What if vaginas could bite back? A review of Teeth

(Warning: spoilers)

Thank you to Female Impersonator for reminding me Teeth is now out on DVD. For those of you who have not seen it, get thee to a rental place or, if you are a Netflix-er, watch it from your PC from the play instantly list. You will get a close up view of something rarely seen in film-severed penises.

Now, not that you necessarily have some twisted desire to see mutilated penises, or, as in one scene, watch a bit-off hunk of penis gobbled down sausage style by a bad-ass dog named Mother. These may not be images that sound desirable to watch but, if, like me, you have been inflicted with images of women raped, mutilated, decapitated, of breasts sawn off, bitten, gouged with knives and swords, of the female body penetrated with swords, guns, machetes, and plain old raping penises in movie after movie after television show after movie, you may find a sort of relief watching Teeth. “Finally,” you might think, “finally a film that does the violence to men that is CONSTANTLY done to women.” Now, as Jean Kilbourne would say, this is not the kind of equality we are looking for. However, a satirical jab (or bite) can be quite cathartic once in awhile.

And, on top of all the penis gore, the film hilariously skewers abstinence only purity-fests, rallies against a construction of masculinity that condones violence and sexual assault, displays sexuality as natural, and brings in Greek myth to boot! In regards to this last aspect, the film pays homage to the enduring myth of the “vagina dentata” not to promote the monstrosity of the female body, but to mock the fear, abhorrence, and ignorance that pervades all things vaginal.

The first quarter of the film zealously skewers the ill-intentioned abstinence only movement. In an early purity-meeting scene, Dawn, the toothed hero, tells the very young audience in attendance that the purity ring they wear is to remind them to keep their virginity tightly under wraps, that “the way it wraps around your finger, that is to remind you to keep your gift wrapped.” Ha! Sounds reminiscent of the many condom sayings that advise males to ‘wrap’ their penis before sex (some of these sayings are admittedly sexist but others comically promote enjoying ‘wrapped’ sex).

In the film, the sex-ed classroom scene is also uproariously classic. As the students flip through their textbooks, they find the penis is diagrammed in all its flaccid and erect glory, but that the diagrams of female genitalia are covered over with huge stickers. When students ask why the images are covered, the teacher shares that the state school board has ordered the diagram concealed. Yes, children, because the vagina is a toxic danger zone! In a later scene, Dawn soaks these pages from the textbook in water in order to remove the sticker and see the pictures beneath. As the expert acting of Jess Weixler reveals, her character has NO IDEA of the intricacies of female genitalia. This moment in the film is an all-too-real reminder of how many females (and males) are horribly uninformed about ‘privates.’

Another classroom scene involves one of those progressive teachers David Horowitz would despise teaching her creationist students about evolution. Here, the film subtly brings in the debates swarming around what can and cannot be taught in public schools. If the abstinence only creationist crowd has their way, the film warns, the important study of evolution will be replaced with a school system that functions like one big purity ball.

While a review over at Occasional Superheroine suggests the film is bashing Christianity, I didn’t see it this way. Yes, the film portrays the kids at the purity meetings quoting Genesis like mindless zombies, but the larger message of the film is not anti-Christian. Rather, it is anti-indoctrination, anti-abstinence, and anti-violent/predator masculinity. In fact, it could be argued that the film suggests the abstinence only movement grossly misrepresents the bible and Christianity in general by misappropriating and misinterpreting biblical stories such as Genesis.

As for the representation of a toothed vagina and the various visual/textual references to the social construction of female monstrosity (from the inclusion of toothy female horror images in 50’s films to images of Medusa to visual nods to the vagina as a monstrous cave), the film reveals a longstanding (and socially induced) dread of the feminine. While Teeth makes this anxiety explicit, there is no shortage of female monstrosity in the annals of literature, film, folklore, etc. As Lindsay at Female Impersonator in her review of the film notes, “Toothed vaginas are sometimes ‘subtly’ hidden in films (Pirates of the Caribbean 2, anybody? That Kraken is a huuuuge toothed vagina).” Yes, and from Ursula of The Little Mermaid to the toothy female monsters in Alien, women are coded as castrating, dangerous bitches in film. True, men are often the villains, but their villainy is usually of the evil/violent variety; they are not monsters so much as weapon wielding rapists and murderers. And, as Jackson Katz explores in his wonderful Tough Guise documentary, the horror genre conveys the message that sex is bad (and especially bad for women)-that when you partake in sexual activity, Jason is going to skewer you or Michael Meyers will axe you.

The representation of female monstrosity in film is much different than the (sanctioning) of male violence. Moreover, within the horror film genre, men are often evil/violent because of the women (usually mothers) in their lives, as with Norman Bates, Jason of the Friday the Thirteenth Series, Michael Meyers of the Halloween series, and the masked slasher of Scream (among many others). Thus, even when the murderers/villains are male, the subtext often BLAMES WOMEN for their actions. Interestingly, when the horror revolves around a female monster (rather than a villain motivated by his bad mother or twisted sister), the misogyny of the horror genre is sometimes more subtle. For example, it may take reading the classic book The Monstrous Feminine, by Barbara Creed, for many viewers to tease out the misogynistic implications of Alien or reading Jane Caputi’s Goddesses and Monsters to realize Jaws is one big vagina dentata.

