Monday, 3 October 2011

Satire With Bite

For the last couple of days I've been trying to figure out what exactly I thought of Teeth.  It's difficult to go into any detail without discussing large chunks of the film, and since the five year rule still applies (though only for three more months), I'll stick my thoughts after the jump.

The gentlemen in the audience should consider themselves warned, however - grown men have run weeping in terror from the merest glance at the DVD box.   This is not a film for the faint of heart...

The set-up to this film is almost entirely as simple as you're all thinking - a girl has a set of gnashers buried inside her vulva, which leads to all sorts of hilarious misunderstandings, in which a variety of men think they're going to orgasm, and instead die screaming in a fountain of blood after their spam javelins get bitten off.  I think they did that plot on Frasier once.

What makes the film interesting, and made me want to write about it, is how it goes about setting up a situation in which a woman who knows she's afflicted by vagina dentata is still willing to lower the drawbridge, as it were.  This is especially relevant because the film opens with our heroine Dawn (SHE IS AT THE DAWN OF WOMENHOOD DO YOU GET IT YOU GUYS?) making the rounds as a speaker at what I can only call abstinence rallies for children who are either just into or about to hit puberty.

In itself, this is fair enough, of course.  I'm not - surprise! - a big fan of the idolisation of virginity, but there are perfectly valid reasons both psychological and physical in letting teenagers know that giving in to their rampaging hormones isn't necessarily a good idea.  Besides, I don't need to agree with someones politics in order to watch a film about them.

More than that, though, as the Other Half pointed out, this is arguably a necessary part of the plot, since we need to believe that Dawn has never had sex (so that her... condition is not yet known to her, though she suspects on some subconscious level). 

That's true as far as it goes, of course, but already early in the film I was getting nervous.  Is it really the case that the only two options for teenage female virgins is that they're not particularly attractive, or their part of what comes worryingly close to looking like an abortion cult?

On its own, that's a minor point, but it got me thinking about what the film is trying to say. Dawn's first sexual experience comes after she goes swimming with a fellow member of "The Promise", a boy named Tobey whose combination of engaged respect and inexpert patter lead to Dawn beginning to fantasise about marrying him.  However, once she swims into a nearby cave and snuggles herself up in the duvet within (I don't know why it's there, presumably she brought it over earlier), Tobey ignores her request to stay in the cold water (he's too desperate to enter the warmth of the cave, you see).  For a minute or two he's content with the cuddling and the kissing, but very quickly he's moved on to raping Dawn.

Obviously, this goes spectacularly badly for him.  Dawn, mercifully, is unconscious for all but a few seconds of the experience, after which her defences kick in, and Tobey learns "no means no" for the last time in his life.

There are two obvious ways to read this scene.  One is that men who seek to physically dominate women may get more than they bargained for.  The other is that Dawn's abstinence group was right all along - you just can't trust teenagers.

Terrified by what has transpired, Dawn books an appointment with a gynaecologist, hoping he'll be able to explain to her what exactly is going on down there.  When Dr Godfrey asks what has her so concerned, she can only mumble something about "adaptations", because she's been told evolution is a waste of time, and the local school board has forbidden its pupils from seeing a cross-sectional diagram of the female reproductive system.

So is the lesson here that we should ensure teenage girls understand the changes of puberty to be more prepared for them?  Or that a girl's "natural modesty" as Dawn calls it is better off left entirely alone.  Certainly Dr Godfrey is probably in the latter camp - he loses four fingers to Dawn's cervical chomping - but then I'm not sure any gynaecologist who removes his gloves to make it easier for him to fit damn near his whole hand into a girl is necessarily the most reliable expert on these matters.

Again, this is what I found confusing.  Is this a revenge fantasy against men who are perverts and sexual abusers of women?  Or is it a warning that men can't be trusted and a teenage girl is better off out of the whole nasty business?

The gleeful viciousness with which each miserable piece of work is dispatched suggests the former reading, but if this is about female empowerment, why is it Dawn's entire arc for the first two thirds of the film involves her running from man to man to confide in or tell her what to do?  I need to be as clear as possible that her being raped is entirely her attacker's fault, but even so the circumstances that lead up to it occur only because Dawn hasn't the strength to stay away from the man she's been lusting after.  She tries to ask her stepbrother for help, only for him to tell her he's far too keen on fucking her to be interested in sharing their feelings.  After she maims Tobey she runs to Dr Godfrey, and after she attacks him, she runs to a friend of hers from school named Ryan, who through a combination of sleeping pills and finger-mounted vibrators then seduces her.

