There’s a Tooth in my Vagina: Horror, Sci-Fi, and Feminism
A few nights ago, my wife and I had the distinct pleasure of watching Teeth, the 2007 comedy/horror by writer, director, and co-producer Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of the famous artist Roy Lichtenstein. As some readers of this blog may know, I’m a big horror movie fan. But Teeth interested me for political reasons as well. Call it a horror film or a dark comedy, Teeth was in fact a brilliant political satire. And it was totally awesome.
The plot is simple enough: protagonist Dawn O’Keefe suffers from the mythological condition of vagina dentata: she has razor sharp teeth in her vagina. What gives the film its gravitas, and its humour, is the broader context. Dawn is the leader of an abstinence group in her high school, she dons a promise ring vowing to wait until marriage, and embraces traditional gender roles prizing women’s purity, all in a clearly over-the-top satirical manner. It seems as if nearly all the male characters are potential rapists, and several appendages meet their untimely demise beneath the sharp, interlocking teeth at Dawn’s crotch, and no, I’m not talking about her zipper.
Though I know many are turned off by gruesome horror (I’m thinking of you, Luce), this movie is really the ultimate in feminist schadenfreude. It’s a little scary, a little gory, but mostly funny, and with brilliant parodies of the Religious Right and the latent sexism and fear of women that lurks in the hearts of heterosexual men. This movie is truly great.
But Teeth is hardly the first sci-fi/horror/fantasy tale to blur the lines of gender for political purposes. Ursula K. Le Guin famously explored sexual identity in her 1969 Nebula and Huge award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness, about an androgynous race that only experiences sexual identity on a monthly basis.
James Tiptree Jr., the pen-name of Alice Bradley Sheldon, wrote feminist stories under the guise of a male author. In my senior spring of college, I took a class on anthropology through science fiction. I thought it would be a joke, but I actually learned a good deal, particularly about the social construction of gender. We read two of Tiptree’s sci-fi stories, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and “The Women Men Don’t See.” Last year, I saw the television adaptation of “The Screwfly Solution,” as part of the Masters of Horror series on Showtime. This Tiptree tale of terror concerns men who develop maniacal urges to murder all women. All three of these stories question the female necessity, or even desire, for male companionship.
Other examples abound. Vietnam vet Joe Haldeman‘s Nebula and Hugo award-winning novel The Forever War (also on my college course reading list) imagined various future scenarios, one of which included a world populated only by homosexuals.
My favourite television drama of all time, Star Trek: The Next Generation, also ventured into this territory. Now, I’m still bitter about when ST: TNG lost the Emmy in its seventh and final season to Picket Fences. Picket fucking Fences?! Does anyone even remember what Picket Fences was about? Did it have any impact on our cultural consciousness at all? Years from now, will people be saying, “Oh, Picket Fences, that was the ground-breaking show, the one that started it all, that reinvented a genre, that gave a formerly neglected setting dramatic heft”?! No. But I digresss.
Anyway, one of the many reasons ST: TNG was one of the greatest shows ever was the ways it used sci-fi to deal with interesting political/cultural questions. There is no better example than the terrific episode “The Outcast,” when the dashing first officer William T. Riker falls in love with Soren, a member of an androgynous race who deviates from the norm by expressing gendered, in this case, female, identity. All hell eventually breaks loose, but in the meantime, the show lets the audience question what normal really means.
As an aside, the episode also has one of my favourite moments ever. After Riker and Soren’s relationship is discovered, and Soren is scheduled for some kind of “therapy” to cure her/him of this “disorder,” Riker plans a kidnap rescue mission. He’s in his quarters all set to go it alone, when Lieutenant Worf, everyone’s favourite Chief of Security, shows up at his room, ostensibly to present some inane report. After Riker dismisses him, Worf stays, and asks Riker if he is planning an “unannounced visit.” When Riker remains silent, Worf adds, “I will go with you.” When Riker protests, Worf responds: ”Sir, you are my commanding officer, and if you order me to stay on board, I will obey. But I ask you not to give that order. A warrior does not let a friend face danger alone.” God, I love that Klingon.
But back to the matter at hand. Even more recently, in a history workshop I was leading for undergraduates, one of my students referred to the comic book series Y: The Last Man, a bizarre tale of world of all females where only two males remain, a man and his pet monkey (I’m not making this up). Admittedly, I have not read Y: The Last Man. But it sounds really cool, and my friend Dave really likes it. And my point is that the genres of science fiction and horror are not simply schlock used to reinforce sexist and patriarchal gender norms. Because of their authors’ license to bend reality, they can challenge the gender structures that we often take as primordial or God-given, and open up our minds to new possibilities not only in the world of fiction, but in the realm of politics as well.
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