Many genres and branches of narrative film – including the Western, the gangster film, film noir, and action/adventure – tend to focus on the male gender. With horror, however, there is often a reversal of this notion with a greater focus on the female perspective. Countless slashers feature young women, both in leading and supporting roles, in an attempt to try to play on the vulnerability of the gender. Opposite them are often imposing male figures wielding large phallic weapons, be it knifes, chainsaws, machetes, etc. The horror film It Follows (2017) is often praised by critics for its approach to the topic of female sexuality. A slightly older film that is just as significant to the topic is Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth (2007), a film in which a teenage girl discovers her sexuality after learning she possesses a toothed vagina. It is easy to dismiss the film as trying to be edgy given its basic premise. However, there is a lot that can be pulled from the film in terms of analysis. In truth, rather than merely being a film that preys upon the male fear of castration, Teeth actually promotes a strong message regarding female sexuality.
Teeth opens on a sunny day in unspecified middle American town. Sitting inside of an inflatable pool is a young Dawn (Ava Ryen Plumb) alongside her stepbrother, Brad (Hunter Ulvog). Watching from some distance behind them are Dawn’s mother Kim (Vivienne Benesch) and her stepfather, Bill (Lenny Von Dohlen). As Bill and Kim relax blissfully in their beach chairs, Brad shows Dawn his penis (suggested through framing) and voices an interest in seeing what she has underneath her own bathing suit. Shortly thereafter, the camera cuts to a medium close-up on Bill and his reaction as Brad’s wails of pain emanate from off screen. When the camera cuts back to Brad, he is seen nursing a cut finger with blood dribbling down it. The implication is that Dawn bit Brad’s finger in self defense. Indeed, Brad was bit, but the question to the viewer is how?
Flash-forward some years later and Dawn (Jess Weixler) is now a teenager in high school and a frequent motivational speaker to young adults on the topics of chastity and sexual abstinence. Dawn’s stance on sexual abstinence is illustrated by the red ring on her finger, a ring heavily promoted at these meetings to signify sexual refrainment. Her stance is further reinforced by the t-shirts she wears, with phrases like “Love”, “I’m Waiting” and “Warning: Sex Changes Everything” written on them. Driving the nail home is when Dawn and her friends Gwen (Julia Garro) and Phil (Adam Wagner) visit their local movie theater. As they comb the available selection of films, Dawn notes that “even the PG-13 [film] is gonna have heavy making out,” suggesting that she even makes it a habit to avoid any form of visual sexual stimulus. With little option, the group is left to watch an animated kids film, complete with goofy and exaggerated sound effects.
Often, these strict beliefs on abstinence emanate from one’s parents and their religious views. However, it is implied by the film that Dawn’s beliefs in saving sex for marriage were ones she came to choose of her own free will. In one scene, Dawn extends a greeting from Gwen and Phil to her parents. “Wills of iron,” Kim says. She continues: “Well, things were different back then.” Dawn’s parents then begin to playfully nudge each other and laugh. This playfulness between Dawn’s parents after having acknowledged the sexless romantic relationship of her friends insinuates that Dawn’s parents did not share the same attitude of abstinence when they were her age. Furthermore, Dawn herself replies with a serious, “Things are different now,” iterating the divide in sexual attitude between her and her parents.
Despite her status as a popular role model at the abstinence events, Dawn is openly made fun of and harassed by her classmates. As Dawn makes her way into the school building on the first day of school, one nameless high school student calls out to her, “Yeah, I’ll wait… for a bitch to get her panties off!” During one sex ed class, fellow classmate Ryan (Ashley Springer) questions the reasoning behind the covering-up of the female anatomy in their textbooks. With the teacher unable to answer, Dawn steps in and reasons that “girls have a natural modesty.” In spite of her earnestness and seriousness, Dawn’s classmates laugh at her statement. This scene reveals Dawn to be an outsider, both in regards to her peers and in regards to her knowledge of human sexuality.
