The Penultimate Girl
In 1992, Carol J. Clover coined the term ‘The Final Girl’, and thus, one of horror’s most pervasive and ubiquitous tropes found a name.
For the uninitiated, although it’s fairly self-explanatory, The Final Girl is the last woman standing at the end of a horror movie.
The Final Girl is an avatar, a projection, a cliché. She is as virtuous as the cultural standards of the time demand she be. She is a trope so pervasive that she has been subverted and parodied to the point of obsolescence. She is to be identified with by the audience, objectified, but never vilified, rooted for, and marked out as unkillable early on, so that her torture can be enjoyed risk free (- we feel a rush of tension as the film reaches its climax and she battles it out with her evil arch-nemesis, but the tension is never too much, because we know she survives).
But The Final Girl has never interested me.
The Final Girl is pandering on a filmmaker’s behalf. She must be pretty, but not too pretty, funny, but not too funny, likeable, but not too likeable. Both masculine and feminine, but not in any radical or queer way. She represents a compromise on every axis. She is brave and somewhat rebellious, but usually square enough that she won’t alienate viewers. She almost always - even in her subversions - confirms to social and cultural standards, so that she will never offend. She is, to me at least, a little bland.
This is where The Penultimate Girl comes in, and this is the first and probably the last trope that I will ever coin. Whilst making my way through horror movies of years gone by, I discovered that for every ‘Final Girl’, there is a counterpart ‘Penultimate Girl’, but I couldn’t believe no one had used this term before or discussed the trope’s importance.
The Penultimate Girl is a symbol of everything that The Final Girl is not: she is slutty, sarcastic, brash. If the Final Girl is blonde, the Penultimate Girl will often be brunette, or vice versa. If there’s a sex scene in the film, she’s usually involved. She is loud, demanding, bossy, unapologetically femme or butch or scantily clad. She smokes, she drinks, maybe she does drugs. Sometimes, The Penultimate Girl is black, whereas The Final Girl never is. This, perhaps more than any other ‘quality’ I’ve listed, offers an insight into what The Penultimate Girl means: she embodies things we dislike or disapprove of in women, culturally, because we know she will die and we have to be ok with that. And who is more reviled culturally, by a structurally racist and misogynist culture, than the black girl? The Penultimate Girl is punished and she is a sacrifice.
The Penultimate Girl is a woman who is killed off and the audience shrugs. It’s fine, we say to ourselves. “She had it coming”. Or perhaps we don’t think along those violently misogynistic lines, we just accept her death because she seems shallow or badly written or annoying or we don’t care because she’s a plot point and her death is necessary in the greater scheme.
The Penultimate Girl is a far more feminist concept than the meek and often accidentally heroic Final Girl, because - in a small way -she represents everything our white supremacist, cisheteronormative, capitalist, patriarchy hates. She is a target for an audience’s collective misogyny. And this is why I love her. I’ve listed 10 of my favourite Penultimate Girls below, who were killed off for being too pretty, too black, too mouthy, too sarcastic, too clever, too sexy, too butch, too funny, too self-aware, too jealous, too inquisitive or combination of the above. What are your favourites?
10. Pam (Terri McMinn) - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
9. Hallie (Elise Neal) - Scream 2 (1997)
8. Barb Coard (Margot Kidder) - Black Christmas (1974)
7. Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) - I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
6. Megan (Greta Gerwig) - The House of the Devil (2009)
5. Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) - Alien (1979)
4. Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) - Candyman (1992)
3. Lynda Van Der Klok (P.J. Soles) - Halloween (1978)
2. Kirby Reed (Hayden Panetierre) - Scream 4 (2011)
1. Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan) - Scream (1999)
N.B. I resisted the urge to list Marion Crane as played by Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960). Although in some respects she confirms to the Penultimate Girl trope - she is a sexually active criminal and as such we are encouraged to judge her - she is not earmarked as a secondary character who will probably be killed of, nor is she portrayed as a counterpart to a more virtuous protagonist. In fact, we’re supposed to believe that she is the protagonist and her early death is supposed to be a surprise, not an audience-sanctioned sacrifice.