Discussion of graphic content that could scare men away from women FOREVER...
During my final year of university, I seemed to stray away from respected films in cinema. I got bored of writing about how great these iconic movies were. So I chose to go down the opposite route and write about films I absolutely adored, and that were generally critised - Teeth being a prime example.
This is one of my favourite films, for exactly the reason explained through this essay. It takes images, contradicts them, mocks them and has fun.
It's not well acted, it's not oscar worthy, but my god it is fun... Well, for my sadistic mind anyway.
“The horror of the putatively dangerous female genitals finds symbolic expression in the far-flung image of vagina dentata, the saw-toothed orifice that waits to mutilate the male” (David D. Gilmore, 2001, p.41). The ‘far-flung image of vagina dentata’ is precisely what the audience are given in Teeth (dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007), a film showing “the castrating power of a teenage girl who wreaks vengeance on disrespectful young men who try to use her sexuality” (Eric Michael Mazur, 2011, p.465).
There is some speculation on deciding whether this film is a mainstream product, or whether it becomes independent from, as Pamela Craig et al. (2010) states, “offer[ing] a potent combination of deliciously black humour, graphic horror, and social critique in its often impressively sensitive portrayal of the emotional and psychological pitfalls of female adolescences, bodily insecurity, and sexual coming-of-age” (p.90). By taking these delicate issues offered by Craig and combining them into one statement film seems to turn Teeth into a product that mocks the traditional ways for mainstream cinema to represent a theory. As mainstream cinema has to cater for such a broad audience, the use of a theory in the subtext of the film can become vague or confused. By taking theories such as Freudian theory or Feminism in Teeth and using them in such a blatant way, they seem almost laughable. The horror of the film turns into this black humour with a critique on popular culture, suggesting this isn’t a mainstream product, but a criticism of it.
The black humour that surrounds the film also places the audience in a peculiar position. Are women supposed to laugh? Are men supposed to be fearful? Linda Williams (1984) states “whenever the movie screen holds a particular effective image of terror, little boys and grown men make it a point of honour to look, while little girls and grown women cover their eyes” (p.83). Contradicting William’s argument, the myth of vagina dentata is so gruesome to men in this film that it seems as if their honour is taken away as they are afraid to look, while women are encouraged to laugh, sympathise and understand the monster that is within Dawn (Jess Weixler). The role reversal within the audience works with Craig’s point that the film socially evaluates what is conventional for a mainstream audience and how they interpret the film.
Although, contradicting this argument, when taking Dawn and seeing what she comes across through the film, it does seem to comply with the strong theory that women are monstrous within mainstream cinema. Jill Nelmes (2000) backs this point by believing that “despite the enormous emphasis placed on woman as spectacle in the cinema, woman as woman is largely absent” (p.276). A reason for this argument can be provided by the idea that the woman is an abject within cinema. This is witnessed in Teeth when it is discovered Dawn has the abnormality of vagina dentata, turning her into a literal monster, and the abject. What’s also interesting in Nelmes’ statement is the fact that she classes a woman as a spectacle, as well as stating a woman as a woman is rarely seen. It seems within mainstream cinema women can only be an abject or a spectacle. Dawn has teen boys lusting over her, she is molested by her gynecologist and has an abusive stepbrother who is sexually forward with her. These elements of the film provide evidence for her being the spectacle, but in a deeply disturbing way to fit in with the themes of the film. Teeth could therefore be taken as a mainstream film with very strong, graphic content, looking into topics of sexual harassment, degradation of women and, as Hantke says, the female adolescents and sexual coming-of-age.
With all this in mind, I’d like to take Teeth and discuss whether it is a mainstream product, representing the woman as monstrous, unknown and terrifying with deeply insightful topics at the heart of its story, or whether it is more likened to independent cinema, commenting on the poor attempts at representing these ideologies within mainstream cinema through a black comical approach.
