The heroines of the new movie Tragedy Girls, out now, embody almost every stereotype about teenage girls. They’re vain. They’re cruel. They’re social media-obsessed, constantly chasing retweets for their fledgling true crime blog. Oh, and they also kill people. Tragedy Girls is a giddy subversion of the slasher film, a genre that has historically sexualized, tortured, and killed young women in gruesome fashion. This time, it’s the young women who are doing the murdering, for sport. There’s no hulking man behind the hockey mask, just McKayla and Sadie — and their masks are neon pink and green. These teen killers do more than just challenge old notions of female agency and sexuality — they also suggest that there's something lethal in underestimating teenage girls.
Just as femme fatales in older movies like Gilda, Double Indemnity, and The Postman Always Rings Twice exploited post-World War II paranoia about women not returning to their place in the home, the female slashers in Tragedy Girls lay bare a unique suspicion society has about teen girls. It's not the usual one about young women’s propensity for vicious gossip. (If they’ll stab each other in the back, why not you?) It's the fear that these girls, whom society belittles just because they're young and female, know they’re being short-changed and are angry about it. Angry enough to demand more. Or in this case, blood.
McKayla and Sadie, teens obsessed with death, are angry that their classmates would rather follow the dreamy but vapid Toby Mitchell on Twitter than their "Tragedy Girls" blog, which follows true crime. When they ask Toby for a shout-out, he declines, even though he and McKayla used to date. Later, when a news crew arrives to cover a recent murder, the Tragedy Girls offer their perspective, but the crew laughs them off. Sadie and McKayla's project is routinely dismissed as the frivolity of two teen airheads. (They're actually excellent students involved in seemingly every extracurricular activity available.) "Sometimes I just feel like nothing I do matters," Sadie says to McKayla, clearly frustrated. "Like I'm not special."
This line is quite similar to the speech the murderous Jill gives in 2011's Scream 4, about craving her own fame and identity. And it's a theme also somewhat present in 2013's All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, a slasher movie about a girl who murders guys who won’t stop hitting on her. When one of her victims screams, "Die with me!" at her, Mandy shoots back, "I think I'll finish high school first." There's a real longing here to be recognized, taken seriously, and achieve something. It's a feeling real-life teen girls can understand. It's certainly improving, but still, people often feign shock when young women show interest in politics, or write them off as hysterical groupies when they show emotion. Teen girls are undervalued, and these fictional slasher girls, for one, are sick of it.
Sadie and McKayla are part of a relatively recent movie wave of popular, pretty teens who don’t just kill but delight in it. There's Mandy and Jill, and on television, Ryan Murphy has riffed on this type with the ladies of Scream Queens, too. It might be tempting to call these slasher girls the Heathers of a new generation, but that would imply that they have some remorse. Instead, this new breed of teenage sociopaths crack jokes while they stab and saw, and get the attention they know they deserve.
In the past, teen girl killers were a wholly different type of characters. In early slasher movies from the '60s and '70s, the killer tended to be a man, one with a particular fixation on sexually active women. The ladies always received the goriest, most gratuitous deaths — after the camera had exploited their bodies to maximum potential. The only woman to survive, the “final girl,” was usually a virgin. As film scholar Carol J. Clover noted in Men, Women, and Chainsaws, this final girl frequently had androgynous qualities, right down to a unisex name like Jess. Femininity and female sexuality were punished, while the resourceful tomboy got to survive.
There were some notable exceptions to this rule. Carrie White remains the most memorable teen girl killer in movie history, though she never means to kill anyone, making her quite different from the Michael Myers of the horror universe. She is an almost accidental slasher, one the audience can sympathize with until the very end. The same year that Carrie was released, Alice, Sweet Alice pushed this idea further by making a 12-year-old girl the prime suspect in a murder spree, although the character is not a slasher, accidental or otherwise.
Then there was Heathers, full of the dark humor that’s foundational to modern movie murderesses, but even that film's heroine goes down her path by mistake. The killings are kicked off by a fatal orange juice mix-up, and continue only because Veronica’s psychotic boyfriend urges her on. As much as she hates them, Veronica would not be executing the Heathers on her own. Later, the Scream franchise challenged that reluctance, albeit not right away. While the first movie satirizes the slasher formula, it's still a man behind Ghostface’s mask. But in Scream 4, the Big Bad is Jill, an enthusiastic serial killer who craves the fame her cousin and perennial final girl Sidney earned after surviving the original Ghostface. So Jill manipulates men to achieve that goal, disposing of them dispassionately as soon as the mask drops.
What’s notable about all these more recent characters (including the young women of Scream Queens, too) is that they are not necessarily androgynous. Several of them revel in girly excess. It’s a trait McKayla and Sadie, impeccably dressed cheerleaders, share in Tragedy Girls. They even exploit it. McKayla excuses her bloody sneakers by blaming it on a bad period day, and cranks up the cutesy charm when she lies to her parents about where she's been. This bold femininity makes these teenage killers a direct challenge to traditional final girls. They hook up, wear pink, and aren’t remotely scared of getting slain. Why would they be, when they’re the ones wielding the knife?
There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls. It’s a line novelist Megan Abbott wrote in her cheerleader murder mystery Dare Me, and it certainly applies here. All of these post-millennial murderesses are bored of their small towns and small lives. Boredom can only be cured through expanded outlets and opportunities, but those aren’t always available to young women. If people really wanted to stop Sadie and McKayla, they could’ve tapped into their ambitions, passions, even silly hobbies. But that would require listening to a pair of teenage girls, and few people are willing to do that. So they remain underestimated, and continue to kill. But unlike their cinematic predecessors, they don’t feel the least bit sorry about it.