Teeth: Failing to Bite Back
art by Charlotte Mansfield
Heralded as feminist horror, Teeth (2007) was quick to receive status as a cult classic amongst young women despite its mediocre critical reception. Its narrative follows celibate teenager Dawn (Jess Weixler) as she encounters temptation with boys her age, eventually leading to sex and to the realisation that she is mutated with the mythic condition Vagina Dentata (a toothed vagina). Throughout the course of the film, Dawn weaponises her body and begins to castrate all men she sleeps with, or more accurately, those who assault her.
Teeth is grounded in a context of celibacy and the preservation of virginal, female bodies, and the film’s comedy frequently leans into tropes seen in other evangelical-comedy high-school classics such as Donnie Darko (2001) and Saved! (2004), yet it fails to maintain any religious affectation that would earn the film a critical perspective. If Teeth is critical towards constructs of celibacy and virginity, which it certainly should be, it is directed towards superficial evangelicalism and the peer-pressure to be in a clique, here, the clique being abstinent teenagers who succumb to temptation.
art by Charlotte Mansfield
While the film is determined to frame Dawn’s mutation in a context of the mythic and the spiritual, with Dawn as a martyr figure who suffers a terrible mutation but ultimately yields her power for the greater good, there is little to no depth to this context and it is only projected by fans of the film. Taking the film at face-value, religious criticism runs its course almost immediately. Dawn’s family is deliberately presented as unreligious, note punk/sadomasochistic stepbrother Brad (John Hensley). That is, Dawn isn’t celibate out of ideological entrapment, but repression. This could be the film’s religious critique, how even an inhospitable, mutated sexual body breaks the constructs of celibacy, but perhaps this irony is another generous projection.
Religiously critical or not, however, the film fails to bite back against all that it strives to oppose. Its feminism, although superficially logical, perhaps castration of a rapist is the most direct and feminist power assertion conceivable, becomes highly problematic as Dawn’s body count (sexual partners and death toll) begins to accelerate. If we break down each of Dawn’s sexual experiences, the first being an attempted rape by fellow celibate classmate Tobey (Hale Appleman) wherein she first experiences her mutation, each time thereafter she is drugged, assaulted or raped again. There is no positive sexual experience shown, with her sexually violent step-brother and abusive gynaecologist as key antitheses to healthy sexual practises.
Dawn’s teeth are ultimately reactive to assault. If a feminist action, the bite, is predicated by an assault, and it is responsive rather than assertive, can it be considered a feminist action? Teeth argues yes, and presents a highly ironised, action-comedy spin on the rape-revenge sub-genre. However, this hasn’t exactly aged well. Not only is sexual assault and rape the framework of the narrative structure, Dawn is assaulted multiple times throughout the film and exhibits little to no emotional response, but her condition actually reverses its feminism by endorsing celibacy as a safer alternative. According to the film’s logic, rape and assault are inevitable and expected, and although Dawn will have to initially endure the physicality of that experience, it is at least avenged. This logic self-evidentially contradicts its feminism and renders Teeth little more than exploitation horror.
Men are certainly portrayed in a terrible light: as misogynistic, violent abusers of power (particularly the gynaecologist), and perhaps this could be connected to realities of systemic, female oppression, for which all men are structurally guilty. However, this seems to be stretching the film’s already thinly spread feminism even further. In fact, showing all men as violent rapists actually standardizes their evil, and negates their individual responsibilities. This dystopian quality to the film paralyses its feminism, for it claims that men are awful but at least Dawn is able to directly avenge the violence she will inevitably experience. Thus, Teeth isn’t critical of rape per se, proposing instead that it’s somewhat expected and, worse yet, easily vindicated. Though this could harrowingly and critically analogise the concrete structures of female oppression and the breadth of rape culture as experienced, to some extent, by all women, Dawn evidences no trauma for that which she endures, rather, she begins to weaponise her body and lure men into assaulting her in order to castrate them.
If Dawn's ‘power’ was disembodied, and protective rather than reactive, Teeth would be elevated to a feminist triumph. Instead, Dawn reactively and responsively takes revenge on men who assault her after she has endured the violent reality of the assault itself. In this respect, Teeth is no better than extreme exploitation film I Spit On Your Grave and other rape-revenge horrors of the same formula.
art by Charlotte Mansfield
Boasting a female protagonist, and Dawn’s strength of character, are refreshing cinematic achievements, but Teeth conceptually nullifies its feminist vision. Dawn’s feminism does not bite. Rather, she is genetically and violently punished for practising normal female sexuality.