Fascinating lists!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

"Teeth" and the Horrors of Sexual Repression

 Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

Although on a literal level, Teeth, a movie about a teenage girl with a toothed vagina, or a vagina dentata, is—there's no polite way to say it—imbecilic, on a figurative level, the film, despite its sophomoric plot, offers more than its mixture of horror and comedy: it has something significant to say about the effects of sexual repression on teenage girls. 

It's difficult for young male moviegoers to envision, much less to appreciate, the social and psychological pressures teenage girls are under. By virtue of their having been born female, rather than male, they're subject to social expectations concerning sex that do not apply to males. Girls, after all, can become pregnant; males cannot. Therefore, women are encouraged to avoid sexual intercourse until they're married, when, having wed, they've acquired a potentially secure means of providing for the welfare of their children. Indeed, unmarried women, especially teens, are discouraged from participating even in non-procreative sexual behaviors, which could lead to sexual intercourse.

Teenage boys rarely face such taboos, although, in the interests of sexual equality and political correctness, lip service may be given to the importance of their committing to abstinence until marriage as well, as they are encouraged to do in Teeth. It's obvious, however, that the boys don't take their vows very seriously, and most of them seek to have sex whenever possible. 

These prohibitions against premarital sexual intercourse are represented in the movie by the protagonist's devotion to her vow to abstain from sexual intercourse until marriage. Dawn O'Keefe doesn't merely commit to this goal, but she champions it in speeches to her abstinence group, The Promise.

Unlike other girls, Dawn is equipped with a sharp set of teeth in her nether region. They seem sentient enough to know when their territory, so to speak, is threatened with invasion. As a toddler, her future stepbrother Brad's curiosity gets out of hand while he's seated in a wading pool, next to Dawn, and her teeth bite off the tip of the forefinger he's inserted into her vagina.

Despite her sincere devotion to her ideals, teenage Dawn's resolve is tested. With Tobey, a boy to whom she is attracted, Dawn goes to a cave in which teenagers often retreat to have sex. Although she returns Tobey's kisses, she refuses to have sexual intercourse with him. Angry, he becomes aggressive. When he tries to rape her, Dawn struggles, and her head strikes the ground, dazing her. Tobey rapes her. Recovering, Dawn fights back, and her teeth bite off Tobey's penis. Horrified, Dawn flees the scene.

Feeling guilty and depressed at having succumbed to temptation, Dawn, nevertheless, addresses The Promise, but the pastor seems to see that she has been sexually active and ushers her away from the group. Returning to the swimming hole near the cave in which she involuntarily lost her virginity, Dawn throws her Promise ring, a symbol of her vow to preserve her virginity until marriage, into the water. She sees a crab crawling on Tobey's severed penis, and the horrible sight inspires her to research her condition.

Realizing she may be in possession of the legendary vagina dentata, she visits a gynecologist, asking him to examine her to determine whether there is anything inside her. When her gynecologist slips his bare hand into her during a pelvic examination, her teeth bite off his fingers. Terrified, Dawn flees the clinic on her bicycle.  

Her coy demeanor during her first visit to a gynecologist—and a male one, at that; her nakedness under the hospital gown she's made to don for the occasion; her humiliating position on the examination table, with her feet in the stirrups and her legs spread wide; her having to follow the doctor's repeated instructions to “scoot down”; and the cold, barren, antiseptic, clinical setting dehumanize and objectify her while, at the same time, they emphasize her sexuality. The scene brings home the way women, especially young women, are made to feel alien and “other.” Their sex even requires them to have a medical doctor who specializes in problems and issues related strictly to women. 

Horrified, Dawn flees on her bicycle from the scene of carnage, only to see a police officer driving Tobey's car. She returns to the swimming hole, where she sees police retrieving Tobey's corpse from the water. He appears to have died of shock and blood loss as a result of his injury. Her sexual repression has led her to take a boy's life, just as, indirectly, sexual repression may have prompted Tobey to commit rape, although, of course, ultimately, from a legal and societal point of view, both Dawn and Tobey are responsible for their own actions, despite the pressures, social, psychological, and sexual, under which the teenagers find themselves.