Starting with the opening scene, the images given are bombarded with substance. The camera starts on a clear, idealistic blue sky, but slowly pans across to focus on the image of two large towers which are immediately assumed to be nuclear power plants. The non-diegetic music turns into a silly tune supposedly representing a threat, but actually offering a comic tone. The camera then tilts to a birds-eye-view shot showing a house in front of the towers with two parents and their children sitting in a swimming pool outside. As the camera cuts on a closer image of the children, Brad (Hunter Ulvog) is shown splashing his step-sister Dawn (Ava Ryen Plumb). His father Bill (Lenny Von Dohlen) shouts “Brad, stop splashing your sister!” to which Brad replies “She’s not my sister!” After Brad calms down he turns to Dawn and from an over-the-shoulder shot, he looks down his body and shuffles a little. Dawn looks down his body and Brad says “lets see yours now.” The shot then focuses on the parents holding hands, but soon after a scream is heard coming from Brad. The children are both quiet as the parents ask what’s wrong. The opening scene ends with a close-up shot of Brad’s finger cut and bleeding.
Contradicting the threatening images of nuclear contamination, there seems to be a sadistic laughable tone to them immediately. “Kaplan (1983)... points out that it makes more sense to use familiar and recognisable cinema conventions to explain that the ‘realism’ of mainstream cinema is a fabrication” (Richard Maltby, 2003, p.278). As an audience watches Teeth, familiar patterns witnessed in mainstream films become recognisable. Nuclear contamination and its side effects are one of those recognisable qualities in horror films such as Teeth. With this in mind, Nelmes’ suggestion that “the audience can be accredited with entering into a viewing situation with a range of skills and competences and a background of cultural knowledge” (p.286) is quite interesting. The discussion of the side effects when living next to a radioactive area, and how it can destroy lives is provided in the narrative, much like the discussion that takes place in Godzilla (1998, dir. Ronald Emmerich). The film shows a monstrous dinosaur-like creature taking over a city, becoming almost unstoppable from its irregular size and power that’s assumed to have come from an irregular growth from nuclear contamination. This monstrous creature is also a female, as later on in the film it is discovered she is pregnant. Because the audience are accredited with this “background of cultural knowledge”, watching Teeth and the themes that are played out becomes purposefully noticeable. Each time a scene in which Dawn castrates a man is given, the audience are reminded of the nuclear power plant before she commits the act. The smoke becomes darker, filling the sky more as Dawn becomes more powerful and connected with her mutation. She, like Godzilla, becomes impossible to stop and more monstrous as the film carries on. Maltby carries on his argument to suggest that a critique of Hollywood cinema is that “its stories are psychologically unrealistic, mechanically conventional, “melodramatic”, implausible [and] excessively dependent on coincidence” (p.486).
As the audience are aware of this likeness from their previous viewings of the conventions in Hollywood cinema (such as the monstrous female in Godzilla), they are able to laugh. The combination of the distinct shots of the power plant first seen in the opening, and then repeated several times during the film, and the unusually witty music which is a tune carried on through the film, along with the likeness to Godzilla and the dramatic monster taking over the world makes Teeth seem as if it is mocking mainstream cinema. Its melodramatic focus on the nuclear power plant, psychologically unrealistic monster that is Dawn, and implausible story that creates her as a monster becomes so much like what would be witnessed in a mainstream film that’s created to be taken seriously. However these elements are so exaggerated, the only way to interpret the film is to take it as a dark comedy. Godzilla is ludicrously unrealistic, but because it doesn’t have a brazen tone to it, the story becomes a mainstream representation of true fears, with subtexts of nuclear wars at the heart of its story. In Teeth, the film is also ludicrously unrealistic that Dawn’s body does signify the monstrous, the unknown and the terrifying, but to an extent in which the reality in the film is laughable as it clearly mocks what mainstream cinema tries to create.
