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The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix


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The Final Girl Support Group

by Grady Hendrix
July 13, 2021 · Berkley
Horror

TW: All of them, basically.

For starters, this book contains graphic descriptions of many of the standard murders and tortures found in specific slasher movies. It also subverts the tendency of slasher movies to spare pre-teen children, so at least two deaths of children are described. There are also descriptions and/or depictions of an abusive realtionship that includes statuatory rape, abuse of a prisoner by law enforcement, survivor guilt, and addiction as well as discussion of and depiction of a mass shooting. Finally, we were troubled by the treatment of the one Black character.

WHY, YOU ASK, would I review this mass of TWs on a romance book website? It’s because I know a subset of our readers are all about embracing the “Bitch” in Smart Bitches, and this is a story about women who band together for physical and emotional survival and find ways to claim their stories in a world that does not support them. Unfortunately, Maya and I were disappointed by the presence of harmful stereotypes in what could have been a more inclusively feminist story.

Ten years ago I would have told you that I didn’t read horror. Then Trump ran for office so that whole period was nerve wracking, and then he was in office, which was so much worse, and suddenly all I wanted to read about was flawed but determined women taking down evil men in a bloody fashion. I wanted sisterhood and an inappropriate use of power tools. I guess I still have a good head of steam going because my first read of The Final Girl Support Group was AMAZING and it took my second read to go – oh…shit, this is not right.

Once upon a time there was a world exactly like our own only with one small different detail. All the horror franchises that we have today exist, but they are all openly based on the experiences of real people. For example, there’s a franchise in the book called Summer Slaughter. This film series is loosely based on the experiences of Adrienne, one of the members of the Final Girl Support Group, and it is also a tribute to the real-world Friday the 13th franchise. There are a lot of layers of fictional and real and meta in The FInal Girl Support Group. For example, Adrienne is a ‘real’ person and a ‘fictional’ character based on her exists in movies that, in turn, are based in real movies that are (Thank God) entirely fictional. Did you get all that?

The survivors of these attacks, the Final Girls, have a single constant in their lives after the attacks and the ‘sequels’ which forces them to face their monster more than once. These women meet every month for a support group where they bicker and process and bicker some more.

However, after years and years of processing trauma, most of the Final Girls want to disband the group. Lynette, who has coped by exercising unceasing and detailed paranoia about every aspect of her life, is sure that a killer is targeting them again, and that the Final Girls have to stick together to survive. Lynette has been preparing for this situation for years and yet all her precautions fall apart almost instantly leaving her on the run and desperate to protect a new Final Girl, Stephanie.

Maya: So, Carrie, I think that I liked this book less than you. Mostly, I struggled with how shallow the characterization felt. It was hard for me to get swept up in the narrative when I wasn’t even sure which Final Girl we were talking about.

Carrie: I totally get that. I looked up (but didn’t watch because I’m a baby) all the characters that the women are tributes too, but also I think I fleshed the characters out in my own head without noticing that I was doing it. Something about the way each of them coped with surviving trauma just really spoke to me. I was totally invested in them and I could always tell them apart…but I agree that this works best on a meta level. It’s way too easy to sum them up by type: Marylin is the rich one, Dani is the lesbian recluse, Heather is the addicted one, Lynette is the paranoid one, etc. I liked how they each coped in their own way and I thought that was a fascinating look at different strategies – but it would have been deeper if we spent more time with each character.

One place where characterization runs into serious trouble is with Adrienne. Adrienne, who is African American, is the survivor of an event similar to Friday the Thirteenth. Adrienne’s coping strategy is to help other survivors of trauma heal, and one way she does this is to ensure that any film franchises based on the traumas of Final Girls have to financially benefit the young women in question.

She also (and this isn’t a spoiler – it’s the event that kicks off the plot) is the first person to be killed in the book, which means that despite all the tropes this book subverts, The Black Dude Still Dies First. Adrienne is also supposedly fine with the fact that the character based on her in her film franchise is played by a White actress. Adrienne is a pragmatic person who loves raising money, but I still found it difficult to accept that she would be completely fine with her character being White-washed.

Maya: Yeah, I really struggled with Adrienne’s character because of how powerless she becomes through her death early in the narrative. Since she dies before we get to meet her, we only know her through how the other Final Girls knew her and interacted with her. And because she spent all of her time after her experiences of violence working to help other women process their trauma, she basically became the dead, voiceless caregiver of the Final Girls. The stereotype of strong, Black women saving everyone else is harmful in so many ways, if not primarily in howitsubsumestheneeds and desires of Black women to that of the people she must save.

Who was Adrienne when she was not saving the rest of the (mostly White) Final Girls from the after effects of gender-based violence? I don’t know because she doesn’t get to be a fully actualized person, she’s just a mammy.