At home, Dawn is further traumatized by her discovery that her mother, who is seriously ill and has collapsed on the floor, must be rushed to the hospital. This incident, like Dawn's first, forced sexual experience, marks the end of her childhood. Her mother is unavailable, which means that her experience and wisdom as an adult female is also unavailable to Dawn. The daughter becomes entirely responsible for herself, at least as a female, which puts even more pressure on her to act responsibly. 

The boy's half-hearted “devotion” to their vows of abstinence (and, therefore, their relative freedom from the social and psychological, if not the sexual, pressures placed upon them) is highlighted by the behavior of Ryan, who pretends to befriend Dawn, only to take advantage of her when the opportunity arises. She goes to him, disturbed by Tobey's death, the gynecologist's dismemberment, and her mother's condition. Although he pretends to sympathize with her and to comfort her, Ryan offers her a tranquilizer only so he's able to masturbate her with a dildo while she's in an acquiescent state of mind. Relaxed, Dawn's vagina dentata do not defend her as she engages in quasi-consensual sex.

When they have intercourse the next morning, the couple is interrupted by a telephone call from one of Ryan's male friends, and Dawn learns that the boys had placed a bet as to whether Ryan would be able to “score” with Dawn. In her anger, she bites off Ryan's penis with her vagina, leaving him to seek help from his mother. 

After her mother dies, Dawn learns that Brad continued to have sexual intercourse with his girlfriend Melanie at the O'Keefe family's house, instructing Melanie not to go to the aid of Dawn's mother after she had collapsed at home. (Brad is the son of Bill, who marries Dawn's mother.) Bent on revenge, she seduces Brad (who had previously tried to seduce her), bites off his penis with her vagina dentata, and leaves him, presumably to die of shock and blood loss, as Tobey had done. The previous times during which Dawn used her vaginal teeth to kill or maim, she'd been attacked, humiliated, or insulted; this time, she acts with premeditation, so this incident marks a wholly voluntary, conscious, and deliberate act, not an instinctive or reflexive reaction to sexual, physical, or emotional trauma. With this act, Dawn has crossed a moral line. She is no longer innocent; she has become as monstrous as those who have committed crimes against her. She is definitely now a criminal. 

After leaving home, Dawn is picked up while hitchhiking. Exhausted, she sleeps, awakening after nightfall. When she tries to get out of the driver's vehicle, the old man repeatedly locks the doors. He looks at her, licking his lips, and she, understanding his intentions, smiles seductively at him, implying that she intends to commit another murder.

Despite its comic elements, this seemingly simple horror movie is disturbing because it indicates how rigid expectations of sexual repression, reinforced by societal, parental, and religious support, can create psychologically pressures that can be dangerous to oneself and others. The movie does a good job of showing how a teenage girl, in particular, is affected, emotionally and otherwise, by such taboos. 

Francisco Goya's painting, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, suggests that terrible consequences can spring from irrationality. Teeth suggests that it is irrational, perhaps unnatural, to fetter young adults, particularly teenage girls, with ironclad expectations that, difficult to meet, place unbearable pressure on the young. It might be hyperbolic to suggest, as this movie does, that the result of sexual repression could transform a normal, “nice,” or “good” girl into a monstrous killer, but hyperbole gets attention, especially when the girl involved in the nightmarish situation is as likable, appealing, and familiar as the schoolgirl played by Jess Weixler, who, despite a silly script, does a good job of portraying the girl next door. The movie's theme saves it from being the clunker it would have been without the depth the movie receives from its explorations of vows of abstinence, sexual repression, on one hand, and underage, premarital sex in a permissive society on the other.

No comments:

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

Popular Posts