In Mitchell Lichtenstein’s 2007 film “Teeth,” Dawn (Jess Weixler) is your run-of-the-mill American teenager, whose proximity to a nuclear power plant turned her into a living example of the myth of vagina dentata; a vagina with teeth. This deformity gives her the wherewithal to defend herself at the behest of men who aim to sexually take advantage of her.
The movie opens with a panning shot bringing our eyes to the two nuclear plumes fixed in the backdrop of this nondescript American suburbia. In the vein of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s “Red Desert,” the audience is made keenly aware of the ways in which these industrial monsters disrupt the landscape, and how their presence looms over the well-being of those living in their vicinity.
We’re introduced to Dawn and her soon-to-be stepbrother, Brad (John Hensley) as young kids sitting in an inflatable pool, while their respective biological parents, who are courting each other, talk in lounge chairs behind them. Dawn is no more than about 5 years old at the time, Brad about 7 or 8, when he sustains an injury while the two kids are showing each other their genitals; you know, as young kids do. Dawn says nothing during this scene and commits no act of violence that audiences can see. All we know is, the young boy’s hand found itself in a place where it shouldn’t be, and Dawn’s body defended her, biting off the tip of Brad’s finger.
We’re then reintroduced to Dawn at age 16, who’s now preaching abstinence for children and teens in her community. This program also dissuades participants from other forms of intimacy, as well as self-fulfilling pleasure. Knowing that this is presumably a path Dawn has followed since childhood, we can conjecture that she knows as little about her own anatomical anomalies as the audience does. In tandem with a changing body and lack of answers, Dawn’s mom is suffering from an unspecified illness — which we can attribute to their home’s proximity to the nuclear power plant — preventing her from being able to act as a resource to her maturing daughter.
During sex education, the visual illustrations of vulvas in each student’s textbook have been covered up, whereas the guides to more phallic organs are on display to be learned and understood. Between her abstinence pledge, the education system actively obstructing comprehensive sex education, and the impact nuclear pollution had on Dawn’s physical body, our protagonist has been forced to wear blinders for her own existence.
Dawn’s first sexual interaction with another purity-preaching lemming, Tobey (Hale Appleman), unfortunately, leads to a sexual assault. However, this results in her “monstrous” anatomy coming to her defense, permanently maiming her assailant and stopping the assault in its tracks. Dawn’s dreams of marriage, purity, and heteronormative life come crumbling down, dismantling her understanding of herself, her beliefs, and her body. The institutions of chastity and modesty fall away as she realizes that the tenets of Christianity she believed in don’t serve her at all; they’ve actually betrayed her. When Dawn gets home, her stepdad calls out to her offering a plate of dinner, to which Dawn responds, “I ate.” Yes, you sure did, Dawn.
The “monster” that lives within Dawn serves to protect her. This monster is both the byproduct and the foil of larger, man-made issues surrounding pollution, violence, industrialization, sexism, and church-based values. She throws her purity ring into the quarry where the assault took place, and we see her step into a newfound power, which is really just a sense of self-understanding. As the story continues, Dawn develops a sense of control and is able to wield her teeth whenever faced with a non-consensual, painful, or displeasing encounter. Essentially, the final line of defense protecting her from man’s aggressive advances.
As Dawn continues to gain control of her power, she begins using her body as a means of vindication and justice. After her ailing mother passes, Dawn externalizes her rage by initiating sex with her step-brother, permanently maiming him, and then invites Brad’s bloodthirsty dog to consume his lost phallus. The kicker? The dog is named Mother.