenth Part 2, the audience follows Scott, one of the male counselors at the summer camp, as he watches Terry, one of the female counselors, skinny dipping and walking away from him (with her butt being the focus of the shot). Through Scott’s “eyes,” the audience also sees this, but they may perceive it as perverted rather than satisfying. The audience’s personal opinions and beliefs may not align with those of the person depicted in the first person POV, creating a disconnect in the audience’s identification with male characters in the film. As for the first person POV overall, it allows the audience to view the killer’s actions, but not the killer themselves. With the obstruction of the killer’s physical attributes, there is a part of the killer’s character that remains unknown and a mystery, preventing the audience from completely understanding and identifying with the killer.

Another aspect of slasher films that Clover addresses is the masculine and feminine qualities of characters in slasher films and subsequently the journey from childhood to adulthood being defined by the transition from feminine to masculine qualities. First, the Final Girl is obviously a female character, but she is different from the other female characters in a slasher film. While the other girls scream and hide from the killer as they approach, the Final Girl actively investigates and picks up weapons in an attempt to fend off the killer. We see this in Friday the Thirteenth Part 2 in Jason’s shack when Ginny wears his mother’s sweater and impersonates his mother to calm Jason down, or when she wields a pitchfork just before Jason crashes through the window. These qualities in a final girl are ones that one would typically see in a male character, and Clover claims that this is exactly part of the Final Girl’s design. The journey of the Final Girl is actually the journey of her growing from a child harboring feminine qualities to an adult exhibiting masculine characteristics. This transition is completed when the Final Girl kills the killer, which represents the castration of the killer and a complete phallicizing of the Final Girl. When the killer is finished, the community of the slasher film returns to its normal order, suggesting that the effective phallicization of the Final Girl is what completes the film.

However, there is still a lingering question regarding the Final Girl. Why is it significant that the Final Girl is a girl? Considering the earlier claim that audience identification may not be dependent on gender, there is clearly a possibility for Final Boys or female killers to exist and have an impact. Clover presents an answer: “[The Final Girl] is simply an agreed-upon fiction and the male viewer’s use of her as a vehicle for his own sadomasochistic fantasies [is] an act of perhaps timeless dishonesty.” Despite the belief that the Final Girl is a representation of a feminist icon, Clover suggests the Final Girl is simply a device crafted to generate action for a thrilling slasher film, but also restricted to be feminine enough to keep the young male audience engaged.

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