In short, every time things get tough, she puts her trust in another man.  The fact that she has a rather unique way of dealing with the situation when it inevitably goes south is of course the whole basis for the film, but that doesn't alter the fact that Dawn herself seems to be not her own character, merely a test for the men in the film to overcome or not.  In that sense, Teeth does not encourage men to treat women better any more than Arachnophobia encourages us to be nice to spiders.

The most puzzling aspect is still to come, however.  Ryan and Dawn successfully have sex.  Ryan claims he is the mythical "conqueror" of the teeth, a hero out of legend who has bested his opponent.  A more plausible reading is simply that the teeth respond to Dawn's subconscious, an idea which seems to be confirmed when Ryan admits mid-coitus that he seduced her for a bet, and the vagina dentata immediately do their work. What's interesting is not so much the discovery that the teeth are discerning in their attacks, it's that the screams of uncomprehending horror that Dawn let fly when she maimed Tobey have now been replaced with an exasperated "Shit!" and a quick exit. Sex is still bad, then, but she's becoming inured to it.

We then learn that Dawn's mother has died, in part because her stepbrother was too busy having sex to help out when she collapsed.  Immediately Dawn settles on her plan for revenge.  If her stepbrother really is desperate to bed her, then she's going to give him what he wants. 

Sex has now become a weapon.  The girl who just days ago was proudly telling complete strangers that she intended to remain a virgin until her wedding night is now happy to run straight to fornication as a way of getting revenge. By this point, the message is no longer "Don't try to rape a girl, or sleep with her under false pretences, or become a gynaecologist as a way of copping a feel", it's "Be careful about sleeping with a girl even if she walks into your room and seduces you".

The film ends with her hitchhiking to parts unknown, entirely happy to maim any man she considers too aggressive in requesting access to her body. The innocent girl has become, almost literally, a sexual predator.  Sex has indeed destroyed the person she used to be, as well as leaving three men without their penises and a fourth with a 20% reduction in digits.  So are we supposed to respect women, or be afraid of them?  Indeed, is it the woman themselves that's to be considered, or are we to concern ourselves merely with their cunt?  Because I don't see how fearing it is any better than lusting after it.  Either way, you're still only thinking about women in terms of how they're going to fuck you.


Gooder said...

Sounds to me from your discription the best way to look at is it being about sex as a weapon.

First for the males, (ie how much rape takes a woman's sense of worth from her but here with it linked with a revenge fantasy element) eventually moving through to sex as natural part of a relationship to women using thier sexuality to their advantage (because, yes us men are often than stupid it has to be said).

But having said that I'm not convinced by the sounds of it that it's a film that is too concerned with having a clear message.

Maybe I'll have to try and catch it and see what I make of it. (And hey if I can watch Hardy Candy without flinching....)

SpaceSquid said...

I agree entirely that it's probably a mug's game to look for a coherent message in this kind of film. That doesn't mean there isn't something buried in the "subconscious" of the piece, of course (just read Bram Stoker's Lair of the White Worm for evidence of that). And yes, I think the fantasy element is important (Tobey seems to think that if he can only get Dawn alone away from everyone she'll suddenly go for it, and Ryan seems to be one of those people convinced that if they're nice enough to a woman for long enough, eventually they're bound to get a shag).

I'm less convinced by the "sex as weapon" angle, though. I think you'd have to see the film, really, but Ryan sleeping with Dawn for a bet seems less about wielding sex as a weapon, and more about totally divorcing the act of sex from the person with which the sex is happening. Sex not as a gun, but as instant popcorn.

Anyway, as I say, the really worrying aspect is how little control Dawn seems to possess over her life, how little control she seems to want, and how the instant that changes it's because she's decided to become a slut.

Gooder said...

The sexy as bet thing for the loose understanding I having seems to be the cross over point where she starts using sex as a weapon since you say thats the exact moment she seems to exert some control on the teeth

Gooder said...

But of course I'm only going off a vague synopsis. Will try to catch up with it at some point

SpaceSquid said...

I don't think that really works - that point isn't when Dawn first controls them, but when she first realises she can control them, or at least she can tell ahead of time whether or not someone will be bitten, based on her feelings at the time.