TEETH BY WILLOW SMITH: An exploration of power in our society.

“We operate in the teeth of a system for which racism and sexism are primary, established, and necessary props of profit.”

Audre Lorde,

    What is power? Does it lie in your ability to manipulate others and the world around you? Everyone wants to feel powerful, but when the definition of power is based in domination and control, how does that affect us? Imagine living in a world where there is no domination, where we as individuals express our thoughts and emotions, and uplift each other even in the face of personal turmoil. But instead, we choose to take in order to feel whole; we choose to hurt in order to feel strong. This incessant hunger for power reveals itself in relationships, in politics, and within the individual. When a person feels powerless, they will try to do whatever they can to restore that feeling of control. Often, this emerges in the form of a need to control others. The cycle of feeling fearful or insecure within yourself, and therefore trying to control situations and people to mitigate those emotions is like a virus that attaches itself to a host from childhood, stemming from parents, teachers, other children, and the media. This crippling virus of pain, control, and domination is a topic that the film Teeth (2006) explores. This essay will focus on how the film exposes the connection between the male gaze and this vicious cycle.  In the world as viewed through the male gaze, men are expected to be beings of pure force and logic exempt from emotion, while women are expected to be compliant and physically weak. Women’s emotions are dismissed as excessive, illogical, and unimportant, while men’s emotions are valued as long as they conform to a certain model. Teeth’s premise is an exaggerated exploration of our reality. It analyzes the dynamics between the sexes through the lens of Dawn, a teenage girl with an extraordinary mutation: retractable teeth at the entrance of her vagina. Through the movie’s premise, we can explore this domination driven definition of power and how it debilitates society. 

    The movie opens on a flashback of Dawn, the main character, and her stepbrother Brad playing in a kiddie pool. Dawn’s mother and Brad’s father sit a couple feet away from them. Brad exposes himself to Dawn and commands her to do the same. Reluctantly she does, and without asking her consent, he touches her. He then pulls back with a bleeding finger. Despite his disrespect, the mother concludes that “boys will be boys”, perpetuating the idea that boys shouldn't be accountable for their actions which harm others, reducing his behavior to the “nature of man.” Through normalizing this behavior, the parents teach Brad that he can continue to act this way, which he does throughout the rest of the film. 

    In present day, Dawn is a huge advocate for celibacy until marriage: she wears a purity ring and speaks at schools all around her town. The boys she encounters at her talks resist her beliefs by physically intimidating her and hissing obscene sexual remarks.Whether it’s conscious or not, they are trying to make her doubt her beliefs; they are trying to dominate and manipulate her. But they fail. Maybe deep down they resent her because they wish that they could have that level of self control or respect for themselves and others. At one of her speaking arrangements, she meets Tobey, a conventionally attractive boy. A succession of long stares between them and dreamy music supports the trope of “love at first sight”, playing on what Dawn and the viewers expect from this interaction. The trope of love at first sight is entirely geared towards a female audience, perpetuating unrealistic ideas and expectations of the dynamics between the sexes. Who has agency in these stories? The gallant prince who saves the damsel in distress. Can she not save herself? By invoking these tropes, the story draws a comparison between what women are taught to expect and what women truly experience.

