Hard on the heels of the female character tropes flowchart I am so keen on: a recent study on gender imbalance regarding characters in children’s literature, reported by the Guardian. There are all sorts of counter-arguments, of course. Most pertinent would be the degree to which male characters in young children’s fiction act as default, factory-setting for efficiently involving both girls and boys at the same time. Boys seem to care a great deal about directly identifying and appear to require a male lead to ensure involvement. Girls are less fussy in this respect, which is perhaps just as well if they wish to grow up sane. I’m not saying it’s right.
In fact, in film, too, the pattern remains and seems to persist into adulthood. There is, of course, one notable exception to this: the horror genre. Carol J. Clover’s classic research has told us a lot about the way we view horror when it incorporates the final girl. It was once assumed that the final girl trope amounted to an eroticised form of violence against women. But Clover knew there was something wrong with that line. Final girls triumph. They often humiliate the killer in the process, as well as managing to top him by some creative means and often with some sort of phallic symbol. Clover discovered that men seemed not only to identify with the female lead, they actually seemed to identify more strongly than the female viewers did. Although initial identification seems to be with the killer (typically reinforced by camera angles of view), a transition occurs. The male viewer starts to connect with the female in peril (again, typically reinforced by camera angles of view). And he cheers for her.
Of course, in order to achieve this, final girls come with their problems. They are usually christened with a unisex name or even a name more commonly associated with a male. They do not drink, take drugs, party or seem to have any fun at all; meanwhile across town all the bad girls and boys are living it up – before they are brutally felled. They are always virgins, with the strong suggestion that sex terrifies them. They can therefore almost be thought to represent a virtually pre-sexualised male in some respect and perhaps even a distorted, funhouse mirror of self-objectification and gender exploration, rather similar to the questing boys of Medieval romances (it’s no coincidence that Clover is a medievalist). Final girls offer a way for men to own terror, disempowerment and sexual anxiety in a safe place. Action films, by contrast, do not function in this way: they tend to embody, in very explicit ways, wish fulfillment. Horror films exhibit the traits of the nightmare remembered. They end in victory but with a sense that resolution and relief are only temporary (as long-running horror franchises seem to confirm). Even in victory, there is a sense not of optimism – but of loss. A kind of trangression has taken place on film and within the audience, and, for now, all must return to normalcy.
But I digress. Forgive me. Back to the original point. It may well be that in young children’s fiction the gender imbalance is troubling and plain disappointing. But girls get it good eventually. We can claim the heroines of Anne Shirley and Jo March as our own final girls: true survivors and role models both, and not a chainsaw in sight.