Whereas Dawn resists her sexuality, her older stepbrother Brad (John Hensley) unabashedly embraces his own. Posters of half-naked women plaster the walls of his bedroom and he’s often shown having sexual relations with Dawn’s classmate, Melanie (Nicole Swahn). But Brad is not merely a simple reflection of Dawn — he is her polar opposite. Throughout the film, it becomes clear that Brad has little respect for women. During one scene early on, Brad hides in the bathroom shower and surprises an unsuspecting Dawn. As she runs off in fright, Brad calls after her with “I got you, bitch!” Likewise, when Bill confronts Brad (spoiler alert) after Kim’s death at Brad’s unwillingness to call an ambulance, Brad refers to her as “the old cunt.” Shortly thereafter, Brad also refers to his deceased biological mother as a “bitch.” Considering the names Brad calls the women in his life, there’s an undeniable irony in how his female Rottweiler is named Mother, whom he shows little, if any, affection. When Bill physically fights Brad in order to force him to leave following Kim’s death, Brad frees Mother from her cage in order to defend him. But in spite of her loyalty to Brad and his wellbeing, he shows little appreciation and yells, “Get back in your cage!”
Brad’s misogyny goes beyond mere name calling and verbal degradations. One scene opens with Brad and Dawn’s classmate Melanie having just finished having sex, with Brad kneeling behind her while she is on all fours. Brad’s positioning in relation to Melanie implies that there was little, if any, eye contact during the sex, in turn implying a lack of any real intimacy. His positioning also suggests a certain dominance over Melanie. Seeing how he assumes this position again later in the film both with Melanie and during the film’s final act, it can be inferred that it is Brad’s preferred sexual stance.
The importance of the scene with relation to Brad’s demeaning mentality towards women does not stop there. As Melanie pulls her underwear up post coitus, she sarcastically remarks, “I do have a perfectly good pussy.” This line insinuates that the sex she and Brad had was anal. While the taboo nature of anal sex has begun to ease over the past several years, there is little reason to believe that Melanie enjoyed it. Her statement, both its context and the fact that she had to iterate it to Brad, suggests that the sex was not her idea, nor was it something that she wanted. Regardless, Brad makes little acknowledgment of Melanie’s remark, simply saying “I’m sure you do.” To add insult to injury, Brad tries to insert a phallic-shaped dog treat into Melanie’s mouth as if it were an actual penis. Her distaste for Brad’s action only causes him to laugh at her expense, showing little affection or care towards her feelings. To him, Melanie is just a plaything.
In spite of his misogynistic attitude, Brad openly admits to having incestuous desires for Dawn. This is most evident when Dawn comes to Brad following a fight with Melanie. While Dawns makes an effort to try and bond with her estranged stepbrother, Brad cuts the gesture short. He says to her unironically, “We all know who you’ve been saving yourself for, and I’ve been real patient.” Dawn storms out of the room believing Brad to merely be trying to gross her out. However, Brad makes the same desires for Dawn evident to his own father after his altercation with Bill. Altogether, Brad truly is Dawn’s antithesis and the film’s primary antagonist.
With any narrative film, there is a catalyst that spearheads a change in the life of the protagonist. In Teeth, that catalyst manifests in the character of Tobey (Hale Appleman). On the eve of the new school year, Dawn is introduced to Tobey at one of youth gatherings where she speaks. Given the use of close-up subjective shots between the shot-reversal on the two characters during Dawn’s speech, it is evident that there is an immediate, albeit cautionary, attraction between them.
The attraction between Dawn and Tobey continues to grow as they spend more time together. One night Dawn attempts to pleasure herself to the thought of her wedding night with Tobey. However, Dawn’s nightly activity comes to a halt with the image of large, slimy pincers. In the scene prior, Dawn had walked in on her parents sleeping with the sci-fi creature-feature The Black Scorpion (1957) playing on their television set. The sudden image of the giant scorpion’s massive pincers during her fantasy stays with Dawn, prompting her to end her friendship with Tobey.
