Most of us have heard it before, that the horror genre is inherently anti-feminist. Women are often exploited as eye candy or helpless victims. And even when a woman survives, it’s often a character who is virginal and pure, while those who are sexually active are shamed and punished for being sexual. However, the vast majority of movies that come out of Hollywood aren’t any safer for female characters than the horror genre is, just a little less gory.
But, then there’s Sidney Prescott.
Scream was a movie created to skewer slasher movies and all of their predictability, but also to turn some of those tropes on their head. Sidney seems like the stereotypical Final Girl from the outset. She is the dark-haired good girl, while her friend Tatum is the sexy blonde. She’s the clear candidate to be the killer’s final target, and like every good Final Girl, maintains her virginity—at least for the first two acts of the movie.
But it’s not just Sidney sleeping with Billy that makes her the atypical Final Girl—it’s so much more than that. She is victimized, but she doesn’t want to just be a victim, she wants to be a survivor. She has sex but she’s not seen by other characters or the audience as just a sexual object. Sidney makes the choice to have sex with Billy based on her feelings at that moment and, more importantly, she is never shamed for that choice.
One of the key bits of dialogue that sums up Sidney’s character comes at the end of the first movie, when the seemingly dead Billy returns for his one last scare. Sidney shoots him in the head and proclaims, “Not in my movie.” Sidney, and all of the people that come in and out of her life over the years, are treated like movie characters, defined by the various clichés that they fit into. Sidney Prescott, however, refuses to be defined by the rules that her movie-obsessed friends and enemies lay out in each film.
In 1996, when this series started, Sidney was a rarity: a horror heroine with agency. Terrible things happen to her, but she doesn’t let those things control her fate. She is a work in progress throughout the entire series, not really dwelling on why these things have happened to her, but dealing with them the best that she can and trying to live a meaningful life in spite of it all.
Scream 2 finds Sidney in college with mostly new friends, pursuing drama as a major and even slowly opening her self up to finding love with Derek. Acting might seem like an odd career choice for a girl who is somewhat quiet and unassuming but, in a way, it also feels like another way for Sidney to take control of her life. As an actress, she can live the lives of others and channel her own painful past into those characters. She also takes control of her relationship with Derek and when he tries to convince her not to break up with him (for his own safety), Sidney doesn’t back down or let Derek talk her out of it. Even after his romantic serenade, she still keeps him at arm’s length.
Sidney Prescott is not a woman who will bow to pressure (no sororities for her!), nor does she back down from the constant horror she is faced with. In fact, we see her time and time again, call out the killer in each film after Scream, because to her they’re all cowards who hide behind a mask.
Hiding isn’t really something Sidney does. When we see her again in Scream 3, she is certainly living in a secluded location, which is understandable given her history. She’s also become a woman’s crisis counsellor and has wisely acquired a gun for protection. It’s all perfectly keeping with her character that she’s smart enough to think about her safety, but wants to protect others from going through similar nightmares. When the new killer draws her out, she doesn’t run; she goes to Los Angeles to do everything she can to stop him (and wins again).
Scream 4 has Sidney as a best-selling author of a motivational book about her life and how she’s overcome all of it. She’s accepted that she will always be the same Sidney associated with the murders and the Stab movies, and is using that to help others. It’s even made clear in the film to her greedy publicist that she’s not in it for the money. Even when the latest psychotic mastermind thinks they’ve written the perfect ending, Sidney proposes an alternate ending where she survives once again.
While everyone around her wants to live up to their assigned cliché, Sidney wants no part in it. She just wants to live her life. That’s part of what makes her relatable, but that’s not the only thing. She doesn’t survive all of these events because she goes out and learns how to fight like Ronda Rousey. Sidney wins because she’s smart. Every time a killer chases her, she proves her resourcefulness and survives. As she points out in Scream 2, Billy Loomis may have been clever, but she’s the one who killed Billy Loomis.
For a series of films that is delightfully meta and pokes fun at its own genre, while still being scary, Sidney is always the character that is grounded in reality. It’s a testament to Kevin Williamson’s writing, Wes Craven’s directing and Neve Campbell’s acting that she never once verges on being a caricature in a series filled with them. Sidney is the audience’s touchstone, the one that makes the horror real for us and keeps Scream from turning into Scary Movie.
Around the same period of time when Sidney Prescott came to our screens, women were demanding more strong female characters in our media. Of course, the primarily male creators of that media thought that meant we wanted women who could physically kick ass. While we do love Buffy Summers or Xena, that’s not the only way to create a strong female character. Sidney resonates with us because she’s more on our level than a vampire slayer or a warrior princess. She is what we would aspire to be if put into her situation. She might not be slaying mythical creatures or vanquishing warlords, but she is everything we need (and deserve) of a hero. Sidney is strong. Sidney is smart. Sidney survives.
This piece is part of Galloween, Cinefilles’ month of all-girl horror coverage. Click the image to read more.