    Dawn hasn't experienced this virus in its true form at this point in the film. She sits in science class as the teacher concludes their study of the male genitalia. He comfortably refers to the penis with no problem, but when they begin the study of the female genitalia, he is mortified; he doesn't refer to the vagina at all. Inside their textbooks is a huge star over the scientific drawing of it, but there is no star covering the male genitalia. The students look at the page, confused. “What’s it hiding?” someone asks. The teacher begins to become uncomfortable, responding, “The state school board has rightly ordered it be concealed, a detailed diagram of— of the — ” As the teacher struggles; Ryan, one of Dawn’s classmates, speaks up. “ The vulva?” he asks challengingly. “Why are they covering that up?” Ryan continues.  “That should be obvious,” the teacher responds in a stoic tone. His response is tautological; it is a way of shutting down dialogue and demanding compliance without giving a real reason for his actions. Ryan approaches this situation with a confrontational attitude; even though he is challenging the teacher’s beliefs, his intention is not change and reformation, it is about proving the teacher wrong and gaining power from their interaction. “They showed the penis picture,” Ryan continues. “That’s different,” the teacher replies. “How so?” Ryan pries further. Dawn jumps in to the argument at this time: “I think I can tell you how it’s different. Girls have a natural modesty; it’s built into our nature. It’s so depicting — ” She is cut off by an uproar of classroom banter. In this scene, Dawn actually agrees with the teacher and is completely socialized to believe that the female body should be hidden, even from herself, until marriage. 

    The classroom scene is not the only place where we see extreme anxiety about the female genitalia and the need to mitigate exposure to it displayed in the film. Brad’s girlfriend, after engaging in anal sex with him, tells him that he shouldn't reject more conventional methods of intercourse. She tries to make him more comfortable and accepting of her but he shuts her down completely. The overall tone in this scene is desperation: she is desperate to be accepted and to deepen their connection, and he is desperate to maintain control over their intimacy, to attempt to mitigate some deep seated fear or trauma within him that can only be soothed by the acquisition of dominance. At this point in time, he gets up and grabs a dog treat and tries to feed it to his dog. The dog doesn't eat it, so he gets back on the bed and traces his girlfriend’s lips with the dog treat. This action is an insulting parody of the intimacy she craves. But she lets him do it and after a while he ends up shoving it in her mouth. Brad is equating his girlfriend and his dog, and she allows it because she has been conditioned to seek male approval.

    We see how the virus affects two people’s interaction, but the movie also shows how it affects the individual. Dawn daydreams about her wedding with Tobey, and this fantasy makes her want to explore her sexuality. This scene shows how these conventional tropes of romance bury themselves in women’s psyches and shape the way that we relate to our sexuality. If she hadn't had that experience with Tobey she wouldn't accept this sensation, but because it’s connected to a certain idea, it makes her believe that it is sanctioned by her moral code. Within the mental confines of marriage she feels safe to take a peek at her sexuality. She begins to touch herself but is suddenly overwhelmed by an intense feeling of anxiety. This reaction stems both from her fear and confusion about herself and from her belief that condemns self-pleasure. 

    Dawn, her brother, and his girlfriend are all trapped within a web of their conditionings and beliefs, which constrict honest connection, even with themselves. Dawn sits in her room and overhears Brad and his girlfriend fighting. The girlfriend is crying and screams at him, “I love you!” and he scoffs, replying, “I love your ass.” He dominates her by reducing her to her physicality and by completely ignoring the fact that she just expressed her love for the first time. After the girlfriend leaves, Dawn tries to have a conversation with him. He makes it clear that there is no reality in which he could ever truly love a woman. She feels an empathy for both of them even though he expresses his indifference. He doesn't understand the power of honest connection; Dawn doesn't either, but she sees its potential and its beauty. The girlfriend’s vulnerability can be a power if she confronts him and demands emotional honesty in a strategic way that is based in compassion, to try to uncover the virus and get to the deeper emotion behind his anger. Unfortunately, neither woman can manage this situation; they can’t see another path because they are infected.

    In the previous scene we saw a verbal approach to the acquisition of power through domination, and in the scene that immediately follows, when Dawn and Tobey go to the waterfall together, we see a physical representation brought on by a mixture of the virus’ symptoms and his personal sexual suppression. At first, the trope of love at first sight continues and they have a good time together. But when they enter the cave and begin to kiss, he starts to become forceful. She fights back and he tells her “I haven’t jerked off since Easter!” in a tone that suggests that he blames her for his choice. She screams, “I am saying no!” He replies, “You’re still pure in His eyes.” He ignores her autonomy and assumes that her distress lies in her fear of God’s disapproval rather than the violation of her own body. He said “His eyes” and that could mean many things: the male gaze, Tobey’s eyes, or a patriarchal God. Tobey pushes her too hard and knocks her out for a moment. He tries to penetrate her but her teeth activate and sever his penis. Rape is the pinnacle of violence, domination, and control. Tobey is overpowering her with his physicality and she ends up overpowering him with hers. Instinctually, she shows him how intense of a violation this is without fully understanding her power. 