It is interesting to ask who is laughing, though. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (2011) notes “Dawn’s ability to punish her rapist at the point of penetration is presented as a blackly comic feminist fantasy” (p.182). A common association with feminists is that they hold strong bias towards females, unwilling to accept a male’s viewpoint. It seems as if you could describe Dawn as the reality of this ignorant viewpoint. Her power to take away what defines a man (in the biological sense) makes her a role model for what is naively believed to be a feminist. She becomes, when taking the film in a literal sense, what all men fear and what all women aspire to be. This is seen in the independent film A Question of Silence (1982, dir. Marleen Gorris) in which a group of woman graphically kill a man without a real motive other than the fact that he is a man. It links to the assumption that feminists disregard men completely. Teeth, and other similar films provide such “over (self) consciousness” (Hankte, p.91) that its ideologies become the cause of the black humour. This can be seen as Dawn chooses to have sex with Ryan (Ashley Springer), who is meant to be the hero conquering her mythical mutation. As she has sex with him for the second time, Ryan answers his phone to his friend. He says “as we speak” and begins to explain to Dawn how he and his friend made a bet to break her “sacred vowel of abstinence”. She becomes outraged at this, questioning it to which Ryan responds “you’re mouth is saying one thing babe, but your sweet pussy is saying something very different.” The shot turns to a close-up of Dawn’s face in which her eyes become almost animal like, and we are shown Ryan’s face with the diegetic noise of a crunch. The shot-reverse shot shows Dawn looking surprised at Ryan’s pain. She then claims “Oh, shit” and gets off him. The next shot shows a very graphic mid-shot of Ryan’s now castrated penis bleeding. As Ryan screams, Dawn is shown in the middle of the screen, blocking the view of Ryan on his bed, walking away claiming “Some hero...” to which another shot of Ryan’s severed penis is given, as he then calls for his mother. As brutal and graphic as this scene is, the only reaction is to laugh. Dawn’s nonchalance makes this scene a blackly comic (supposed) feminist fantasy.
Heller-Nicholas goes on to argue that “the presence of the monstrous feminine in the horror film speaks to us more about male fears than about female desires or female subjectivity” (p.182). The females of the audience gain no enjoyment from watching Dawn have sex with Ryan, but the males do feel a sense of fear from the nauseatingly explicit shots of the bitten off penis. When linking this idea back to Godzilla, everyone (with a predominant cast of men) in the film fears this monster. To make the monster female only reaffirms this male fear of the female. Linda Williams (1984) complies with Hankte and notes “what is feared in the monster is similar to what... is feared in the mother - Not her own mutilation, but the power to mutilate and transform the vulnerable male” (p.90). Leading up to this scene, Ryan is told about Dawn’s vagina dentata, and even in the middle of the first time they have intercourse, Dawn tries to stop him, but he convinces her he is conquering the monster. Ryan doesn’t fear her mutation, and nor do the males watching as Williams states. What they do fear is her power and ability to mutilate them.
However, for females watching, they gain a sense of recognition within Dawn. Williams suggests that “the female look... recognises the sense in which the freakishness is similar to her own difference. For she too has been constituted as an exhibitionist object by the desiring look of the male”(87/88). Men in the audience will immediately assume Dawn is the spectacle, but in reality she is a threatening woman who “clamp[s] itself onto men and their phallic sources of life energy” (Mazur, p.464). Similar to A Question of Silence, the woman are assumed to be spectacles, but as they conduct this murder, they threaten the males of the audience. As the film ends, the woman laugh in unison when appearing in court. The reaction to those viewing this film is very similar to the reaction of Teeth. The reversal within the audience in terms of the look means women are able to laugh while men look away in fear. Within mainstream film, the male gaze is predominant, but within Teeth and A Question of Silence, it is the women of the audience that look and enjoy the film actively. The themes and theories being discussed in this film so clearly “poin[t] to male fears and fantasies about the female genitals as a trap, a black hole which threatens to swallow them up and cut them into pieces’” (Heller-Nicholas, p.182) that women watching can laugh at the male and with Dawn. To reduce Ryan to calling for his mother after he has been castrated, and to position Dawn on the screen so she blocks him with the statement “Some hero” turns him not into a conquering hero, but a pathetic man. Similarly in Godzilla, to create the monster as a pregnant female means the females in the audience will relate to her. This monster has become the spectacle for the man as she is observed and studied. Yet, she is destroying the city because she’s protecting her child - A very maternal instinct which the females in the audience will recognise, leading to the males only fearing her. This doesn’t allow for the women to laugh, however. The topic of a pregnant female monster becomes a serious discussion in the film, making it more mainstream approach. Contradicting this, A Question of Silence takes an independent approach at dealing with women, as does Teeth, allowing the females to laugh.
