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Teeth: The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

Say, you know what you probably shouldn’t put in your movie? COMIC RAPE SCENES!

“Oh, but Sady,” you are saying, “I am a highly respected Artist of the Cinema! I like to Push the Envelope with my Cinematic Art! And the rape envelope is the one I wish to push more than any other! For example: rape scenes are always so serious. Why? Why not add some light comic touches to what would otherwise be a total downer of a rape?”

To you, I say: SETH ROGEN, STOP E-MAILING ME RIGHT THIS SECOND. Ha, no! What I actually say is that this is, quite literally, the stupidest idea that anyone has ever had. It is so stupid that it boggles the mind; so stupid that I cannot even begin to explain to you how and why it is stupid. It would take, basically, an entire seminar class on Why This Is Stupid, with several guest lecturers and many pages of required reading, for me to begin to unpack precisely why your urge to present rape as a fun, funny, non-serious thing is as stupid as it is. Even then, I might not be able to communicate it to you, because of how stupid you are. Right now, there is a kid somewhere in the Midwest trying to see if he can stick a fork into his toaster whilst jamming the other end of it up his nose, and this idea, stupid though it may be, is actually both more understandable and smarter than your idea, if your idea is to make a movie in which there is a comic rape scene.

So, it’s really a shame that Teeth has several of those, because otherwise it would be a pretty decent film.

So, the plot, first. The movie opens with a scene of a very young toddler, Dawn, being bullied by her slightly older stepbrother. He asks to see her vagina, then he puts his finger into it. When he takes his finger out, it’s bleeding. Cut to several years later: Dawn is now a high school student, and an abstinence counselor.

At this point, I was still fairly impressed. They drew a connection between a woman’s choice not to have sex and a history of abuse that may make sex legitimately scary and problematic for her! Way to not make the easy joke, movie! Teeth is actually fairly good at showing us how Dawn feels, in a way that instinctively makes sense: why would she want to have sex, when boys are harassing her in school hallways about “popping her cherry,” and her brother is always bringing over girls who end up crying about how they don’t want to do it “that way?” (“That way,” for the record, is anal.) Abstinence education, in real life, is awful – but for Dawn, as for a lot of girls, it feels safer than the alternative.

Then, of course, she goes on a date with a fellow abstinence counselor and he rapes her. And she accidentally severs his penis, mid-rape, with the fangs that are apparently hidden in her vagina. And the movie starts to go downhill really, really fast.

Because, after a fairly realistic interlude in which she goes into post-traumatic shock (which then veers off into an interlude that is, I guess, sort of realistic, but also terrible, in that she expels herself from the abstinence movement because she is no longer “pure” – geez, yeah, the fact that YOUR RAPIST died in AN ACCIDENT which fortuitously prohibited him from RAPING YOU SOME MORE is totally your fault) we learn that Dawn, unlike basically every rape survivor anywhere in the history of the world, doesn’t have to spend a long time dealing with PTSD or trust issues or an entirely understandable aversion to sex or anything like that.

Nope, now that she’s been raped, she’s totally into sex! All she needs is a new boyfriend, who can show her that sex is awesome! By, um, giving her tranquilizers first?

Oh, but first she has to be sexually assaulted some more. By her gynecologist, so that she can take his hand off. In a scene that is played for laughs.

Oh, and did I mention that the stepbrother who molested her continues to make gross, scary, predatory sexual advances toward her for the rest of the movie? And that she eventually decides to sleep with and/or castrate him as a means of getting “revenge?” And that the “revenge” is ALSO played for laughs?

Yeah.

And yet, certain moments within the film are really good! There are some hilarious scenes, it has a wonderful lead actress (Jess Weixler – she’s quite convincing, given the fact that almost none of her character’s actions or decisions make any sense whatsoever), and at certain moments it even seems to be making some decent points. There are the makings of a solid horror comedy in Teeth. It’s hard to tell where it went wrong. If I had to guess, though, I’d say it was all the raping.

