Long before Sigmund Freud coined the term, myths about and similar to the vagina dentata have existed across many cultures – from the Greek figure of Medusa to the myth of the Ainu in Japan, the Native American tales of the Ponca and many more. Within the patriarchal framework, the vagina dentata, or the toothed vagina is the impenetrable cave that devours the penis. It is the site of emasculation and the origin and source of castration anxiety in the male. In many cultures, the fear of castration expressed in the vagina dentata stories leads to the practice of clitoridectomy or removing the clitoris (the symbolic) tooth from the woman’s vagina in order to make women tamed.
Teeth (2007) is a Hollywood film which depicts and subverts the myth of the vagina dentata. In the film, the protagonist Dawn, a young woman with a toothed vagina, confronts and subverts the vow of virginity and repression of her sexuality, through the realisation of her seemingly paradoxical appetite for the penis: both desiring it in and cutting it off.
Teeth begins with the first instance of invasion in Dawn’s body by the hands of the reluctant stepbrother, when the two children are engaging playful explorations of each other’s bodies. Perturbed, Dawn bites back the finger that invades her body through her vagina, but the camera focuses on the lips on her mouth that are sealed by the shock of the experience. A latent fear of her vagina is sown in the child’s mind.
Teeth is not simply a gothic tale about the castrating female demon who needs to be saved and tamed by the hero-conqueror so as to restore masculine order.
The audience is taken a few years in the future where a teenage Dawn is preaching sexual abstinence to young boys and girls for a puritanical virginity vow club, called the Promise Ring. Her fear of her own body is amplified and appropriated by a culture that imposes some kind of “natural modesty” on the woman’s body, simultaneously repressing and erasing the body and its desires from the discourse. This very society, on the other hand, propagates a violent and invasive form of masculinity and predatory male sexuality that demands women’s submission to its appetites. The woman is to be fed on, as she starves herself.
For Dawn, it is her desire that is predatory. Her rapacious brother who thinks she is saving herself for him, the sexually frustrated “virgin” boyfriend who rapes her when she is unconscious and even the male gynaecologist, who out of curiosity forces his fingers inside her are never seen as predators by her. Everything that she reads in the books and on the internet, tells her that she is the demon who needs to be conquered by a hero. She is so caught up with asking “What is wrong with me” that she is unable to put the onus of the answer onto the structures of repression surrounding her.
In the patriarchal world, the female is the passive object of male desire. Female desire is merely an anomaly. It is dangerous and needs to be usurped by the male desire through an act of violence. Dawn assumes that she needs a hero who would be able to conquer her demons. But soon she realises that it is the power to control her body lies within herself. This becomes the pivotal moment of recognition for her. Transcending the binary of the demon and the virginal angel, she becomes her own hero. She then comprehends her power to control that which is pleasurable and that which is to be devoured by the vagina dentata. Her consent is what matters. Her body and her sexual appetite are hers to manoeuvre.
Teeth exposes That In the patriarchal world, the female is the passive object of male Desire. female desire is an anomaly. It is dangerous and needs to be usurped by the male desire through an act of violence.
Teeth debunks the genre of horror. It is not simply a gothic tale about the castrating female demon who needs to be saved and tamed by the hero/conqueror so as to restore masculine order. As director Mitchell Lichtenstein calls it, it is the origin story of a female superhero, who undertakes a journey of sexual awakening against the discursive demonization of her body in order to recognize her power to manifest her sexual agency through her vagina dentata. The subversions are carried out in interesting ways. The camera deliberately focuses on the holes and the crevices present around to create a semiotic universe of the female body. Even when not overtly focalized, power of the feminine still looms over through inferences – Brad’s bitten finger and the river that drowns Tobey after he is emasculated. Brad’s extreme anal fixation and eurotophobia (fear of the vagina) again are the unsaid representation of the power of the vagina dentata and the fear it evokes.
The female, in Teeth, is not a lack, but an over-presence. The penis, on the other hand, is never presented in its grandiose erect state. It’s always limp, dismembered, spurting blood instead of the ejaculate. While male frontal nudity is shown from very early on in the film, it is only when Dawn sees herself naked with slow pride in the mirror after having been sexually pleasured for the first time, that we see actually the female body. What is represented is not the male gaze, but the Lacanian mirror stage: the coming into selfhood.
The film presents to us a champion of the female body, sexual desire and sexual consent. And, in the Post-MeToo era when conversations around what constitutes the intricacies of ‘consent’ are gaining momentum and the idea of the woman’s body speaking for itself and constituting what consent means is becoming significant, she is the superhero we both need and deserve.
Featured Image Source: Vice