Looking into why Teeth could be a mainstream product, its interesting to see that the characters go through a process of identification which is commonly represented in mainstream film. Freudian theory and Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage suggests the ways in which children discover themselves and their purpose for being through a psychoanalytical perspective. The scenes which show this process, rather than being blatantly referenced to as we’ve seen above, show rather a more softer side to the characters in Teeth, suggesting a more mainstream, subtle approach to telling the story of female adolescents and sexual coming-of-age, as discussed in the introduction.
Freud suggests that early sexual experiences “constituted sexual traumas”, and although experiences have no side effects at the time, as the child develops, the memory of the experience reactivates itself at puberty, “producing pathological results” (Seymore Keitlen, 2003, p.11). In the opening scene described at the beginning of this essay, Brad openly shows his genitalia to Dawn and asks to see hers. In the process of this, it is assumed he touches Dawn, and her mutation of vagina dentata bites Brad. As the characters progress to their adolescent stage, Brad shows his scar to his girlfriend and states he can’t remember why he has it. Dawn has no recollection of this event either. This leaves these early sexual encounters in the subconscious of the characters, like Freud states - But they do produce pathological results. Brad becomes abusive and aggressive towards his father. He is unable to have a stable relationship with a woman, and will only have anal sex - According to Freud, these are very common symptoms if the child hasn’t developed past the anal stage, and has experienced premature sexual encounters. The way in which this is presented in Teeth seems more to interpretation than being forcefully told, meaning the film becomes mainstream through the subtle approach of the topics. Adding to this, the use of Dawn becomes evident too. “Castration anxiety and symbolic castration are primary forces to repress instinctual and/or id impulses towards forbidden and gratifications, particularly the taboo of incest” (David Adams et al., 2010, p.127). The use of Dawn in this film could be to repress and warn Brad of the gratifications of incest. The whole film leads up to the point in which Dawn castrates Brad. Before this moment, Brad has a physical fight with his father claiming “You made her my sister”, forcing his unmanageable dog to bite his neck. This fight again emphasises his rebellion against the same-sex parent, describing why he paused during his development as a child, and gives reason for Dawn becoming a monstrous female. She is the castrator. The film warns the males watching that if they do not develop properly, they will be castrated. “The threat of castration has no authority to the already castrated” (p.127) meaning the females watching face no fear in Dawn, it is only the males. What the females do face is a representation of themselves and their development, which is described in the mirror phase.