Personally, I blame Camille Paglia! Of course, I blame Camille Paglia for everything, but this time I have some grounds: the movie was apparently inspired by her lectures on the vagina dentata. (A scene in which Dawn reads aloud from an unmistakably Paglian speech on the subject – “the man must battle the woman, the toothed creature, and break her power… sex becomes a hero’s epic journey back to the dark cavern of the womb” – while steadily getting more and more freaked out is particularly good; I think we’ve all felt that way, when reading Paglia’s overblown prose poems about genitalia.) But Teeth shares two of Paglia’s fatal flaws: first, a radical misunderstanding of what does and does not constitute female “power,” and second, an insistence on casting men – sometimes really awful, criminal men! – as victims.

First things first: basically, Dawn’s amazing “power” doesn’t work – CAN’T work – unless some rapist has actually succeeded in raping her. So, there have to be a lot of rape scenes in the movie, just to show how it works. We’re told that her vagina represents the next stage in vagina evolution – the tables have turned, the prey has become the predator, something something Paglia something – but I can’t help but notice that this adaptive development doesn’t prevent Dawn from being sexually assaulted more than once in the space a few days. Being able to stop a rape is nice, but not being raped would be much nicer. As a self-defense tactic, a vagina dentata ranks below a can of mace.

Let’s go back to that first rape scene, the one with the boy from her abstinence group. It’s pretty nasty – not only in execution, but in spirit. At one point, Dawn’s rapist snaps that he “hasn’t even jerked off since Easter.” We’re meant to infer that the rape is a direct consequence of the chastity: if girls won’t put out, boys will have to take it from them by force.

Men, this movie seems to imply, are naturally rapists – almost every single male character in the movie attempts or commits some form of sexual assault. (It’s trickier when we come to the case of her boyfriend, because the movie clearly doesn’t want us to see their sex as anything other than consensual – still, he has sex with her under false pretenses, while she’s sedated, which is predatory at the very least.) It’s an old, old message: male sexual desire has to be gratified, by any means necessary, and it’s a girl’s job to protect herself from it. This is untrue – you can, as it turns out, pop a boner without immediately sticking it into the closest available orifice – but it’s widely taught, and it’s why rape is so often excused, overlooked, or swept under the rug. What else was the guy supposed to do? Not get off?

And the movie follows through by portraying Dawn’s attackers as victims. The predatory, incestuous brother at one point confesses that he abuses Dawn because he’s “in love” with her. One review called Teeth “the most alarming cautionary tale for men since Fatal Attraction;” it was reprinted on the movie’s poster, and was featured in its trailer. Which is odd, since Teeth is only a “cautionary tale” if you need to be “cautioned” against putting your penis into somebody’s vagina without her permission.

By the end of the movie, Dawn has come fully into her “power.” What this means, in practice, is that she is now going to have consensual sex with men who would otherwise rape her, so that she can rip their dicks off. There are about a million legitimate ways to actually claim power – she could take a self-defense class, she could work at a rape crisis hotline, she could EVEN, unbelievably, teach a class for young men on how to recognize predatory behavior in themselves and their friends, and how to oppose it – but this is the route she chooses, the route the movie wants us to believe is her best option. She’ll fight sexual violence with sexual violence. Because this particular vision of sexual politics is a closed system: prey or predator, victim or victimizer. There’s no third option. There’s no way out.

13 Comments

  1. rebecca wrote:

    you are brilliant.
    you've officially joined the ranks of the ones in le tigre's Hot Topic, for me.
    get a bigger blog! get a book deal! keep writing!

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  2. feministswithfsd wrote:

    I just watched this movie this weekend!

    I wanted to like it. I feel like, I should have liked it. Vagina Dentata and whatnot. The myth & I've seen it mentioned by other vulvar pain bloggers before… Imagine having vagina dentata in reverse, where the teeth point inwards.

    I didn't like it.
    It was bad.

    I mean it was like,
    It wasn't even funny. Like they were exaggerating things I guess for comedic effect (unicorn t-shirts? The antichrist brother living at home in the suburbs with his parents?) which could have been kinda funny,

    But then so much sexual violence & mutiliation & it, it was bad.

