One of my best friends is a connesieur of horror films, a fact that’s been something of a twist in my life, given my seriously ingrained adversion to them. (My brother once commented — some would say rightfully — that the scariest movie in my personal collection is Finding Nemo. But come on, that first scene with the shark attack is hard-core, don’t you think?) But anyway, in honor of said friend’s taste and to celebrate her graduation, last weekend we watched Teeth together. I’ve been initiated, over the past year or so, to enough truly frightening films that I figured I could handle a self-proclaimed horror-comedy. Indeed, Teeth — the story of a teenage girl embedded in the abstinence movement, who eventually discovers a pair of dentures embedded in her genitalia, — pushes its humor at least as far as its horror or its moments of grindhouse grotesque. The comedy factor isn’t really what interests me, though. For starters, I’m a bigger fan of the unintentionally hilarious “horror films” (see either version of The Wicker Man), which somehow give the impression of an honest attempt to terrify that simply miserably, miserably failed. And on a more complicated note, there’s an assumption underlying Teeth’s premise (and therefore its comedy) which strikes me, frankly, as borderline tragic.
I’ll set the scene as best I can by explaining this film is by no means “understated.” A baseball bat with the word “symbolism” scrawled across it could basically have been applied directly to my skull, and still created a subtler effect. “Character development” is equally no-holds-barred. If, three seconds into encountering our heroine’s stepbrother, you have not firmly gripped that he’s absolutely her foil, I expect there are some remaining social services you might benefit from receiving. But in the midst of all this obviousness, there are a handful of questions that do go unanswered, most of which are more interesting to me than the film itself. For instance: How does Dawn, the protagonist we first glimpse as an apparently run-of-the-mill toddler (minus the second set of chompers, of course), end up so firmly rooted in the abstinence movement by her teenage years? What motivates this particular young woman to become the poster-child for celibacy, giving speeches and even donning t-shirts in support of her cause?
The closest thing to an explanation offered in the film itself strikes me as pretty problematic: Dawn’s vagina dentata are framed not simply as a mutation, but as a biological adaptation, a genetic fluke Mother Nature might do well to make note of and keep in mind for future generations. A scene in a science classroom discusses mutations as an essential component of evolution, implying that Dawn’s condition is somehow beneficial to the survival of the species. Perhaps it’s intended simply to suggest that the extra pair of teeth would be good insurance against a world where every available male — be he your first love, your stepbrother, or your gynecologist – presents a threat, but that conflation of female protection with male peril is a huge part of what bothers me. If the vagina dentata myth really does originate, as even the film describes, in men’s fear of castration and their terror over women’s sexuality, how does that narrative transition into anything that can be deemed a “feminist” reclaiming? I’ve done a handful of quick Google searches on the movie, and the film is definitely framed that way, if not necessarily by feminists themselves. Rotton Tomatoes not only granted it a (beyond generous) score of 82%, but further claimed the film put “a fresh feminist spin on horror movie tropes.” Critics and bloggers alike — (sidenote: is there much of a difference anymore?) — suggest that, far from being anti-woman, the film actually reclaims the original myth, landing firmly on women’s “side.” The notion, then, is that women’s sexuality — or even our survival — is somehow in opposition to male desire. Male sexuality is equated with male-perpetrated sexual violence, and female sexuality with purity we can only maintain by, quite literally, cutting men off at the pass.
Is anyone else facepalming at this point? Or are we all so used to these representations that we no longer deem them worth the gesture? It’s possible I just don’t exhaust easily enough, but this still frustrates me. Why do we socially maintain this tendency to understand women’s strength — in relation to sexuality — as about either personal “restraint” (in maintaining virginity) or about conquering / controlling / castrating men? Why do we set up male and female (hetero)sexuality as oppositional, especially considering they all but require the other?
Is there seriously no healthy sexual encounter that can coexist with strength for women? What would that look like, in terms of representation? Who does the myth of the virgin/ whore or — in this case — a sort of virgin/ succubus serve so well that we must continually create and recreate it, until we’re eventually trying to sell it as empowering?
Because honestly the claim is just that. According to Urban Cinefile, Teeth is the story of a “a woman who turns her imperfection into empowerment.” I’ll try not to get started on the notion of vaginal teeth as an “imperfection” — a simple failure to achieve some feminine ideal — but if I pass on that soapbox, can I point out that the notion of Dawn as sexually empowered should not sit well with any of us? As a woman, my sexual empowerment should not conflict with the sexual empowerment of any male. It shouldn’t lead to violence against him any more than his empowered sexuality should lead to violence against me. No offense to Teeth, but I think I’ll hold out for another story of female sexual empowerment, perhaps nicely situated outside the horror realm. Maybe even one located in reality. Now there’s a thought.