Eventually, however, Dawn and Tobey meet up at an isolated pond in the forest, complete with a tire swing and even a waterfall. They go swimming and it is not long before the two begin to embrace under the rope swing. During their embrace, Tobey instinctively caresses Dawn’s breast. Dawn takes his hand in hers, their red chastity rings within the frame. Dawn then makes her way to a nearby cave. Tobey follows her inside and when she suggests that they head back, Tobey agrees. Seizing the moment, though, Tobey then proceeds to force himself upon Dawn. She pushes him back, only for him to pull down his underwear and try even harder. It is an undeniably discomforting scene, even after multiple viewings. The only bit of relief that occurs in the scene is Tobey’s absurd justification of, “I haven’t jerked off since Easter!”
Amidst Dawn’s screams, Tobey suddenly stops and begins to moan in pain. Seeing her opportunity, Dawn pushes Tobey off of her. She then gasps before screaming in horror. It is here that the audience witnesses the source of Tobey’s pain: a bloody pelvic region and one severed penis lying on the cave floor. Shocked, Tobey springs back into the water in an attempt to get away. All alone now, Dawn cries, scared and trembling.
Unlike the other men who seek to take advantage of Dawn, Tobey shared Dawn’s ideals. The two were cut from the same cloth, similar in their sexual innocence and in their belief to wait until marriage. However, Tobey’s sexual urges proved too strong for him to control. Instead of controlling his urges, his urges end up controlling him and, unfortunately, prompted him into raping Dawn. He is not quite the horrible person his successors are. While this does not excuse or condone his actions, Tobey, aside from acting as the catalyst in Dawn’s life, serves as something of a cautionary statement: like or not, masturbation has its place and condemning it altogether can result in permanent and disastrous consequences.
One might argue that Dawn fits the role of the femme fatale — a frequent staple in most film noir titles. Cunning and deceptive, the women in the role of the femme fatale have their own unique motives and often manipulate and betray the male protagonist on their respective quest. In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), film professor and theorist Laura Mulvey noted that a woman “symbolizes the castration threat by her real absence of a penis.” Of course, Dawn does not merely symbolize the threat of castration: she literally is the threat of castration. But despite personifying male castration, Dawn herself is not a femme fatale. She does not stand as villainous character, nor does she actively seek out men to dispatch. She is simply a girl who, through her innocence and limited knowledge of sex, is repeatedly taken advantage of by men. The physical castration of these men by Dawn is their own doing and is hence justified.
Despite having been taken advantage of by Tobey, Dawn feels guilt for the incident in the cave. When she tries to fall asleep later that night, Dawn hears Tobey’s screams juxtaposed over the image of Tobey dressed for their wedding. The next day, while attending a follow-up youth gathering, the kids in the crowd at one point chant in unison and speak of “the Serpent.” Regardless whether this mentioning is meant to specify the devil, temptation or, most logically, a penis, it is never made entirely clear whether the chants are real or imaginary to Dawn. Nonetheless, these chants suggest a notion of guilt within Dawn over Tobey’s dismemberment and absence on screen since.
After the meeting, she returns to the pond where she sees Tobey’s jeep still parked and empty. After fruitlessly searching the cave for Tobey (save for his severed penis being picked at by a crab), Dawn stands before the still pond, the chastity ring held out in one hand. After some contemplation, she finally casts the ring into the water. The discarding of the ring does not symbolize Dawn turning her back on her vows of abstinence as much as it does a point of no return. The world as Dawn knows it has changed and there is no going back to the way things were.
With her Mom suffering from some unnamed sickness and few people she can personally turn to for help, Dawn decides to take to the Internet in her search for answers. While online, she happens on a site where she reads:
“The toothed vagina appears in the mythology of many and diverse cultures all over the world. In these myths, the story is always the same — the hero must do battle with the woman, the toothed creature and break her power.”