    The other thing it didn't touch upon was that, you're probably familiar with the Rape-aXe device. You insert it vaginally & then if you are vaginally raped, it injures the attacker. But the problems are that, if that happens the attacker could just get more violent, or use a tool to disable the device, or use it as a weapon too.
    I'm surprised Dawn's brother didn't do that. Get MORE violent, seeing as how violent he really was throughout.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  3. smadin wrote:

    Huh — that's interesting, I read some of those scenes rather differently from you. The movie has its problems, to be sure (and speaking of Camille Paglia, my understanding is that the director, Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of painter Roy Lichtenstein, was as I recall from reviews of the movie when it came out, though Wikipedia doesn't mention this, and boy is this a run-on sentence, a student of Paglia's in college). I'll have to rewatch to be certain, but I don't remember the gynecologist scene in particular as being played for laughs at all, though the part with Brad and the dog was, a bit; and I also didn't come away from it feeling like the attackers were portrayed as victims, or sympathetically at all. (I also don't recall any tranquilizers in the "consensual" scene, though, so clearly my memories of the movie are fuzzy, and it may well be that when I watch it again I'll end up agreeing more with you.)

    It is based in a fairly "all-men-are-potential-rapists" view, but I didn't feel like the movie took a position on whether that's inherent or conditioned; and to some extent I think it really is true that all (het) men are conditioned, to greater or lesser degrees, to be potential rapists (or, to be more charitable to my gender, that due to the lack of big flashing "RAPIST" signs, women have no choice but to assume all men are potential rapists), because we're conditioned not to even recognize that women are people.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  4. Sady wrote:

    @smadin: Ha, right, that (Lichtenstein taking classes from Paglia) was my understanding as well.

    I think there's room for debate – as always – in how we interpret the scenes. Personally, I don't think that the build-up to the sexual assault scene in the doctor's office was played for laughs, but when she bites his hand off, his performance (like the performances of all the guys she castrates) becomes over-the-top in a way that I think is pretty clearly meant to be funny – what with the yelling "vagina dentata! Vagina dentata!" and the same campy music stinger we've heard in comic scenes before. Typically, the sexual assaults are played as legitimately scary, and then turn comic when she bites them: which, I can see where they were going with that, but the transition is abrupt and jarring. It's not full-on offensive, it's just hugely ineffective: it can either work to make us take the preceding rape less seriously, or to make the "humor" less, you know, humorous.

    About the consensual sex scene: it's unclear what he gives her, but in the bathroom, he offers her pills that his mom takes "for her nerves." She gets very fuzzy and out-of-it, and then they have sex. Again, this isn't "Observe & Report," but it really was problematic, what with the whole get-a-girl-drunk-or-high-so-she'll-fuck thing.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 9:31 am | Permalink
  5. smadin wrote:

    Ah, see, I didn't remember those pills at all, though now that you mention it that sounds familiar. I'll have to watch it again.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  6. X. Trapnel wrote:

    Hmm – I also didn't get any sort of sympathy-for-the-dudes vibe; and my take on the 'every guy a rapist' thing was that it was much more of the radfem-we-have-a-rape-culture sort than the evpsych-darwin-made-me-rape sort. (Which was part of the role of the abstinence-ed bit–showing it as just another side of the rape-culture coin, with the first guy.)

    But if nothing else, the fact that they put the 'cautionary tale' thing on the cover seems to indicate they were trying to play it both ways. And if you had such a different take, then it was probably way too ambiguous. Still need to think over my view on the switch between serious/rape and funny/castration, which I didn't at the time find as ineffective. Hmm.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  7. Sady wrote:

    @XTrapnel: I don't want you to misunderstand me here; I'm not saying that the movie necessarily asks us to SYMPATHIZE with the dudes (although they did, in fact, try to work that angle when promoting it: the trailer shows the gynecologist being bitten, but doesn't show or even imply the sexual assault that led to it, which is odd, given that repeated sexual assault is a major plot point and Dawn's vagina doesn't bite anyone unless she doesn't want to have sex with that person). The dudes do, however, end up worse than Dawn. Dawn doesn't seem to incur any psychological trauma that lasts for more than a few days; moreover, what trauma she does experience goes away as soon as she has consensual sex. The guys, meanwhile, are dead or mutilated. And, sooner or later, she begins purposefully victimizing them. So, her assault on them has long-lasting effects, but their assaults on her honestly don't seem to.

