Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Vagina dentata: revisiting Teeth

Mitchell Lichenstein’s 2007 cult-classic, Teeth, recently celebrated its tenth birthday. The film is polarizing for many reasons, when I first tried watching it a few years ago I didn’t make it through the whole thing because I simply didn’t think it was a good movie. The film’s pacing is sporadic, the acting is spotty at best, and movie feels amateurish. Recently I watched the film in its entirety when it popped up on Netflix. Looking back, I now realize that I originally failed to appreciate that the film was worth more than the sum of its parts and that it was accomplishing something truly unique.

Teeth is a black-comedy/horror film following the cleverly named Dawn O’Keefe, a teenager who preaches abstinence largely due to her curious case of vagina dentata. Vagina dentata is exactly what you probably think it is, her vagina has teeth. Despite the film’s plot alluding to the centuries old folklore surrounding vagina dentata, I originally dismissed the idea as a ridiculous fiction constructed to explain the film. It wasn’t until watching the film again recently that I bothered to look up vagina dentata and realized the film’s concept is based on real folktales. As the film suggests, historically the myth of the toothed vagina involved suffering women who needed the help of a male hero to break their curse. In Teeth, Dawn flips these myths on their head.

Teeth opens up with a toddler-aged Dawn sharing a kiddie pool with her step-brother, Brad. Brad exposes himself to Dawn and asks to see what her genitals look like. The next thing we see is Brad crying out in pain, holding out a bloody finger. The insinuation here being that Brad stuck his finger inside Dawn’s vagina and was bitten. The film then fast-forwards to a high-school aged Dawn leading a discussion on virtues of celibacy with her religious abstinence group. Throughout the first third of the film we see Dawn and her friends, outspoken about their beliefs, repeatedly mocked by their peers for their message. Dawn’s parents also don’t understand why their daughter is big on abstinence. We also find out that Brad, Dawn’s step-brother, grew up to be an abusive young man with incestuous fantasies.

Throughout the film we see allusions to how our society treats sex. Dawn and her friends represent one extreme end of society, an abstinent segment which speaks of the immorality of pre-marital sex and warns about damnation to those who break the rules. The school administration presents views not far removed from Dawn’s. In one scene, Dawn is sitting in a high school sexual education class where penises are on open display but all textbook depictions of vaginas are covered with patches. When a student expresses his confusion on the matter, Dawn comes to the teacher’s defense citing that vaginas need to be hidden because, “girls have a natural modesty.” The majority of Dawn’s peers represent the way that the majority of teenagers exist in our society. These students aren’t celibate but they clearly hold misogynist ideas about sex and are desperately misinformed about their own bodies, especially the women. Brad represent another extreme segment in society, the ultra-misogynist segment that’s a constant threat to women. Brad’s room is completely covered by posters of naked or near-naked women, he insists on anal sex with no eye contact, he dehumanizes his girlfriend by trying to make her eat dog food, and he repeatedly sexually assaults Dawn.

I understand the complaints of feminist critics, like those cited by Bella Artiquez of BitchFlicks. It is a little odd to have a feminist hero who doesn’t understand the first thing about her body and is repeatedly taken advantage of by nearly every male she comes in contact with. Dawn is victimized in the film’s first scene by Brad when he sticks his fingers in Dawn’s vagina. She is victimized by a boy in her abstinence group who she trusts when he forces himself on her. She is victimized by her gynecologist who invasively prods her genitals. Even when she finally has sex that is comparatively pleasant, it’s only after she’s been drugged and with a boy who clearly doesn’t respect her in any way. Like Artiquez, I don’t think that any of this should be held against Dawn when it comes to deciding how we view her. It isn’t her fault that she lives in a society that degrades women, that even the men that she trusts end up betraying her, and that neither her parents nor her teachers have taught her the first thing about healthy sex and female anatomy. In fact, I believe all of this makes Dawn even more of a compelling feminist hero. She suffers greatly in a way that countless women suffer on a daily basis yet by the end of the film she flips the script and embraces her “curse.”

After biting off the penises of a few men accidentally, Dawn realizes that she can control her condition. Sick of being taken advantage of, Dawn starts by ripping off the penis of a boy who drugged and raped her. Soon after she turns her sights towards Brad. After taking care of Brad we see Dawn essentially disappear into an unknown future with unknown objectives, the only thing clear being that she’s done being taken advantage of is no longer afraid of using her condition as a means of revenge and self-defense against men. Her condition becomes empowering rather than debilitating.