    Despite this ordeal, Dawn has another celibacy talk scheduled. Even though she is in utter shock, she still makes the choice to participate in this world view. Her demeanor in this scene is the complete opposite of how she began at her previous talk. She is aloof, hesitant, and unsure of herself. Her former perception of gender dynamics and relating has been destroyed by her experience with Tobey. Now, she is adrift, scared, and confused at the appearance of this new and violent behavior. The scene is shot like a dream sequence, where society and religion’s input interrupt and invalidate her. “… Yesterday I was pure,” she says to an audience of drone-like children. The drones reply, “She shall be called woman because she was taken out of man.” This response implies that no matter how pure she was or could have been, she is still considered to be subordinate to the man in this religious context. They continue, “Adam.” She runs her hands through her hair in frustration, and sighs “Right.” She is ruminating over herself and the horror of her experience and it’s almost as if the drones are reiterating a reminder to focus on Adam (the male gaze) and not herself. “Is it the Adam inside?” she says to herself hesitantly: the Adam inside represents the duality of masculinity within the feminine. The teeth reflect the lane of power which men usually take: the physical. “The serpent!” they all hiss. Through this lens, women with power are feared and equated with evil. They continue, “The serpent beguiled me and I ate.” I believe the students are speaking as Dawn, the serpent being sexual desire. The tiny bit that she allowed herself to feel innately led to her fate, and that in this world view, it is her fault for what happened with Tobey. The teacher interrupts her and shows her off the stage. “This wasn't God’s original plan, thanks to Eve and the devil,” the teacher says as she walks off. He is exiling her from the garden; exiling her from a reality. 

    After this rejection, Dawn goes back to the waterfall and peers down at it from a nearby mountain. She stands at the edge of the cliff and begins to take off her purity ring. The eerie music in the background enhances this feeling of anxiety and fear. Now, she is truly letting go; truly entering the unknown. The next scene is her trying to take the sticker off of her science book that covers the illustration of the female genitalia. She has decided to pull the veil all the way back and expose herself to herself. After letting go of a reality that confined her and condemned her for her nature, she is trying to understand herself. The euphoric and ethereal music in the background evokes a feeling of release. She takes a deep breath, crossing a mental threshold from fear to curiosity. Dawn goes online to study vagina dentata (teeth in Latin) and finds an illuminating passage. "The myth springs from a primitive masculine dread of the mysteries of women and sexual union. Fears of weakness and 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 concludes. To me, this myth sums up the power struggle that we see throughout the entire film, throughout the history of our species, and in our everyday life. Every power struggle is based in fear, even in the most unexpected places.

