When you think about A Nightmare on Elm Street, odds are you think of that guy with the burned face and knives for fingers. But why isn’t the heroine as iconic as the villain?
That’s a question Heather Langenkamp, the actress behind Nightmare’s leading lady Nancy Thompson, seeks to answer in her 2010 documentary I Am Nancy. Why is Freddymania inescapable in memorabilia and cultural references, while the defining heroine is treated like a footnote? The documentary shows Nancy, while unjustly overlooked at large, is much beloved by fans, and rightly so. She’s one of the premiere examples in the genre’s history of an empowered woman.
At first glance Nancy may seem like your average teenage murder-fodder as well as your typical Final Girl: innocent, unassuming, the only one left standing. But Nancy transcends those 1980s slasher tropes by developing over the course of the film into a fully-fledged character. Right away we see she’s deeply caring; her best friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) is rattled by a nightmare, so Nancy sleeps over at her house to keep her company. When Tina is viciously murdered and the police blame her hothead boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri), Nancy defends Rod’s innocence. But compassion is only one of her defining characteristics — she’s clever, resourceful, determined, and stunningly courageous, clever enough to not just survive through good luck, but defeat and outwit her adversary.
I got to write about my childhood heroine, Ellie Arroway, for btchflcks.com’s Women Scientists week! I take a personal look at how she affected my career track as well as the inherent sexism she experiences in a male-dominated professional field, and how the film treats her character overall as an example of much-needed female representation.
That’s what girls need to see: the normalization of women as protagonists, as professionals, as figureheads of heroism. Viable, easily seen examples that women belong in the worlds of science and technology, that the fields aren’t exclusive boys’ clubs. A woman can achieve breakthroughs in math and physics. A woman can raise her voice and fight for her beliefs. A woman can serve as representative for the best of humanity.
More than anything, she can succeed in the face of overwhelming societal pressures trying to undermine her choices — just like social norms dictate what young women can and can’t do. Pink is for girls, blue is for boys; you play with dolls, not trucks. It’s impractical to be a scientist, or an engineer, or a radio astronomer.