Female Empowerment in 'Teeth'
I finally sat myself down and watched Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth recently. I've known about the film for almost ten years but always kept my distance. I am hardly the squeamish type and I love horror.
Why stay away from this film you ask? As a heterosexual male, I cannot deny the premise of the film disturbed me a bit. In the past, I recall being at social gatherings where the film was brought up and all the guys went silent. However, the ladies usually noted that they liked the picture. After surviving my first viewing, I will admit this film provides great horror and is truly an excellent picture. Under the surface though, it is really social commentary under the guise of the horror genre. It's interesting to note the film was created by a gay man, but I will argue it inherently serves as an feminist film.
Our main character, Dawn O’Keefe, embraces a Christian abstinence group, where she serves as their teenage spokesperson and interestingly, she made this choice for herself. The group speaks of “purity” and saving one’s self for marriage, and the idea or notion of impure thoughts is blasphemous. She takes it rather seriously but like any teenager, she cannot help but have those… thoughts. She skates the line with a boy she likes, but ultimately turns down his advances for sex. Instead, he forces himself on her and takes what is denied to him, but he pays the price. Dawn is no longer chaste and the cult-like based group “Promise” chants her as evil and exiles her, which is common amongst these kinds of groups. Chaste equals purity, which equals the ideal woman. Whenever a woman fails in the department (even if she is raped) she is not a victim, but instead a heretic. At this point in the film, the director has already informed us how such a place is no real welcome or positive environment for young women.
Dawn’s vaginal teeth act as a reflexive, defense mechanism in her first few encounters. She has it, but does not know really what it is or what it’s for (and by “it”, I am referring to both her vagina and the teeth). Earlier in the film, we are showed the horrible sex ed curriculums that take place in schools. A book the class is using has no problem showing a detail graphic of the penis, but resorts to censoring the vagina. One student questions why the vagina, but not the penis, is censored. In response, the teacher states that they are completely different; hence, not only do young women at an earlier age not naturally know about their body, they also are taught nothing of it. Safe to say that the less they know, the better chance they remain chaste. Eventually Dawn reads up on her condition and lifts the censor from her book. Slowly but surely, Dawn is learning about herself and coming to embrace it.
Dawn is still in a rut as she feels bad for her actions and wants to turn herself in. Before this can happen, she ends up in the bed of another boy who puts on an act in order to have sex with her. He comforts her in her pain, gives her time alone, lights a room full of candles, rubs her, uses a particular device on her which she enjoys and finally asks for her consent. Everything goes right until he notes that she was part of a wager, betting a friend he could sleep with her. She endures neither real emotional pain nor trauma. Instead, she comes off as more disgusted and annoyed this time around. and clenches her teeth once more. This time she has no interest in turning herself in, clearly feeling no pity or remorse for these men in her life.
Playing opposite of Dawn's strong, female character is her step-brother, representing the traditional, trashy alpha-male with no respect for women whatsoever; in his mind, women exist only to please him. This is shown with the numerous pornographic images scattered on his bedroom walls, the constant bickering with his girlfriend and referring to his step-mother as bitch. He also takes no real liking to Dawn, who he too refers to as a bitch and constantly attempts to make sexual advances on. With Dawn’s mother in the hospital due to her step-brother’s callousness, Dawn wants justice. She cashes in on her step-brother’s sexual desire for her and begins to have sex with him. They struggle in the beginning for dominance: her on top, him behind, and then finalize missionary. It is interesting to note her step-brother is trying to fulfill his dominant gender role, with Dawn lying on her back. One could view Dawn as submissive, as she gave herself to him. Yet, when she finally bites back for all that he did, she is simply staring at him in the eye when he succumbs to her grip. Dawn does not even blink. Gender and sexual position means nothing of power in this scenario. Dawn banked on her sexuality, her charming looks and the fact she could offer herself to him, but she was clearly in power before he even accepted. Dawn embraced her femininity and sexuality.
The film ends with Dawn turning a devilish eye to the camera in regards to her next victim, who wants payment for his good intentions. It is clear Dawn has finally embraced herself and come to terms with what she has. She feels no pain or guilt in doing this. And she shouldn't. Instead, she finds pleasure. So many men are taking joy and pleasure in humiliating women, isn’t it time for some payback?