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Two words: Vagina Dentata.
If this is an alien concept, it’s exactly like it sounds but so much more. It’s a folk tale involving a woman’s vagina containing teeth with the idea being sexual intercourse with her will result in emasculation. This is, of course, a misogynistic cautionary tale to justify castration anxiety, discourage encounters with ladies of the night and, for the “benefit” of women, to discourage rape.
Um, sure, sounds logical.
But it’s an awkward ice breaker, and for that reason isn’t prevalent in pop culture. Its most prominent appearance has to be in the cringe-worthy but incredibly watchable Teeth (2007). Written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein (Happy Tears, Angelica), it stars Jess Weixler (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby) as Dawn O’Keefe, a devout Christian girl who is also a spokesperson for an abstinence group. She is naive about her body, and her first sexual encounter with a boy, Tobey (Hale Appleman), escalates to the point that when she denies him, he knocks her out and rapes her. In an involuntary moment of defense she fights back, biting his penis off with her vagina. This horrifying encounter is just the start of a series of awkward, mortifying but ultimately empowering realizations for young Dawn.
Now this is delicate material, and the end product could have ended up insensitive or just plain wrongheaded. Tone is vital, and Lichtenstein handles it with finesse and bravado. The openly-gay filmmaker, who may be exorcising his own frustrations with male entitlement here, finds the fine line between the existential dread of body horror and wry, macabre humor at the absurdity of the situation. But always the audience empathizes with Dawn, who is very clearly a likable and relatable protagonist. She’s no Universal Monster, misunderstood but better off dead at the hands and torches of a mob. She has agency and concerns, and that’s most clearly dramatized in a key scene revolving around consent. For that reason, a decade on a movie that shows a severed dick eaten by a dog is surprisingly progressive.
From the start men try to force themselves on Dawn. The movie opens with her as an adolescent sharing a kiddy pool with her new stepbrother Brad. He tries to reach up under her bathing suit and instead comes away with a bit finger, blood dripping from a single gash. This inability to trust men continues through the rest of her life. Being unaware of her body, and confronted with school textbooks that have been censored, she researches the subject and discovers:
“The toothed vagina appears in the mythology of many and diverse cultures all over the world. In these myths, the story is always the same. The hero must do battle with the woman, the toothed creature, and break her power. The myth springs from a primitive masculine dread of the mysteries of women and sexual union. Fears of weakness, impotence. It is a nightmare image of the power and horror of female sexuality. The myth imagines sexual intercourse as an epic journey that every man must make back to the womb, the dark crucible that hatched him.”
She makes an appointment with a gynecologist for the first time. Oblivious to the entire process, she’s unaware at first that he is taking advantage of her. The punishment is four bloody stumps. He runs out of the room screaming, “It’s true! Vagina dentata! Vagina dentata!”
Suitably, and in stark contrast to the earlier rape, the scene is played for laughs. Noted character actor Josh Pais hams it up in a fit of hysteria, and Dawn is more baffled than anything. This is an appropriate salve, as Dawn’s earlier encounter with Tobey is exactly as harrowing as it needs to be to convey her plight while also keeping the audience on her side. Tobey’s death and the encounter with the gynecologist are both accidents, but they signal a subtle escalation as Dawn learns about her unique attributes and puts them to use.
They also serve to paint her attackers as pathetic. Along with the bug-eyed panic of the gynecologist, Dawn returns to the cave where Tobey assaulted her in hope that the boy isn’t dead, but instead not only finds a corpse but the shriveled remains of a penis with a freshwater crab crawling across it. The male genitalia is not a sight often seen on Hollywood movie screens, so for it to prominently appear multiple times in Teeth, and the nature of the appearances, says much about Lichtenstein’s intentions. The phallus is not some mighty weapon to be feared. Even without the literalization of chomping teeth, the male organ is easily reduced. The real power, as it turns out, is in women.
The most important scene follows this and revolves around consent, the overriding theme of the movie. Dawn finds a sympathetic shoulder in Ryan (Ashley Springer), who at first seems to be a sensitive and likable guy. They start to have sex, but Dawn is fearful. Ryan asks if she wants him to stop and she tells him no, but expresses concern about the teeth. “No, no, look. I’m conquering them.” He responds. “See? Yeah, I’m the hero.” Ryan survives the experience, proving that a relaxed and inviting Dawn can withhold the teeth. But the next morning when she, now sexually awakened, initiates sex with Ryan again, he brags on the phone to a friend that he won the bet between them to bed Dawn. Dawn, realizing Ryan is no different than any other man in her life, subsequently relinquishes him of his manhood.
The rest of the movie could be construed as the weirdest superhero origin you’ve ever seen. But what’s most important for Dawn is she discovers her vagina is not a curse but a source of power. And in the Age of Trump, that’s more important than ever.