    In order to expand her understanding of her mutation she goes to a professional who can attempt to give her answers. Unfortunately the gynecologist she visits ends up showing symptoms of the virus when he violates professional boundaries. As Dawn travels father down the road of self discovery she continues to run into this incessant wall of entitlement to her body and ignorance of her autonomy. After she runs out of the office petrified she tries to go back home, but before she gets to the door she hears shouting and arguing coming from inside. Dawn is so overwhelmed she can’t bring herself to go in, so she heads to Ryan’s house. She has no one else to express herself to, no one to talk to. She gets in the bath and instead of checking her emotional state he offers her some pills, telling her that his mom takes them for her anxiety. She eagerly takes the pills, showing her zeal to escape her emotional state at this moment. Dawn gets out of the tub and is obviously inebriated. She goes unconscious and wakes up to him trying to please her. After a while, he gets on top of her and she says, “No!” “Do you want me to stop?” he says. Her face relaxes at this because she believes that he actually takes her opinion into consideration. She shakes her head no and they successfully make love. Despite the verbal negotiation her demeanor is faint and detached, like the pills are still affecting her. Her teeth didn't activate because of her perception that he listened. The next morning, she starts to get dressed and he lures her back in to the bed. While they are having sex he gets a call and he takes it. He tells her to say something into the phone and she says “No.” He hangs up and she asks him why he did that. He says that he had a bet with his friends to see if he could have sex with her. She continues to protest and he says, “Your mouth is saying one thing, but your sweet pussy is saying something very different.” He is reducing her to her physicality and saying that her opinion doesn't matter because she has a vagina. To Ryan, female pleasure as perceived by the male is more important than her autonomy in this moment. After he says this, her teeth engage and she gets up to leave. She really believes he is her hero until he makes the choice to follow through with his power play and subject himself to the virus’ symptoms. 

    The movie makes male power struggles explicit as the next scene cuts to an altercation between Dawn’s stepfather and Brad. Dawn’s stepfather enters Brad’s room and tells him that he needs to move out. Brad says, “You want me out of here, you’re going to have to throw me out.” He challenges his father to a game as old as time: whoever can physically hurt the other the most gets what they want. When people don’t agree, we have a tendency to become confrontational because of the fear of losing control or being dominated. Brad unleashes his dog onto his father and the dog pounces on him. His father tries to reach him through an emotional appeal: “Look, I know you loved your mother. I did too— ” Brad scoffs, cutting him off, and says, “I never knew that bitch.” Then he commands his dog, “Mother, get in your cage!” The fact that his dog’s name is Mother illustrates that need for control over the feminine instilled in him from childhood. Both men’s desperation to dominate in order to feel confident is the reason why this scene is so chaotic and may also be the reason why their relationship is so broken. Brad’s cry of“Who’s kicking who out now, old man?” illustrates his belief that one man only can have all the power.

    Dawn has now realized that she can control the power of her teeth and use it against those who pose a threat to herself and other women. While Tobey has been her closest model for the virus’s physically violent side, Brad’s behavior has been a constant throughout her entire life. She decides to give him what he deserves. Dawn enters his room and sits next to him on the bed; she tries to touch him but he recoils hesitantly. Dawn asks him, “Are you afraid?” He doesn't answer but his petrified facial expression illustrates the fact that he has no tools for honest, emotional communication. She gets on top of him, exercising her sexual assertiveness and dominance. Brad’s eyes widen in fear and he quickly turns her over to try to regain control, but she turns around to face him. Dawn wants to confront him as equals and his discomfort is apparent. She lets him become comfortable with her and they begin to have sex. After he makes a comment about his long lasting lust for her since their childhood, she engages her teeth, leaving him on the bed bleeding. Earlier in the film, Brad ignored Dawn’s mother dying so that he could continue to have sex. This plays into the patriarchal ideology that a woman is invisible unless she is sexually available.

    Having taken revenge, Dawn flees town, hitchhiking a ride with an old man. He drives her until the sun goes down, and stops. When she wakes he makes a lewd gesture towards her, indicating that he wants her to please him. She rolls her eyes, once again running into this wall of entitlement and ignorance. But now she is not afraid because she intends to show him just how violating his actions are. The teeth, to me, represent a secret power within the feminine that society keeps hidden from women and which some women try to equate with dominance. As women, we need to remember it; we need to nurture it in ourselves and each other. We need to honor each other for reasons other than make-up and tight jeans: intelligence, hard work, diligence, grit, talent, creative output, honesty, vulnerability. We need to build a framework where our unique power is respected and continuously cultivated, instead of letting the symptoms of toxic masculinity—the virus—smother our light.