Lacan (1977) notes “that the child learns to recognise itself in the mirror and develops the first inklings of self-consciousness by identifying with the specular image” (Anneke Smelik, 2007, p.184). Within Teeth, a common image given of Dawn is her looking in a mirror. This is first seen as she steps out of the shower before she discovers her mutation. The look is more of a female observation of her own body. This is then repeated as she is put against the detailed image of a vagina from her biology book, in which she is in the bathroom, removing a sticker that the school placed over their books. She looks surprised and intrigued at the image given of the vagina. At this point it is clear she is discovering herself, and what it is to be a woman. This effectively sets up her trauma as she discovers she isn’t what every woman should be. We see her look in the mirror several times after she discovers her vagina dentata. Rather than a look of wonder on her face, she has a frightened one. Smelik uses Doane’s (1987) argument that in “classical Hollywood film, it [the use of the mirror phase] often indicates the weakness or even mental illness of the female character” (p.185). If we look into Now, Voyager, (1942, dir. Irving Rapper) Charlotte (Bette Davis) often looks into the mirror at herself. This is emphasised as she has a mental breakdown. This uses Doane’s argument to confirm that it points towards the female character’s weakness. The mental breakdown is also caused by her mother, a reason for her pausing in her development and rebelling against her, signifying the use of these topics in mainstream film. Clearly, the way in which Dawn is frightened by her own “illness” indicates a certain weakness in her character. And it is this weakness that becomes problematic for her. Although “her biting vagina is a rape-avenging weapon... the rapes themselves do not appear to be so much her real problem as the fact that her vagina has teeth” (Heller-Nicholas, p.183). Dawn’s sexual encounters with males usually include a form of rape. The first time she is alone with Tobey (Hale Appleman), rather than being the perfect virgin boyfriend she longed for, he tells her he has had sex before, and when she wants to sit quietly with him, he forces himself upon her. The second interaction with a man is when she visits the gynecologist. As he discovers she hasn’t been to one before, he takes advantage of her by removing his glove and penetrating her with his hand. Ryan is the third male to sexually interact with her. He suggests he’d look after her, and whilst giving her a pill that supposedly calms his mother’s nerves, he drugs her instead, allowing him to break her vowel of abstinence. Hankte describes the procedure at the gynecologists “as humiliating, degrading and physically painful” (p.91), which can be used to describe the other scenes in which she encounters a man. The idea of degradation is a common theme for women in mainstream cinema. But even so, all the time she is abused, the real fear on her face comes from the vagina dentata. She screams with Tobey as he discovers he has been castrated, runs away in fear as the gynecologist's fingers are spread across the floor, and looks in confusion at Tobey as she castrates him. The mirror phase in this film shows her weakness as a female character, creating her as the abject in the film. When looking at the film from this perspective, she doesn’t seem to stand as a confident female, but a tainted one. As Linda Williams discusses, the female spectators of the film are punished as the monster expresses their “sexual desire literally and symbolically... Trapped in the traditional role as object of the gaze, [the female spectator] finds herself unconsciously aligned with the monster as the movie’s object of disgust” (Tony Magistrale, 2005, p.8). By being aligned to the monster, they are punished by watching these humiliating scenes which Dawn experiences being played out in front of them. Similarly in Thelma and Louise (1991, dir. Ridley Scott), the film shows Thelma (Geena Davis) being raped with the emphasis of the scene looking at the emotion on her face, homing in on the degradation of her. Because the females of the audience are aligned to Thelma, they are punished as they see her deviate from her traditional role, enjoy this and therefore watch as she is raped. So it seems no longer is Teeth a film which argues against mainstream cinema - It actually suggests a representation of why the woman should be punished.
This is only at a certain point in the film, however. Towards she end, Dawn becomes more powerful with her monstrous deformity. She learns to “be in charge of her to-be-looked-at-ness” through the narcissistic view of herself from the mirror phase (p.185). This development in her look is seen after she has sex with Ryan. The expression on her face as she gazes at herself in the mirror is shown with a smile as she caresses her body. Dawn becomes more aware of her deformity, but also more in control of it. She is no longer scared, but accepting. In the final scene, the audience watch as Dawn discovers her mother has died. She gets told her abusive step-brother didn’t help as her mother screamed. Being aware that he has an incestual interest for her, Dawn punishes him, as discussed above. Starting with Dawn standing outside the house, the iconic images of the nuclear power plant are in the centre of the screen. As she moves into the house, the next shot shows her looking at herself in the mirror, putting on makeup. The camera slowly zooms in to pause on her looking. As the film moves to the shot of Brad, it is shown he is watching a film starring Medusa - Another monstrous, mythical female able to kill anyone that glares into her eyes. Dawn then comes into Brad’s room, takes his cigarette and smokes as she watches Medusa glare at a man. She smiles at this moment in the film, and then moves to stroke Brad. He states “this is too fucking weird” to which she responds “just wait” and sits on top of him in her angelic white dress. As the music from the film becomes more threatening, Brad tries turning Dawn around to have anal sex. She becomes infuriated and hits him. As they sit, she starts to pull up her dress. He looks and agrees to penetrate her. As he does so, he starts talking and says “We always knew it would play out this way eventually, didn’t we? Ever since we were little kids...” An extreme shot reverse shot of his face to Dawn’s, and then a revert back to when they were children with his bleeding finger is given. The music then intensifies to high pitch strings as we see her castrate him. He starts to look for his severed penis, and as she stands, her legs are open in the middle of the screen and his penis falls to the ground. To finish the scene, instead of Brad’s vicious dog attacking her, he eats his penis.