    Honestly, the whole time I was writing this piece, I was trying to find links to two news stories: first, about the toothed condom, and the fact that people were pointing out that your rapist would probably just beat you up or kill you in retaliation if you wore it, and second, about the woman who bit down on her husband's penis during apparently non-consensual oral sex. SHE was charged with assault, and he wasn't. The film wants to make points about rape, but I don't think the filmmakers had a lot of insight into rape, basically. So that's my problem with it.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  8. Masha wrote:

    Well, personally, I didn't feel that they were implying that the rapists were right… obviously rape is not about sex, but if someone is a rapist, they're not likely to admit that. I saw it as them showing the guy's assholery and rapeyness. Also, I didn't think that the fact that the main character didn't consider herself to be "pure" anymore and so on was supposed to be perceived as true — a lot of rape victims that haven't dealt with the feelings entirely view it that way, so I just though they were showing how she dealt with it… I dunno.
    I didn't find the rape scenes in themselves funny, and I didn't think they were supposed to be. However, I suppose that's up for interpretation. And I realize that some bits afterwords — like the dog bit at the end — were for laughs.
    You make a good point about her not experiencing PTSD, though — unfortunately, nearly everyone seems to forget that important bit when making a movie or writing a book that involves rape.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 1:48 pm | Permalink
  9. wildlyparenthetical wrote:

    Mmm, that's interesting. You're definitely right about the 'she has to get raped first' thing, and at the end, I felt a bit uncomfortable with the 'and so she moved forward with her life, playing the victim to catch her prey' thing. What I did actually like, though, was that the movie really showed up how the assumption that women's bodies are 'always open,' always passive and vulnerable and 'ready', whether she's willing or not, has really shaped our culture (I mean, look: mainstream medicine, 'alternative' culture, abstinence only (which really does encourage the idea that male sexual desire is always almost overwhelming its containment)). I guess, then, that part of what I like about the movie is that it shows how pervasive that idea is, but also how astonishingly vulnerable the supposedly invulnerable male body is. If nothing else, a horror movie that focuses on castration as its primary mode of violence rather than a heavy-breathing-oh-and-then-i-shall-penetrate-her-with-my-knife-for-she-is-just-so-penetrable… well, it's unusual, and I like the refiguring of the male body it does.

    There's also something really satisfying about male arrogance and entitlement being what is punished. To me, that was where the humour came in: all these men assume that her body is open and ready for the taking, and wind up paying for that assumption. To me, it didn't make rape funny (but that's probably partly because I really don't find rape funny, and rape scenes in movies are extremely disturbing for me), it made men's assumptions about being safe in relation to sex appear ridiculous. And men appear ridiculous, in ways that the cinema really never does (like the step-brother's attachment to his penis, lying on the ground), precisely for their investment in a misogynist masculinity, in their belief that they are invulnerable esp. during sex, and in their sense of entitlement to women's bodies.

    I don't disagree with all you're saying, btw. I just think there's more going on.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  10. Sady wrote:

    @WildlyParenthetical: Yeah, I definitely get what you're saying, about male entitlement being the butt of the joke, and male vulnerability being shown in ways that it normally isn't. I guess I felt that, in the lady-horror genre, what with rape-revenge being an established subgenre in and of itself, that's not necessarily new. I had issues with its execution.

    (By the way, the one castration scene that worked, and was fully effective for me, was exactly what you're talking about: she's having consensual sex with the tranquilizer dude, and he takes a phone call and reveals he had a bet on "boning" her and it's obvious that he feels invulnerable because she's getting angrier and he's just talking and talking and TALKING and… yeah. I laughed! It was a good scene!)

