By David Nilsen
“it sounds better than it is,
this business of surviving,
making it through
the wrong place
at the wrong time
– from the poem Gone to Static, page 105
Throughout queer performance artist and poet Daphne Gottlieb’s Final Girl (811.54 G) there is a sense of having survived, just barely. Of living to tell if for no other reason than someone has to. Who will provide the camera a POV in the final scene if the last woman standing is dead?
In the horror film genre, the Final Girl is a trope in which a young woman (invariably attractive and usually virginal) survives until the end of the movie, outlasting all the other victims and usually the killer. In addition to sexual virginity, this heroine must eschew all other vices as well – she doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t drink dangerously, doesn’t take unnecessary teenage risks. She is smart and resourceful, but as a woman is more readily perceived by the audience as vulnerable. Many words have been spent on the underlying societal and psychological underpinnings of the Final Girl trope, including many devoted to the debate over whether or not the Final Girl is predominantly a patriarchal or feminist character. She is objectified, sadistically terrorized, fetishistically hunted. But: she survives, she outwits her attacker, she prevails, she lives to tell.
In Final Girl (2003, Soft Skull Press), Gottlieb weaves the imagery and interrogatives of this film trope into the fabric of a young adult life on the fringe. What does it mean to be female, to be queer, to be other? What does it mean to be promiscuous, to be strong, to be vulnerable? How do we reconcile our rational minds and tender spirits with our bleeding, eating, breathing bodies and the violence that gets done to and by them?
“there is nothing i can do
except open my throat
and say the words for girls
who are the ghosts of want:
‘slut.'” – from Slut, pages 84-85
The book is bloody but erotic, defiant but plaintive, with raised chin but streaked eyes. Gottlieb appropriates not only the trappings of the horror film genre but also uses text from the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the captivity of Mary Rowlandson, and similar events to further explore the dichotomy between victimization and self-actualization, primarily in women and members of the LGBTQ community. In the deeply affecting prose poem Liability (page 24), the reader assumes he is looking out from the point of view of a trans* woman as her day moves from a lighthearted mood of self-contented hedonism to one of escalating fear and finally the realization of violence, but in the final line we discover our assumptions might have been wrong – our character may have been a cisgendered woman after all. Does this change matter? Why does this reveal strike us as a twist? The poem is powerful and gets to the empathy and essential humanity that is so often stripped in varying degrees from anyone who doesn’t play by the rules of the conventional heteronormative gender binary.
In the second half of the book, the tone shifts from these broader social commentaries to more conventional relational angst, with topics ranging from the death of the author’s mother to the end of a romantic relationship, from an extramarital affair to dealing with a lover’s ex. One might fear these poems would fall flat in the wake of the earlier poems’ striking themes and drag down the middle after the promise of the beginning, but this is not the case. Aside from being beautifully written verse in their own right, these poems serve as a counterpoint to the in-your-face aggression and even gore of the poems around the title theme. It is in these two families of poems that Gottlieb explores the split between boldness and brokenness, between confidence and confession. This dichotomy is expressed most simply in these lines from the poem Final Girl X: The Final Girl:
“We do things in the dark
and we will never talk
it scares us”
– page 103
This is a thing itself whispered in the dark, a statement that couldn’t be claimed in the light of day. The shield is lowered too far for that. We both know that last part is true, she seems to be saying, and we both know it doesn’t change a thing. We’ll keep doing those things in the dark, afraid or not. Maybe being able to admit that fear is more a sign of intimacy than any furtive action in the dark could ever be. There is a resignation to these confessions, desperation given no more voice than a sigh.
If the above poem expresses the book’s split most succinctly, Pornography (page 75) gives us its best visual example. Another prose poem, this one imagines a strip club in which the women who perform are not there to titillate the desperate and lonely male onlookers sexually as much as sympathetically. Instead of whispering dirty come-on lines into the ears of customers the dancers whisper the sadder truths of human life: “World Trade Center,” “No one came to my birthday party last year,” and “It’s inoperable.” (page 76)
A dancer weeps openly, the man receiving her peculiar lap dance sits on his hands not to avoid groping her, but to avoid truly touching her, embracing her as one heart that recognizes another, feeling something that might remind him of human connection, warmth, empathy. This is what pornography gets to at its root, isn’t it? Rather than a need for connection informing sexual intimacy, the process is inverted, so that sexual desire is the fuel the mind burns in its pursuit for connection. It’s an inefficient fossil fuel, but an inexhaustible one.
Daphne Gottlieb’s Final Girl has proven consistently provocative and poignant over the years I have been reading and rereading it. It laughs on one page, daring the reader to react, and seems to lean in close on the next, asking the reader to reach out a hand and just listen. Tennyson wrote once wrote that Words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within, and Gottlieb here does much of both, standing half undressed in the spotlight on stage but also shutting off the lights to turn the tables on the killer stalking through her house.
In the Final Girl trope, the young woman fitting the role must be free of vices and, most especially, free of sex. Any sexuality attached to her character must be assigned from outside, projected onto her by her leering male friends, her predatory assailant(s), and of course, her horny male movie audience. She is sexually appreciable without being sexually available. To put a finer point on it, she doesn’t get to have sex; her body is for the minds and eyes of the men surrounding her to take pleasure from. She is granted agency in other ways – she survives when everyone else dies, after all, and usually by using her wits and savvy – but this structuring only further perpetuates the virgin/whore dichotomy that finished off her friends earlier in the movie. She is “pure,” so she gets to live. The girls who have sex get bled out on screen. If we crudely bare the phallic imagery concealed in the knives and chainsaws of the slasher genre, the girls who live by the sword inevitably die by it.
Gottlieb recognizes this unfair distortion in Western society: she taunts it, refuses it, rails against it. But she also grows quiet enough at times to admit to leaning into its curves, bending with the wind so as not to break, learning the angles of exploiting it. She has been beaten up and beaten down by life, and she’s learned to fight back; but there is strength too in admitting pain, fear, loneliness. Her voice in Final Girl, ultimately, is one of pleading for the right to live, to live a life that is not alone, one that hurts less but feels more. As she says in The Other Woman (page 64),
There is nothing
going on. I took nothing
you wanted. You can’t
have it back.
You can find Final Girl in the GPL’s Non-Fiction Room.