Still Sharp: Despite its age, the message in Michael Lichtenstein’s “Teeth”, is still powerful and relevant — perhaps more so now than ever.
As a movie that gets talked about a lot during Women in Horror month, Teeth (2007) doesn’t get a whole lot of love outside of that time. And despite having premiered over ten years ago now, I would argue that Teeth was a little bit before it’s time.
Written and directed by Michael Lichtenstein, Teeth follows Dawn (Jess Wiexler), an ordinary high school student who, having grown up near a nuclear power plant, has a very dangerous mutation. Dawn, who wears a purity ring and is a public speaker advocating for waiting until marriage to have sex, finds out about her mutation when a classmate tries to rape her.
Now, I would recommend watching the movie first because what I’m about to reveal is a huge spoiler, just in case you haven’t already guessed the twist by the movie’s title.
Dawn has what is called vagina dentata; that’s right, she’s got a set of razor-sharp teeth in her vagina. Badass, right? Don’t worry, it takes Dawn the whole movie to come around to the idea, too.
On top of the heavy anti-rape themes, Teeth is also very much about female puberty and the lack of knowledge provided to students about their own bodies. In my personal favorite scene in the movie, Dawn is in health class, and they’re learning about the male and female sex organs – the penis and vagina.
The text book shows the penis in a diagram. The teacher, male, comfortably explains the different parts of the organ and their functions. Then the students turn the page and find an enormous, gold, shiny sticker on the anatomical image of the vagina. As you would expect, the teacher gets uncomfortable even talking about the vagina and seems to know next to nothing about it.
Not only is this scene hysterical, but it tells a lot about the education system and its ineptness at teaching students about their own bodies.
There is a clear preference or comfortability with the penis, which is to be expected in a patriarchal society and this irrational fear of the vagina.
That’s the idea that Lichtenstein plays on in Teeth; he gives the audience a vagina to be very afraid of. Lichtenstein’s film also says a lot about puberty in general, being a stranger in a body that you thought you knew until it starts sprouting hair and pimples everywhere – something everyone can relate to. Furthermore, most kids feel embarrassed to talk to adults about puberty, which leads to tons of independent research on the Internet.
Obviously, Dawn can’t turn to her purity group, who frown on anything above making out, for help. And she can’t turn to her parents. This leads Dawn to the gynecologist, who tries to violate her and gets his fingers bitten off.
Finally, Dawn thinks she’s figured out the secret to her problem: CONSENT! A classmate, Ryan (Ashley Springer), is seemingly super sweet on Dawn. She sleeps with him, multiple times, and nothing happens. Unfortunately, Lichtenstein made every male in the movie a garbage person, and Dawn finds out Ryan only slept with her on a bet, which, as you would imagine, leads to Ryan getting his penis bitten off.
Things get even weirder when Dawn’s stepbrother, as it turns out, is in love with her. But he also let Dawn’s mom die, so Dawn discovers the power she has and takes care of him. I’m sure you can imagine how.
Now the ending can be a bit problematic, as Dawn runs away and hitches a ride with yet another perverted male. The film ends with Dawn smiling menacingly at the camera. We know what’s about to happen. Some may see this as a message that all men are the scum of the earth and should have their members dismembered. And on a surface level, sure, I guess you can take away that message.
In the age of the #MeToo movement, however, Teeth tells girls to be proud of your body. For almost the entire movie, Dawn is afraid of herself, until she discovers that her vagina dentata isn’t a curse like she thought.
In the same way, women today can watch this movie and see that they aren’t doomed to be ogled, harassed, and raped just because they are a woman. In a genre that often explore girls becoming monsters when they hit puberty, Dawn is a hero who eventually realizes she is powerful and is confident in her body; a message that was relevant then and is relevant now.