The horror genre is notoriously complicated for women. Take the trope of the "Final Girl," which describes the common occurrence when a film's heroine is left to take the last stand against the villain and ultimately defeat him. (Until the sequel, of course.) The trope should be about female empowerment, but instead, it's a reminder of the rules women must abide by in order to be deemed worthy of survival. The Final Girl is virginal, responsible, and not prone to the partying pitfalls that her soon-to-be-dead friends are. Above all else, however, is the Final Girl's inability to break: She is strong when others are not, emotionally as well as physically.
Scream, released 20 years ago 20th December, is a slasher, but it's also a parody of the genre films that came before it. It is self-referential, often citing the horror movie "rules" that allow its characters to survive. The rules are somewhat trivial (don't you dare say "I'll be right back" or go hook up in the woods), but any slasher fan will tell you that they're also wildly accurate. Scream is unique in that it mostly plays by these rules, in a world where the characters constantly refer to their own lives as a living horror film. It would make sense for the film to render its heroine as a heightened example of the slasher genre's favourite victims: women who survive because they're virtuous. But Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the film's Final Girl, is not so simple.
When we first meet Sidney, she is turning down her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) for sex, a smart move considering he's just compared their love life to The Exorcist. From that first scene alone, it seems Sidney is playing the role of the stereotypical Final Girl rather well. She's flirty, but ultimately chaste, unlike her more rebellious blonde best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan). She's smart, but not defiant: Though she turns Billy down, she flashes him her bare chest as a consolation prize. However, it's not long before we learn that Sidney's far from the sweet, demure girl we assume her to be.
She is not always sweet, or respectful, or even right. Her survival in the film is not contingent on how "good" she is.
The film soon reveals that Sidney's mother was murdered years prior to the events of the film, and that Sidney has been dealing with the emotional fallout ever since. When reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) approaches her about Sidney's false testimony that put an innocent man in prison for her mother's murder, Sidney doesn't take it in stride. Instead, she punches Gale square in the face, with no apology given. With that, it's revealed that Sidney is hardly a "perfect" heroine. She is not always sweet, or respectful, or even right. Her survival in the film is not contingent on how "good" she is, but rather on how much she's willing to fight for what she wants.
If there's one thing that defines a horror film, it's the characters' inability to have control over their own lives. In Scream, the masked serial killer stalking Woodsboro — and, more specifically, Sidney — threatens to take away her control over her own life. Yet Sidney proves early on that she's in command of her fate. When she finds evidence that Billy might be the killer, she turns him in. Later, when Billy finds his way back in her good graces, she decides that she's ready to have sex — and feels no shame in her decision. She is a heroine with agency, and one who feels like a real person. She has flaws, complex emotions, and the ability to make mistakes. What she never allows herself to become is a victim of her circumstances.
This dynamic is further exemplified in the the Scream franchise's three sequels. Sidney goes to college, and later becomes a women's crisis councillor and self-help book author — all while simultaneously dealing with a serial killer who demands complete sway over her life. Yet, even as the bodies pile up, Sidney never lets the killer win. She is the heroine of her own story — the terrible things that happen to her don't steal that fact away.
Sidney reminds women that there's no right way to be a heroine, or a "good woman," for that matter. This Final Girl has agency, and though we may never be hunted by Ghostface, Sidney is still a role model for women who unapologetically fight to have authority over their own lives.