Eager to be proven wrong regarding the state of her vagina, Dawn then visits the local gynaecology office. While there, she tells the gynaecologist, a Dr. Godfrey (Josh Pais), it is her first time before voicing her desire to make sure nothing is wrong with her anatomy. He addresses her concerns and assures her she is most likely just undergoing puberty. With Dr. Godfrey seeing nothing wrong with Dawn’s vagina initially, everything seems well until he announces that he plans to check her “flexibility.” Placing his entire hand inside Dawn’s vagina, he disregards her vocal discomfort and casually tells her to relax. Things then take a turn as puzzlement spreads over his face: something is indeed wrong with Dawn’s vagina. Before Dr. Godfrey can make a further examination, her vagina bites down on his hand and he screams in pain. Dawn also screams out of fear and Dr. Godfrey desperately struggles to free himself, swinging Dawn around on the table. Finally, he is released, minus four of his fingers. With the gynaecologist bleeding and in shock, Dawn takes the opportunity to grab her things and run.
Dawn then spots Tobey’s jeep being driven by a police officer. She follows the police back to the pond where she witnesses Tobey’s corpse being lifted out of the water. With Tobey having most likely having gone into shock following his castration, Dawn is now an accessory to murder. Dawn is once again traumatized; adding to her trauma, upon returning home, Dawn finds her mother lying unconscious on the floor. Kim is rushed to the hospital where Bill waits. Totally devastated, Dawn turns to her classmate Ryan for comfort. Little does Dawn know, however, Ryan had made a bet prior with another student regarding being able to steal Dawn’s virginity. Dawn mentions her case of vagina dentata, but believing her to be simply emotional, Ryan dismisses her claims.
Dawn is permitted to take a warm bath, during which time Brad presents her with several pills. He claims that his mother takes them for her nerves. Dawn does not hesitate in swallowing them. When she finishes her bath, she finds that Ryan has dimmed the lights and placed candles all around his bedroom. He gives her a glass of champagne, which she accepts. By now the pills have taken effect, evident from Dawn’s relaxed body language and speech. Sitting on Ryan’s bed, she smiles and notes, “This is how I always dreamed would be.” Soon after, she falls unconscious.
When Dawn awakens, she finds herself lying down on Ryan’s bed, towel gone. Ryan, also naked, strokes her breast in one hand and massages her clitoris in the other. Despite being raped, Dawn makes no effort to stop Ryan as she is still intoxicated. Moreover, she appears to be enjoying Ryan’s massage as the look on her face is calm with her eyes closed and her mouth fixed in a smile. Ryan unrolls a condom and proceeds to enter her. She initially protests, fearing that her teeth will “get” him, but Ryan rationalizes that he is playing the role of the hero, come to conquer the teeth. She makes no further objections and the penetrative sex commences. Unlike Dawn’s previous encounters, sex with Ryan does not result in his castration and he survives unharmed. When he finishes, the two lay side-by-side, both parties wearing identical looks of euphoria. With the assault by Tobey in the cave, Dawn showcased both fear and confusion. The same held true during her visit to the gynaecologist’s office. In both these instances, the castrations were spontaneous and reflexive, much like the kicking of a leg after having one’s knee prodded at a doctor’s office. However, Dawn’s encounter with Ryan poses a significant shift. Despite being drugged and raped, it is here that Dawn comes to embrace her sexuality as something to be enjoyed and as natural. It is here that she discovers that the nature of her vagina is not something to fear, but rather something that she can control. It is her first (relatively) positive sexual experience and another turning point in her life.
The following morning, Dawn, no longer intoxicated, dresses with the intent of turning herself into the police. Ryan, meanwhile, suggests a second round. She agrees but halfway through, Ryan receives a call from his friend. It is here that the existence of the bet is exposed to Dawn. Disgust permeates her face, particularly at how Ryan knew she had taken a vow of abstinence. Ryan responds by saying, “Your mouth is saying one thing, babe, but your sweet pussy is saying something very, very different.” As if on cue, Ryan suddenly stops thrusting, his face seizes up in pain and a loud crunching noise is heard. As Dawn leaves his room, she mutters to herself, “Some hero.”
Wanting to check in on her ill mother, Dawn ventures to the hospital. Upon arriving, though, it is revealed that Kim has passed. Dawn runs into Bill nursing a wound inflicted by Mother. Dawn learns of the fight with Brad and of his unwillingness to call for an ambulance for Kim the day prior. Armed with this knowledge, Dawn is now out for blood — figurative and literal.