    Basically, yeah. My issues can be boiled down to two or three things: one, the fact that she has to have sex (or be raped) in order to have her "revenge." I mean, Ms. 45 (which this movie is kind of riffing on; I think there are a few scenes that are deliberate homages) has a gun; she doesn't need to be penetrated in order to off you, she just has to think you're a potential predator. Dawn is "empowered," but has to be penetrated in order to demonstrate that "power," which reads to me like "empowerment" through sex with predators. Two, I think the movie is fuzzy and confused in its take on Dawn's abstinence – I thought they were going somewhere, with her not wanting to have sex and her abusive brother, but then it turned into some thing about her being "repressed." We all want movies that show that abstinence movements are sexist and bad, but this time around it seemed to be making some point about sex as Empowerful that even *I* don't fully buy. Third, the fact that her vagina is hinted to be some evolutionary thing: the opening credits show long, penis-like cells attacking round, I guess female cells, until one of the female cells mutates and devours the penis cells. Women only need "evolutionary" rape-ending devices if rape is an evolved function, don't they? But, again, the movie is never really clear on this. It seemed to want to say a lot of things, but didn't quite know how to say them, and ended up being confused and inconsistent and ambiguous.

    Oh, and also: Ms. 45 (sorry that I keep going back to it, but I really think this movie was influenced by it) actually, despite the fact that it was dirt-cheap and purposefully sleazy, made a better point about rape culture than Teeth. Teeth had almost everyone behave like a literal rapist. Ms. 45 showed that, while not all men are rapists, plenty of them relate to women in a predatory, sexist way, and that there's a continuum between objectification and everyday sexism and the active, violent misogyny of rape. Which makes more sense to me, as a depiction of how sexism functions.

    But, as I've said, there were parts of Teeth that I really liked! So.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 6:49 am | Permalink
  11. X. Trapnel wrote:

    @Sady – Having read WP's comment (thanks!), I'm now thinking that maybe "but she still has to be penetrated" thing isn't quite right–that "penetration" misdescribes what's going on by the end of the movie. She hasn't just rejected the purity-conception and its opposite, perpetual-availability one, but also the broader understanding of sex as female vulnerability and male conquest. (And now that I think about it, I suppose this justifies all that Jungian stuff, which I didn't like at the time.) So her revenge requires, not 'being penetrated,' but, I dunno, 'enveloping'–it's not a threat to her, physically or otherwise.

    Unclear exactly how much mileage one can get with this interpretation–it's dangerously close to denying *real* vulnerability. Though it does make me think of The Great IBTP Blowjob War of 2007…

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  12. wildlyparenthetical wrote:

    Oh for sure, Sady! The reason I like reading here is that you let texts be complex, and don't try to play a zero sum gam (e.g. feminist scene + non-feminist scene + non-feminist scene = non-feminist movie). I'm not trying to talk you into liking it overall; I just find the ideas in it interesting, even when they're problematic.

    To that end: I agree with both your first two points, totally. With the first point: I guess I'm not that familiar with the rape revenge genre, though I'm definitely adding Ms. 45 to the list, so the whole male vulnerability being represented thing seemed interesting to me. I mean, men gouting blood from their newly-divested crotch doesn't seem to me to be that familiar, but maybe I am watching the wrong movies. With the second: I actually just liked the point that abstinence culture isn't actually promoting respect for women (like it's often touted; e.g. in the Catholic church's anti-contraception carryon), and that the way that sex is configured *through* that repression is as dangerous, uncontrollable and rapey (h/t Foucault). And with the third: well, I have less issues with the evolution thing (although I found it hilarious) in the sense that the culture we live in is totally rapey, and so the idea that women might evolve a vagina dentata to deal with that is… well, I guess I don't have to claim rape as being evoluntionarily given in order for the vagina dentata to be an evolutionary response, if that makes sense. But I do think you're right to be wary of the naturalisation of rape sexuality.

    X. Trapnel, I see where you're going with the reconfiguration of penetration thing, and I do think there's something interesting about the fact that the male understanding of penetration is challenged by her 'power'… but the fact that this 'point' is made only *through* men doing what she doesn't really want them to do is a bit problematic. I guess the locked car door at the end kinda sullied that idea for me, and showed what I think Sady's saying, which is that she's capable only of revenge, not of self-dence.

    And I missed the Blowjob War of 2007, but it does create amusing images in my mind. :-)

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Permalink
  13. Eileen wrote:

    I've always wondered how Vagina Dentata works. I mean, it seems to be a male primal fear of sticking your d*** into a toothed orifice… and yet this does not seem to diminish men's enthusiasm for blowjobs. I don't get it.

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 6:46 am | Permalink