This is where Teeth is different. It wears a mocking, satirical grin in order to not so subtly attack the misogyny of our cultural mythologies as well as the inanity of the abstinence only paradigm. And, its ‘monster’ is actually a heroine-an enterprising smarty that, by film’s end, has the makings of one badass, teeth wielding feminist. As Arin Brenner’s commentary at Feminist Review notes in regards to the horror film genre, “There’s always a beautiful blonde female, who, undoubtedly, needs to be saved, but if she makes the bad choice to have sex and become a “slut,” she must die. Dawn…is so not that girl.”

Within the narrative, as Dawn’s vaginal teeth begin to separate men from their members (fingers as well as penises), the audience is prompted to question whether Dawn’s vagina always bites or whether the clampdown is a result of sexual violation. Watching the movie, I anxiously awaited the answer to this question. For, if Dawn’s vagina always attacked, that would preclude any sort of healthy sexuality message let alone any hint of a female empowerment subtext. It would merely reify the vagina (and women by extension) as dangerous, uncontrollable monsters unable to control even their own vaginas. Thankfully, the film reveals that consent is the key to a chomp free sexual experience. Like the “I heart consensual sex campaign” sponsored by NOW or the forthcoming Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape spearheaded by the women at Feministing, the film argues that the key to sexual justice (and pleasure) is consent. Now, that’s a message I can sink my teeth into.


15 thoughts on “What if vaginas could bite back? A review of Teeth”

  1. teeth, huh? hmmm… i haven’t seen or heard of the film but i do agree that abstinence is somewhat of a discourse from the biblical interpretation. with all the money they spend on abstinence programs that don’t work, i find it interesting that some of these young women find other ways around it(e.g. the other openings around their bodies). as far as education-wise, i’ve never seen what a vagina looked like up close until i ummm….you know…saw a vagina. so i guess it would’ve been a lot more helpful to have been shown a mold of one along with the condom and banana show they make everyone go through. hope i didn’t offend anyone.

  2. Minority Militant,

    I encourage you to see the film. It’s good!

    As for getting around abstinence via ‘other openings’ I would point out that BOTH females and males do so — and yes, how ironic that abstinence-only ed has PROMOTED anal sex–an act not quite in keeping with the fundamentalist Christian underpinnings of the abstinence only movement to say the least!

    Sorry you didn’t get to see a vagina in diagram form or learn about female genitalia in addition to your banana teachings. Vaginas are wonderful specimens and deserve far more focus — sex-educational and otherwise. 🙂

  3. These may not be images that sound desirable to watch but, if, like me, you have been inflicted with images of women raped, mutilated, decapitated, of breasts sawn off, bitten, gouged with knives and swords, of the female body penetrated with swords, guns, machetes, and plain old raping penises in movie after movie after television show after movie, you may find a sort of relief watching Teeth.

    I had never even thought about that when writing my review, but you’re so right. Even in movies that do show violence against men, very rarely is it against their sexual organs and very rarely is it at the same magnitude as violence against female bodies.

    My boyfriend and I talked about whether the teeth were a reflex or if she could actively initiate them, and I’m under the impression she could bite at will. I thought a good portion of the movie was about her discovering the teeth and realizing how to use them (and all the baggage along with that). He hadn’t seen the movie and suggested they sounded like a reflex (based on my review), but I’m almost certain she could control the teeth.

  4. Lindsay,
    Thanks for your comment.

    In regards to Dawn’s ability to control her bite, I felt this was a big part of the film as well and do agree that by the end the message is definitly that she can control her teeth.

    One of the underlying messages in relation to this seems to be that being ignorant about sexuality (and one’s body) is far more dangerous than being fully educated and aware.

    This “pro sex ed” message of the movie was one of the aspects I thought was so great. It was entertaining and unique with some rocking feminist messages to boot.

  5. I watched this movie because of your review and really enjoyed it. The parts about abstinence only were really funny, although kind of scary, too, in that anyone thinks that this approach really works. I didn’t think that the movie was anti-Christian so much as it was anti-censorship on teachings sex education, and probably the majority of opposition to sex education comes from the Christian right, since this is a predominantly Christian country. I thought that the actress who played Dawn did a great job! The thought of Dawn punishing all the creeps out there who perpetrated the type of acts on her that they did really makes me smile. Live and learn, guys. No means no, and there is such a thing as a free ride.

  6. Ocpyroqueen,
    So glad to hear it!
    I agree that main actress did a great job. I wish movies like this would do as well as the action/adventure/horror drek at the box office.
    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. Good review — I’ve read a few reviews of this movie, and many seem to tread very lightly, obsessed with solely pointing out the comedic values of men having their willies bitten off. I liked yours because it goes far deeper. Nicely done, me thinks. Very philosophical, but accessible, too.

    I have actually just published a 2-part blog post about rare films which dare to severe the male genitalia on camera (I could find only 1 other blog which even remotely covered the same subject matter in any real depth…but maybe my Google skills need work!). It’s over on my site, which is called sillyoldgoat.com

    Actually I’ll just link from mine to yours, because then people will find your blog post too! Us penis-severing blog posts need to stick together 😉



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