Note to Teeth: Bite Me.


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.

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2 Responses to “Note to Teeth: Bite Me.”

  1. Hallu Says:


    I think part of this problem stems from the idea of trying to find a one-size-fits-all picture of what the behavior of an “empowered” female should look like. Because, sure, if a woman doesn’t [i]want[/i] to have sex, then nobody should make her, and any woman (wanting sex or no) should be able to defend herself from rapists and other bad people. Mind you, the vagina-dentata approach to things is still problematic from that perspective, because (first) the movie seems to assume that [i]every[/i] male is an aspiring rapist, which is kind of a “wtf” for me, and (second) one presumes that the ideal defense from rape would be successful, you know, [i]before[/i] the woman is actually being raped. But, if you look past those two problems, and assume that the woman in question doesn’t want to have consensual sex (in which case the teeth would become a serious liability) then this actually feeds into a pretty common vengeance fantasy. Rapists suck; why should they get to keep their genitals? And who better to remove them (either poetically, or in terms of accuracy) than the victim? It’s probably not the best solution in the real world, but as a fantasy, a lot of people find it viscerally satisfying.

    If a women [i]does[/i] want to have sex (which most women do) then she has a whole new set of problems. Of course, wanting to have sex doesn’t make one immune to sexual violence. But in consensual situations, you’re absolutely right – a heterosexual (or bisexual) woman’s sexuality and a heterosexual (or bisexual) man’s sexuality should work together for the happiness of both of them. Except then there are even weirder complications that can arise, with, for example, a case of sexual incompatibility, or the potential destructiveness of some sexual behaviours that we’re taught are normal. But these are situations where the proper solution is to talk about it and work through it together, not to bite someone’s penis off.

    I get frustrated when people talk about sexual “empowerment” because I see a lot of people either assuming that [i]every[/i] sexual situation is wanted – and thus that an “empowered” woman will be highly and boldly sexual – or going the other way, as this movie does, and assuming that [i]every[/i] sexual situation is unwanted – and thus that an “empowered” woman will enforce her chastity with an iron fist (or teeth). Seems to me that an empowered woman would make the sexual decisions that she wanted to, and that for different women these decisions will be wildly, shockingly different.

    So, maybe there are women who [i]do[/i] see the caricatured situations of “Teeth” as empowering, because they are more concerned with the threat of men hurting them than with the prospect of pleasant consensual sex, and they would love to have a weapon of this sort to use in their own defense. But that isn’t the only thing empowerment looks like – ideally, it would look like everything, if that makes any sense.

  2. willendork Says:

    I really love that idea, actually — the idea of a pluralistic representation of the Empowered Woman, and the empowered woman’s a/sexuality. Personally, I think I get caught up in looking for images of empowerment, and occasionally forget that it’s ok for apparently contradictory images to exist, as one girl’s empowerment is likely another girl’s oppression, so to speak. Thank you for taking the time to write such a well-developed and thought-provoking response.

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