by Daniel Sheppard, University of East Anglia, UK
Two years ago, writing in celebration of the film’s tenth anniversary, Vice critic Sirin Kale identified Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein 2007) as ‘an incisor-sharp commentary on male entitlement, consent, and sexual violence’.  Yet just as the title of her article refers to Teeth as a ‘Feminist Horror Classic’, it is curious that Kale does not define the film in direct relation to feminism. This is not to say that issues of male entitlement, consent and sexual violence are not feminist concerns. Rather, Kale implies how Teeth critiques masculinity through these concerns, without politicising it in a feminist context.
Kale’s article very much reflects the critical consensus that, 12 years on, Teeth is a feminist horror film. It is easy to understand why: a teenage girl is biologically mechanised with a vagina dentata (toothed vagina) — so when she is raped multiple times, her tormentors are avenged with castration. The spectacle of rape-revenge allows Teeth to be identifiable in the imagination as a feminist product. It is remembered by audiences as a feminist horror film — in memory, that is — making Teeth feminist insofar as it is thought of as cultural product. However, upon viewing, the film itself promotes a more bothersome ideology; a discourse that desperately needs to be brought to the consciousness of audiences.
In the first two instances, Dawn (Jess Weixler) is raped respectively by boyfriend Tobey (Hale Appleman) and gynaecologist Dr Godfrey (Josh Pais). The act is explicit and the victim/assailant dichotomy is clear. To borrow from Claire Henry in her 2014 study of rape-revenge films, Dawn’s castrating bite is presented as a ‘reflexive/accidental’ response to sexual violence.  Dawn is never vilified, therefore, encouraging an unproblematic identification with the femme castratrice (the castrating female). Then she is raped for a third time.
Dawn’s classmate Ryan (Ashley Springer) pursues a romantic relationship with her. Despite her previous trauma, the two are shown having sex more than once, not only confirming Dawn’s ability to enjoy sex, but confirming her bite as a biological defence mechanism. However, as Martin Fradley asserts in an essay on postfeminism and contemporary teen horror, even a ‘sexually attentive’ Ryan ‘is quickly unveiled as a manipulative chauvinist’.  Yet this is more complex than Fradley begins to suggest, as Ryan does not merely shift from one to the other. Instead, Teeth depoliticises the earlier indications of Ryan’s chauvinistic tendencies, masquerading rape as sexual attentiveness.
Leading to their first sexual encounter, Dawn is pampered by Ryan. Or, at least, that is how it appears. Ryan feeds Dawn pills and champagne to supposedly relax her. Dawn is soon so relaxed, however, she falls unconscious, waking up to find Ryan masturbating her. That is, Dawn wakes up from an unconscious state to find Ryan raping her. Just as director/screenwriter Mitchell Lichtenstein has previously stated that his ‘purpose is to directly address misogynistic cultural mythology’,  it is ironic that this scene does less to address misogynistic cultural mythology by questioning it, than it does to reinforce it. As Henry argues, the scene ‘contributes to postfeminist ideas about the ambiguity of rape, such as the common postfeminist cynicism about date rape’.  Yet because the act of rape is passed off as sexual attentiveness, the scene boasts a faux feminism, as Dawn exercises a ‘liberated’ sexuality, verbalising her pleasure in saying: ‘This is how I dreamed it’d be’. Ryan is subsequently configured as heroic for apparently satisfying her needs. Of course, in actuality, this only furthers the reinforcement of misogynistic cultural mythology, suggesting that women enjoy being raped.
By failing to politicise Dawn’s rape, Teeth simultaneously does not politicise Ryan’s castration. Presenting Dawn’s rape as if based upon consensual agreement, the dichotomy between victim/assailant is not only blurred but essentially eradicated. Based upon her previous experiences with rape, Dawn’s configuration as a victim with whom audiences should identify is taken for granted. This becomes particularly problematic as Dawn’s ‘revenge’ does not directly follow her rape, offering a basis for Henry’s notion that ‘the demands of identificatory and ethical engagements are in tension — for instance, when the spectator strongly desires and yet questions revenge’. 
Later in the film, Ryan and Dawn are seen having sex once more, though this time it is consensual. As Dawn straddles Ryan, the scene is again constructed to demonstrate a faux feminism, detailing feminine pleasure and masculine heroism. That is until Ryan receives a phone call from a friend, answering midway through intercourse. Ryan’s chauvinism is made overt here, insensitively revealing that he is having sex with Dawn for a bet. As Ryan puts down the phone, Dawn disgustedly confronts him, yet his response only elicits further outrage: ‘Your mouth is saying one thing but your sweet pussy is saying something very different’. At this point, Ryan is still inside Dawn, but not for long as she stares deathly into his eyes. Teeth’s only castration for comedic effect, the much-anticipated bite takes place and Dawn leaves a hysterical Ryan to his own devices.
No doubt the politics would still be muddied but, even if Dawn had castrated Ryan following their first sexual encounter, its configuration as rape would be less ambiguous. Dawn’s response would have focused more on fear than pleasure, eliciting her past experiences with Tobey and Dr Godfrey. And, if not, audiences would still question why Ryan was castrated then and there, opening a space for feminist thought. However, this is not the case and the rape is historicised, making it seem irrelevant to their current sexual relations. Though Ryan was a rapist — albeit ambiguously — here he is not, making an identificatory process uncomplicated for audiences. As Ryan’s chauvinism is made overt, then, identification with Dawn is encouraged but it certainly becomes difficult to maintain.
