Beyond ‘Teeth’: The Cultural History of Vagina Dentata

Beyond ‘Teeth’: The Cultural History of Vagina Dentata

Tracing the ins and outs of one of humanity?s earliest myths

Image for post?Teeth? (Roadside Attractions)

In the 2007 film Teeth, written and directed by Mitchel Lichtenstein, we meet Dawn O?Keefe (Jess Weixler). Dawn?s continuing interactions with men who would take advantage of her leads to a strange realization about her body. Dawn has Vagina Dentata: genital teeth that cause men who enter her without consent end up viciously emasculated.

Image for postClick to stream ?Teeth? on Tribeca Shortlist now.

Dawn is the head of her chastity group at school as well as a devout Christian. She guards her sexuality carefully, at first unaware of her built in defenses. Our first hint that something is amiss comes in the opening shot of the movie, when a young Dawn and and her step brother Brad, are playing in a kiddie pool. When he reaches to touch under her swimsuit he draws away a cut finger.

This is the first of many men to try and enter Dawn without permission. As the movie progresses her boyfriend and even her gynecologist violate her trust and suffer far worse than a cut finger.

Teeth is part body horror, part comedy, part genital superhero origin story. It perfectly walks the line between these elements and unapologetically offers full frontal shots of men before and after their visceral punishments.

Image for post?Teeth? (Roadside Attractions)

Now a decade later, critics and viewers are still talking about Teeth. A recent review pointed out that its message might be more important now than ever: ?What?s most important for Dawn is she discovers her vagina is not a curse but a source of power. And in the Age of Trump, that?s more important than ever.

Although Teeth is by far the most iconic media representation of vagina dentata, the legend of the toothed vulva has been a mainstay in many cultures? mythology for thousands of years.

But Teeth shows a dramatic shift from the vagina dentanta myths of ages past. Because while Dawn is a victim who learns to defend herself from unwanted male aggression, the women who possessed nether-teeth in other stories were the antagonists of their stories.

Image for post?Teeth? (Roadside Attractions)

In the myths of two different tribes in South Africa, Chaco and Guiana, there are stories of a heroic man who defeats the terrible mother. The terrible mother?s vagina dentata originated from a toothed fish that took up residence in her crotch.

The hero tears the teeth out of her vagina, making her into a woman and symbolically making sex safer for men all over. Clearly in this scenario it is the woman whose sexuality is harmful and dangerous. The men have to tame the vicious vagina for their own saftey and pleasure.

In a (much, much different) version of the legend the Disney film Moana is based on, the demigod Maui has a run in with vagina dentata too. He approaches the sleeping Tifiti with his brothers and attempts to reverse the birth process by shapeshifting into a worm and crawling into her vagina and then out of her mouth (mythological anatomy be cray). But right as he crawls inside one of his brother laughs, awakening the goddess and causing her to crush Maui with her obsidian vaginal teeth. And while this vaginal attack might have been defensive, we still see that all the danger in this story is in the woman and her sex, and Maui was trying to help out humanity through his unauthorized entry.

Image for post?Teeth? (Roadside Attractions)

Similarly, Shintoism tells us that a sharp toothed demon hid inside a woman?s vagina and kept emasculating all of her husbands. She sought the help of a blacksmith who crafted her an iron phallus to break the teeth. This legendary dildo is now enshrined in Kawasaki. Sex workers sometimes pray at the shrine to protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections.

Each spring the town celebrates the Festival of the Steel Phallus, where people carry phallic balloons and suck on penis-shaped lollipops. The festival has evolved into an event that raises awareness about safe sex and doubles as a fundraiser for HIV prevention services.

Image for postKanamara Matsuri ?Festival of the Steel Phallus?(Photo: Wiki)

Just as this festival has successfully pivoted away from mythical gential mutilation to sex-positive awareness, the film Teeth has changed the dynamics of the vagina dentata story to empower, rather than demonize, the woman.

There are real(ish) cases of vagina dentata, mostly chalked up to dermal cysts which can create hard bumps anywhere on the body, including you-know-where. Every now and then these type of cysts can grow hair or teeth. There?s some graphic pictures and conjecture about real life vagina dentata available from the University College of London.

Image for post?Teeth? (Roadside Attractions)

Inspired, perhaps, by all of these things there have been some anti-rape devices developed that imitate the vagina dentata. The most successful of these, called the Rape-Axe is a female condom with directional barbs that make it impossible for a man to withdraw himself from it without extensive injury.

But no matter the physical real-ness the psychological fear that drives the myth and the the stories is real. Camille Paglia wrote in her book Sexual Personae (1991): ?The toothed vagina is no sexist hallucination: every penis is made less in every vagina, just as mankind, male and female, is devoured by mother nature.? The argument is simple: no matter how victorious a man enters a vagina he inevitably leaves rather… diminished.

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