It is only now, ten years later, that I’ve been able to appreciate Teeth for the value of what it accomplished. Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe puts it nicely;
"Teeth" runs on a kind of angry distrust toward boys. It doesn't think a lot of them, in much the same way certain teen comedies and horror films don't think highly of girls. The reversal is a lot more satisfying to watch, both as a laughing feminist critique of horniness and as a gleeful inversion of the vagina dentata myth.
The film subverts not only horror-genre norms but more broad film norms. As Morris already pointed out above, in Teeth it’s men for once who are disposable. As another viewer points out, it’s also noticeable how Lichenstein had no problem portraying multiple bloody severed penises while showing very little female nudity. This certainly isn’t a norm in film as penises are almost never shown while female nudity is common.

The film remains controversial to this day with people still debating whether the film is actually any good to whether Dawn should be seen as a feminist hero or not. In the lead up to writing this post I came across a recent article by Sirin Kale of Broadly. In her article, Kale shares a conversation she had with Teeth’s producer, Joyce Pierpoline. Pierpoline mentions how people become visibly uncomfortable when she mentions she produced Teeth. She mentions how while pitching the film, she was turned down my almost every studio, with one her managers advised her against sharing the script as men run the industry and they had no interest in a film like Teeth. Even after the crew secured funding for the film, actually creating the movie continued to be difficult. A film commissioner showing the film crew potential locations refused to work with the crew as soon as he read the script. He even went as far as to warn the location managers that the film was pornographic. Additionally, the studio executives forced the filmmakers to present the film as a pure horror movie in the same vein as movies like Saw when the filmmakers wanted to present it as a black comedy. If I was still on the fence about whether I considered this film valuable or not, reading Pierpoline’s comments certainly settled it. Much like Dawn, this film was battered and abused along the way nevertheless it persisted and we’re all better off for it. Regardless of whether this film is technically a “good” film or not, it is incredibly valuable for the conversations it provokes and the norms that it subverts.


Aoife Mee said...


Thank you for your interesting post! Although I had heard of "Teeth", I admit that I had pretty much dismissed it as a silly horror movie and never bothered to watch it.

After watching the trailer, my initial concern with this film was the way it, to me, appeared to demonise Dawn as a "freak of nature" and a danger to men when, in fact, she was the one in danger, and her abusers were the demons. Indeed, I worried that, instead of producing genuine sympathy for Dawn's suffering as a victim of sexual abuse, it would shift the focus to the consequences of such behaviour for the rapist - namely the amputation or mutilation of their penis - while at the same time ignoring or dismissing the effect of the experience on Dawn.

However, I am glad to read that you did not find this to be the case. I particularly liked the fact that, by the end of the film, Dawn began to see her condition in a more positive light, as something that empowers and protects her.

Unfortunately though, not all of us have teeth in our vaginas! So what, then, can be done to protect the rest of us from sexual abuse?

As you mention, the film highlights some aspects of our culture that need to some serious work to produce a safer society for women. The most obvious is education. Clearly, both Dawn and her abusers lacked adequate sex education which, in my view, should not only explain the mechanics and give young men and women an understanding of their own bodies, but should also foster genuine respect for the bodies of others. Although there have been significant moves to improve sex education, especially in high schools and university campuses, I believe we need to intervene much earlier.

Nevertheless, I, like you, am glad that this film has provoked debate about issues surrounding the mystification of the female body and the importance of teaching young people about sexual consent. I agree that the importance of this film should not be determined by the quality of the acting or the special effects, but by its role in raising awareness about the problem of sexual abuse in our society.

Suzanne Connell said...


I'll have to admit, when flicking through Netflix suggestions with friends a few years ago, the movie "Teeth" and it's synopsis garnered an "eww", or "what the hell?!" reaction off nearly all of us, myself included. Aside from the fact we were all probably only about 15 at the time, this visceral reaction barred us from ever exploring this film and the feminist nuances underpinning it. Understanding now what the film is trying to communicate by inverting the vagina dentata myth and showing for once that men can be disposable, while also highlighting the vulnerability faced by most women, the movie has piqued my interest. I also can't help but wonder what the reception and critique of a film where some part of a man's body develops the ability to bite off a woman's breasts or disfigure her vagina would be. Would it have an easier time than "Teeth" did in actually surviving till production? Would people place a greater comedic value on it and be slow to label it "woman hating"? Would location managers of a film set be warned it's pornographic? Or would people have the same alarmed reaction upon reading it's summary? The questions are endless, nevertheless "Teeth" may end up being top of my list of films to watch this Christmas break so I can see for myself how this film provokes valuable conversations on some of the many issues women face.