As Dawn stares into Ryan’s eyes, his castrated fate is predicted. Whereas before, castration is an unexpected defence, here it is reflected in Dawn’s conscious look. From lacking agency to claiming it, it becomes worrisome that the first time Dawn is the agent of castration, she is in no immediate danger. Castration is a choice as opposed to a necessity. As Dawn becomes her own agent, this scene implies an identification with her, embodying ‘the woman-as-castrator to symbolise a resistant feminine subjectivity’.  However, identification with Dawn is conflicted as audiences are invited to empathise with Ryan, considering that his castration is presented as Teeth’s most graphic. As Henry notes, the scene is complete ‘with a pulsating blood flow and a blue dismembered penis’.  Combined with the fact that Ryan’s display of abject terror is distressing, the spectacle becomes difficult to watch. As Dawn shows no remorse, leaving Ryan in his horror, the dichotomy between victim/assailant switches at the point of castration, as does — ethically — the audiences’ identificatory model.
In a position of empathetic identification with Ryan, the film encourages a bodily response — bodily affect — not only through the male body, but through the biological maleness of that body. However, because Ryan’s castration is not a consequence of him raping Dawn — because the maleness of his body is not the cause of its castration — the bodily affect caused by Ryan’s castration is not the direct result of masculinised sexual violence. In not clearly articulating an ethically justifiable reason for his castration, then — although his non-violent chauvinism is critiqued — Ryan’s masculinity has the potential to be reaffirmed, restoring ‘phallocentrism in sexual relations’.  In other words, masculinity and the penis have the potential to be reinstated as the epitome of power and authority in gender relations.
This restoration of phallocentrism in sexual relations is literalised in a scene that has drawn little comment. Following his castration, Ryan lies unconscious on a surgical table; his gash on full display. As a male surgeon looks at Ryan’s dismembered penis, he jokingly states: ‘Hardly seems worth it’. His female colleagues are heard laughing. Immediately, the horrors of Ryan’s castration are diluted. It becomes apparent that his blue dismembered penis — aesthetically dead and irretrievable — was merely wrapped in a condom. The bodily affect elicited by the sight of this dismemberment is reverted for male audiences, rendering their bodily sensation safe. The penis is reattached, reacquainted with the male subject and therefore reaffirming a male audiences’ sense of masculinity. At the same time, considering Dawn’s enjoyment of Ryan’s penis earlier, the object of female desire is restored too; a notion only furthered by the male surgeon’s joke.
For film and masculinity scholar Peter Lehman, penis-size jokes reinforce ‘dominant presumptions that to be a man is to have a big penis’. When told by a man, ‘the jokes affirm the importance and centrality of the very thing they seem to question’. When told by a woman, these jokes signify the ‘fetishistic objectification’ of what she desires. Either way, these jokes essentially confirm to men ‘what they have always told themselves about the importance of the penis’.  Restoring phallocentrism by reattaching the penis, it is not insignificant that the male surgeon is the one to crack the joke, affirming the importance and centrality of the penis in patriarchal gender relations. Just as his female colleagues laugh along, they too are complicit with this phallocentric configuration of the penis, fetishising it as the object of their desire, no different to if they were making the joke themselves.
As Teeth is remembered for the spectacle of castration, it is identifiable in the imagination as a feminist horror film. Yet, across numerous key scenes, masculinity is critiqued to only be reinforced. As Kirk Honeycutt wrote in his review for The Hollywood Reporter, the film does offer an ‘alarming cautionary tale for men with wandering libidos’.  However, through processes of identification and bodily affect, Teeth ultimately serves in the interest of these men as the horrors of castration are reverted. Indeed, the penis is retained unscathed and with its reattachment is the promise of phallocentrism in patriarchal gender relations.
- Sirin Kale. 2017. ‘Teeth’ Is the Feminist Horror Classic That Men Tried to Sabotage. Broadly. Online. June 22.
- Claire Henry. 2014. Revisionist Rape-Revenge: Redefining a Film Genre. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 62.
- Martin Fradley. 2013. ‘Hell Is a Teenage Girl’?: Postfeminism and Contemporary Teen Horror. In Joel Gwynne and Nadine Muller, eds. Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 218.
- Casey Ryan Kelly. 2016. Camp Horror and the Gendered Politics of Screen Violence: Subverting the Monstrous-Feminine in ‘Teeth’ (2007). Women’s Studies in Communication 39(1), 93.
- Henry, 63.
- Henry, 71.
- Kelly. Camp Horror and the Gendered Politics of Screen Violence, 93.
- Henry, 61.
- Henry, 58.
- Peter Lehman. 1991. Penis-size Jokes and Their Relation to Hollywood’s Unconscious. In Andrew Horton, ed. Comedy/Cinema/Theory. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 55-58.
- Kirk Honeycutt. 2007. Teeth. The Hollywood Reporter. Online. 20 January.
Daniel Sheppard recently completed MA Film Studies at the University of East Anglia, funded in part by UEA’s Difference Postgraduate Scholarship. He has written for Horror Homeroom, presented at various international conferences, and is currently preparing essays for Women in the Work of Woody Allen (Amsterdam University Press) and Resist: Protest Media and Popular Culture in the Brexit-Trump Era (Rowman & Littlefield).
Featured image: Mark Freeth