WIHM ‘Teeth’: A Feminist Film or a Cautionary Tale?

CW: mentions of sexual assault and rape

In horror films, women who have and enjoy sex are often punished violently. A prime example of this is in the original Halloween, where the protagonist Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is innocent, presumably a virgin, and is the sole survivor at the end of the film. On the other hand, her best friend Lynda (P.J. soles) is not so innocent, and has sex with her boyfriend. In fact, they have sex right before she is killed, which is a pretty clear depiciton of the treatment women in horror get for being sexually active. 

This trope is also depicted in Teeth, when the virginal Dawn (Jess Weixler) starts to have sexual feelings for a boy. She soon discovers that she has vagina dentata, which comes from a folk tale where a woman’s vagina has teeth. Meant to ward off rapists, vagina dentata is commonly seen as a weapon that enables women to protect themselves against sexual violence. However, one could argue that the vagina dentata in Teeth is yet another example of sexually active women in horror being punished for their sexuality. 

Dawn is an active member of her school’s chastity club and passionately speaks about the importance of saving yourself for marriage. In the beginning of the film Dawn speaks to a group of young teens about maintaining their abstinence, and while doing so, locks eyes with Tobey (Hale Appleman). Their mutual attraction is obvious as they form a friendship and start to hang out with other members of the chastity club. Dawn’s internal struggle between wanting to explore her sexuality yet also having societal pressure to remain abstinent is shown when she begins to fantasise about Tobey in bed at night. 

Eventually Dawn gives in to the temptation and agrees to have sex with Tobey, however, she becomes uncomfortable midway through it and changes her mind. Tobey turns violent and ends up raping her, causing her vagina to react defensively by biting off his penis. This is the first time in the film that Dawn realises she is physically different, and also the first time she is punished for acting not-so-innocently. Not only is Dawn assaulted when she tried to stop the sexual encounter from going any further, but she is further penalised for her sexuality by being terrified of her own body. 

Often, Teeth is lauded as a feminist film because Dawn does end up learning how to control her body and uses it to fight off her aggressors. In these later situations one can see the argument for her vagina dentata being a weapon that empowers her to defend herself against sexual assault and violence. Dawn exemplifies the empowerment she gains once she learns to manage her vagina dentata when she goes to get revenge on her stepbrother Brad (John Hensley). She knowingly seduces Brad and they have sex until she uses her vaginal teeth to bite his penis off. At this point in the film she’s no longer afraid of her body, but uses her vagina dentata to her advantage and is able to turn it on and off when she wants to. 

On the other hand, the film can still be read as yet another example of the woman-turned-monster trope in horror films. The young virginal girl starts exploring her sexuality and is punished with a gruesome condition that yes, she does eventually learn to control, but also can be triggered at any sign of emotional distress. It can be seen as a positive since it’s very clearly an effective weapon against sexual assault, but one wonders about the danger it holds if Dawn were to engage in consensual sex and suddenly have a bad memory or negative feeling. How well would she be able to control her body from springing into action if her mind wanders completely unrelated to the situation she may find herself in? Her condition is still dangerous and an inconvenience for Dawn since she’s the one that has to live with it every day and constantly be on guard in order to not harm any future sexual partner.

Sexually active young women in horror films are often punished for their promiscuity, usually to teach a lesson about the dangers of women being sexually empowered.  While some see Dawn’s vagina dentata as a weapon she is equipped with against those who attempt to sexually abuse her, it can be argued that it is actually a punishment to remind her that sex is bad and sexually active women should be punished.

 

by Brooke Mondor

Brooke is a recent graduate from the University of North Texas with a Bachelor’s degree in Media Arts. Her favorite kinds of movies are documentaries, anything that can make her cry, and 80s rom-coms. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.

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