The rest of the film has been gradually leading up to this final showdown with Brad. If it were a video game, he would be the final boss. The sequence that immediately precedes the showdown is evocative of a classic Western standoff with a shot of Dawn, her back to the camera and facing her home, occupied only by her incestuous stepbrother. With Brad rarely seen outside of his bedroom, he is comparable to a dragon, waiting inside his lair and anticipating the arrival of the hero to devour. It is here that the myth of the vagina dentata that Dawn found online is reversed: she does not need the aid of a man to conquer the beast within her. It is Dawn who is the hero, or rather, heroine, and instead of her vagina needing to be conquered, it is the man who needs to be tamed and defeated.
Donning a white dress and some make-up, Dawn enters Brad’s domain and suggests to him desires of sex by taking a puff of his cigarette — a phallic metaphor. Brad seems slightly confused, but Dawn pulls him back in by asking, “Are you afraid?” A stab at his supposed manliness, Brad accepts her offer of sex.
Initially, Dawn sits atop of Brad, assuming control over of the situation. This does not last for long, though, as Brad quickly tries to flip her over and take her from behind — his go-to position. Dawn resists, instead flipping onto her back and forcing Brad to look at her face-to-face. Brad looks displeased, but Dawn remains vigilant and Brad accepts the nonverbal compromise. Now inside her, Brad’s ego kicks back into gear and he asks her, “You see what you’ve been missing?” He places his index finger upon her lips as if prepared to insert his finger into her mouth, but stops. Having forgotten the incident in the pool all those years before, Brad suddenly remembers: the image of young Brad holding up his bleeding finger and the image of a young Dawn offering an innocent smile, her teeth pearly white. Before Brad can pull out, Dawn clamps her vagina down on his penis. A moment later and Brad is rid of his penis, his bed sheets covered in blood. Having watched the whole thing from her cage, Mother manages to free herself. In an ironic twist, however, rather than attacking Dawn as instructed by the whimpering Brad, Mother pauses right before consuming her owner’s detached member, minus the pierced tip.
After disarming Brad of his manhood and leaving him to tremble in his room, Dawn rides her bike out of town much like the traditional Western hero. It is never apparent as to exactly why she leaves town, nor does she make an effort to explain to her stepfather whom she loved. There is of course the fact that Dawn is something of a fugitive, having castrated three men (excluding the doctor’s fingers), and being indirectly responsible for Tobey’s death. However, like the significance of the discarded chastity ring, it is as if Dawn is leaving behind her old life, a life she can never go back to.
One flat tire later and Dawn catches a ride from an older man. Despite his kindness, the old man prevents Dawn from exiting the car at a rest stop later that night. Although he says nothing, the man makes obscene gestures with his tongue, signalling a sexual favor in return for his service. Dawn initially resists, disgusted with the man. However, after a moment of contemplation she dons a smirk, turns to face the man and slowly opens her eyes in a suggestive manner. It is here that the film ends, implying that Dawn has completely embraced her sexuality, not for the attainment of pleasure but for the punishment of men who seek her as a sexual object. It is as if the film is an origin story of sorts, as if Dawn is to become a female vigilante or superhero that fights sexism and misogyny by castrating her enemies — men who take advantage of women and only see them as objects to be played with. Whereas her name initially seemed to relate to her innocence earlier in the film, Dawn’s name now seems to suggest a more literal significance — the dawn of a new era, of feminine sexual reclamation. It is here where one could argue that Dawn has indeed been transformed into a femme fatale. Given the events Dawn endured over the course of the film, however, her motives for becoming a femme fatale seem undeniably justified.
Released roughly a decade ago, Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth is just as relevant today as it was when it was made. Contrary to the simple notion of cashing-in on the male fear of castration, Teeth stands unrelenting as a feminist film, promoting female sexuality, sexual awareness and the notion of consent. It is a film that should be seen by both men and women, uncomfortable as some parts may be. If anything, viewers should come away from Teeth with the following truth: pussy does grab back.