Carrie: YES so much of what you said!!! I find the thought of using one’s own experience to help others to be a generally empowering one, but the history of Black and Brown characters in media being reduced to caregivers changes the dynamics when the one Black Final Girl is the one doing most of the nurturing, in addition to being whitewashed and killed off.

I did like the disability representation, as Julia has a sturdy, all-terrain wheelchair and goes everywhere, including up (small) flights of stairs. She doesn’t have super powers, she’s not magical, and she is not used for inspirational purposes. She’s just very determined and has the ability to afford some great equipment.

More than anything else, I loved how the women, who are very different people and don’t like each other much, band together. Lynette’s inclusion of a surprising person in the Final Girl Support Group warmed my heart (not literally) and really made the book for me. I felt that the end of this book really nailed a positive tone of support and triumph and real healing.

Maya: I struggled with Lynette’s flailing reactionarism (is that a word?) paired with her hypervigilance, if only because it seemed to make her less safe rather than more. Which is both very aligned with horror story logic (not leaving the house when there’s an escaped serial killer with a big knife killing everyone you love) and the real effects of trauma, but it’s a frustrating dynamic because it felt like Lynette was Wile E. Coyote perpetually falling off a cliff onto another cliff that she would also fall off of.

Carrie: I think the book works better as a thought experiment than as an actual novel. For instance, Lynette’s experience shows how living in constant paranoia not only fails to protect but actually exposes one to more damage. This is highlighted by the introductory pages at the start of each new chapter, which feature fictional reviews, transcripts, and essays that pick the slasher movie framework apart from a variety of perspectives. Slasher movies run on a specific set of rules, and are often most interesting when they break or deconstruct these rules. I would say that the more you know about these rules and these kinds of universes the more you will get out of the book.

Maya: I definitely agree that I thought this book worked better as a thought experiment than a novel! The idea is interesting: let’s focus on the women who survive rather than serial killer men and ask the question of what surviving looks like after the trial ends and everyone is discharged from the hospital. And then add 10 years. Or 20. All the adrenaline is gone and all that’s left is the reality of how someone has and has not managed to cope with their body being a site of horror.

I wanted to get into it, to really get to know the women that stand in for the various archetypal slasher movies, but I felt let down by the framing that I think was really impactful for you, Carrie–how the women were defined by how they handled their trauma. One person decided to dedicate her life to caring for others, another cocooned herself in her addiction, another became hypervigilant and agoraphobic. I wish I understood the characters in ways that transcended the violence they survived because for all that the book critiques the moral vacuity of how pop culture focuses more on the killers than their victims, the fact that the story never seems to let the characters be more than their traumas seems to create an inherent tension in that critique. I just wish these characters were defined by more than the worst thing they ever survived.

Carrie: I agree and disagree at the same time. I think that one point of the book which is made repeatedly is that the women hate being defined by what they survive but for various reasons they can’t seem to move beyond it. In the end, it seems that they will break that chain while still providing support to those who need it – which means that the book ends just at the point where it is getting the most interesting.

Feminist thought experiments about horror are catnip for me, and so are narratives about unabashedly triumphant survivors of male violence, so I ate Final Girl Suppport Group right up.

However, I don’t think I would recommend it to someone with no interest in cultural or feminist criqutes of horror. I also feel very disappointed by the problematic treatment of Adrienne. It’s not enough to say that this particular Final Girl is Black. There are very few Black Final Girls in film, so it’s great that there is one in this book, but I found it awkward and offensive that she dies first, and I agree, Maya, that she is put in a mammy position by devoting her life to being the caretaker of all these mostly White women.

AndI have to admit that every time I re-read this book, I like it less. On the other hand, I have been re-reading it, something I don’t always do, and the first go-around was pure adrenaline for me. I’d say this is a VERY mileage-will-vary book, not only from person to person but also from read to read, and it has serious problems with representation.

Maya: I was pretty meh on the first (and only!) read and never got a real adrenaline kick from the story, which could also speak to our different experiences. I felt more like a woman in the movie theater yelling, “Turn around, he’s right behind you!” than someone that was drawn deeply into a narrative. Which is, admittedly, a fun way to watch a terrible scary movie, but is usually not the kind of mood I bring for solo book time!

Although, to its credit, I did read the whole book in one sitting, but that was more because I know you had said how much you liked it, Carrie, and I was hoping to get there. I personally wouldn’t really recommend this book to anyone I know. There’s no way for me to get comfortable with Adrienne as a mammy, even if some of the larger thematic elements were resonant. Ultimately, I think this story fails to be feminist AND intersectional, and without a successful engagement with both, Final Girl Support Group doesn’t transcend being an interesting thought experiment to becoming a thrilling story.

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