Williams states “it is a truism of the horror genre that sexual interest resides most often in the monster” (p.87). Linking with Lacan’s theory, Dawn develops a self-consciousness and ability to be in charge of her body and the use of it. Brad’s revert back to his childlike state at the point of penetration emphasises fully his pause in development as he is reminded of why he has this scar, and therefore reminded of his early sexual traumas causing this pause. It is at this point in the film that Dawn becomes the most terrifying as she has learnt to control the vagina dentata, using it only to her advantage, rather than it debilitating her to the point in which she cannot have a relationship sexually with a man. She becomes the most terrifying woman of all in mainstream film - An abject who’s desires are met and isn’t punished as the film ends.
Pamela Craig summarizes Teeth by stating it is constructed by “mobilizing dark comedy and recurrent images of penile trauma to explore serious youth-orientated social issues, simultaneously literalizing, deconstructing and celebrating the vagina dentata myth” (p.90). This is witnessed to the fullest extent in the final scene. After Dawn walks away from Brad, she runs away from home, being forced to hitchhike as her bike breaks. She gets in the car of an elder man and drives off. The scene then moves to an image of the car parked and her waking up. As she does so, she sees the driver gesturing towards her, licking his lips. Dawn tries to escape but the doors are locked. In a moments thought, she turns her head, looks down the camera with devilish eyes and smiles. By looking into Heller-Nicholas’ observation “Dawn’s look-to-camera in the film’s final scene implies that she is reconciled with both her unusual talent and its particular utility in protecting herself against sexual predators. That it comes with an acceptance of herself as “the monstrous feminine” and at the expense of her being able to enjoy sex it its own right” (p.183). The film can be a mainstream product in producing a deeply thought-provoking look at women and the way in which they are typically set out to be in film. Rather than ending with death, seen in most mainstream horror products, she suggests to the audience she will castrate the man and feel no guilt towards this. The monstrous feminine therefore becomes something much more powerful, celebrating this myth associated with woman, deconstructing it to a point in which the woman have full power on the film, possibly working as a “reaction to the emergence of feminism and the threat posed by woman’s autonomy” (Patricia White, 1998, p. 118).
But this idea seems a little farfetched when placed against Teeth. There is an alternative view on this scene. The revolting image of the man licking his lips seems so unappealing to males or females that the image becomes funny. Seeing an elder man carry out this gesture isn’t common within mainstream film, so the ridiculousness of it induces this black comedy that Craig sets out, pointing towards the fact that this film is more an independent piece. The film also includes clothing that states “Warning: Sex Changes Everything”, has this repetition of the nuclear power plants and a sarcastic dialogue which all supplies the self-consciousness of it. The characters back this further with Brad presented in an infantile state, the two boyfriend characters, Tobey and Ryan, presented as rapist, and the gynecologist as an abusive pervert. But more poignant than this is the way in which the film ends without Dawn being punished. The scene contrasts with the final scene of I Spit On Your Grave (1978, dir. Meir Zarchi). Jennifer (Camille Keaton), after being gang raped, individually kills the men involved. As the final man clings onto a boat motor to stop himself from drowning, he begs her not to kill him, to which she responds “Suck it, bitch” and starts the motor. These were the words said to her as she was raped. Teeth sees Dawn smile as she is about to be raped as she knows she will castrate him. The irony in both scenes removes any representation of women in mainstream film, and leaves only a monstrous woman never to be punished again which would only be seen in independent cinema.