“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.
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?
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.