Biting the Trigger That Feeds You? Teaching Teeth as Feminist Horror

by Maria Pramaggiore

In twenty years of university teaching, I have programmed what might be considered challenging films—challenging for a number of reasons—on a regular basis. I am likely to assign films with contested and controversial reputations each semester. There are two reasons I have made these choices: first, I am drawn to texts that push aesthetic and social boundaries, having spent my research career examining experimental, feminist, and queer cinemas, as well as the work of a diverse group of directors that includes Maya Deren, Barbara Hammer, Neil Jordan, and Stanley Kubrick.1 Because I am interested in queerness and nonnormativity in form and content—interests that are now informed by decades of teaching and research—I believe I may have something to offer to students who navigate a media environment in which shock, sensation, and excess are more likely to be deployed and interpreted, even celebrated, uncritically than to be employed and/or understood as satire and critique. It’s part of my work as a feminist scholar and teacher to help students understand the difference between, say, misogyny and a critique of misogyny, to develop their interpretive abilities and skills at argumentation, and to claim their own positions in these important debates.

Films that wed aesthetic challenges with political critique—even those that do so messily—intrigue me. I want to share what I consider to be at the heart of the cinematic experience: the simultaneously intellectual and emotional experience of watching films. In my view, students often underestimate the cultural power of cinema, although they may readily acknowledge the personal impact of a single film on an individual. I want to awaken students to the fact that cinema has held, and still holds, an important place in culture. Thus, I was both horrified and perversely gratified by the brouhaha in 2014 over the Seth Rogen and James Franco film The Interview because the whole affair made it clear that cinema can, indeed, still matter.2 The diverse sensibilities of the global audience that Hollywood filmmakers so assiduously court was made apparent in the widespread publicity surrounding North Korea’s consternation regarding the on-screen assassination of its living head of state. Furthermore, the always precarious and often political decision-making process in Hollywood was unveiled after hackers calling themselves Guardians of Peace (believed to have ties to North Korea) released embarrassing Sony emails publicly and the studio cancelled the film’s theatrical debut. After the White House criticized the studio’s decision, Sony finally opted for a limited release.

One of the most valuable experiences I have had related to the challenge of teaching violent films occurred around my decision to program Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth (2007), a dark comedy described as a feminist horror film on blogs such as BitchMedia and Demonista.3 The film, which premiered at Sundance in 2007, depicts the coming of age saga of Dawn (Jess Weixler), an innocent high school spokesperson for the abstinence movement who lives in a traditional small town. As she struggles with her sexual awakening within a patriarchal culture that seeks to exploit and repress female sexuality—the latter taking the form of absurd stickers placed over female genitalia in her textbook by order of the Board of Education—Dawn learns, to her dismay and that of her first boyfriend, that she possesses vagina dentata.

What interests me most about the film is, first, the way it captures the adolescent struggle for sexual normalcy and its relation to feminist awakening: horrified by her body, Dawn conducts research on the historical fears projected onto female sexuality, moving into mythology as much as science. Second, the film contains its own internal critique: the world in which Dawn lives is fraught with gendered power imbalances and she learns to navigate these obstacles not as a victim but as more of a final girl, ultimately claiming her teeth as a source of her power and horror.4 Finally, the ambivalence at the film’s conclusion resonates with the lessons of feminist theory: as Dawn fully claims her particular embodiment of female power, she also must reckon with the prospect of an adulthood defined by resistance to the patriarchal status quo and a future in which she will live as part human and part monster.

I decided to present the film at a screening and discussion event sponsored by the campus Women’s Center. A week before, I was notified that a complaint had been lodged about the screening and discussion, a complaint I initially assumed was directed at the film’s sly but remarkably restrained critique of the abstinence movement. (Dawn wears a purity ring and lectures on the evils of premarital sex to groups of peers even as she struggles in both familiar and unique ways with those injunctions.) Subsequently I learned that the concerns had not been raised by members of the community who were worried about the comic send-up of conservative sexual politics, but instead by staff and students who thought that the film’s plot—which includes attempted sexual assaults and an attempted rape, both thwarted by Dawn’s vagina dentata—would be problematic for abuse survivors. They were troubled by the fact that the Women’s Center would plan an event that could potentially harm survivors who chose to attend. I argued that we should have the screening and discussion precisely because university campuses are locations where difficult subjects such as gender, sexuality, power, and abuse can be addressed in productive ways. Obviously, the event was not a required screening for any student, but those who expressed unease felt it was insensitive. Ultimately, the screening took place, with a campus counselor in attendance, and the discussion was constructive and lively. In my estimation, seeing the film, rather than merely reading about its content, dispelled many concerns for those who were present.

For me, this event signaled the increasing importance of what we now call triggers and trigger warnings, a subject that emerged in a national debate several years ago as universities such as UC Santa Barbara and Oberlin College developed policies for classroom teaching that require professors to issue alerts about potentially problematic content that might trigger flashbacks or exacerbate symptoms of PTSD. Amanda Marcotte of Slate described 2013 as the “Year of the Trigger Warning.”5 Writing for the New Republic in 2014, Jenny Jarvie notes a connection between trigger warnings and online culture that rings true for me: “What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off. The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense.”6 A similar critique comes from queer scholar Jack Halberstam, who cites “the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness” and who worries that queer politics have become narrowly focused on a safety agenda.7 I certainly don’t want to doubly victimize or damage the students in my classroom. Like Halberstam, however, I am concerned about the way safety has been privileged over the educational process, which is sometimes unsafe. A healthy classroom balances safety and risk within a diverse community of students who must manage their unique relationships to each one. Safety and risk both must be present for learning to occur. The promising concept of “brave spaces,” understood as a process (rather than a specific location) achieved by reframing ground rules of discussion as part of the creation of that space, has been developed by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens, who question “the degree to which safety is an appropriate or reasonable expectation for any honest dialogue about social justice.”8

To me, the most “teachable” moments are those that combine affect and analysis and thus join emotional and abstract intelligences. One reason I teach controversial films, including violent films, is to erode the false distinction made between so-called active media forms such as gaming and passive ones such as television and film and to restore what I see as intrinsic elements of the practice of watching films: that we think and feel something while we watch, and that those thoughts and feelings have the potential to change our beliefs and our behavior.

In Gendered Subjects: The Dynamics of Feminist Teaching Margo Cully and Catherine Portuges write, “we know that to bring women fully into the curriculum means nothing less than to reorganize all knowledge, and that changing what we teach, means changing how we teach.”9 In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks urges us to embrace the challenge of “self-actualization” in the classroom, for ourselves and for our students; for me, that process is bound up with active, critical engagement with both the emotions and the ideas—and the affective states that merge the two—that arise from experiences of cinema.10 I remain skeptical of a politics that elevates concerns for security above all other considerations—one that constructs women and queers in particular as needing protection within our current security-minded political and military environment. Secondly, I have grave doubts that the higher education establishment, as it is currently configured within the managerial bureaucracies of the neoliberal university, can develop the appropriate tools for sensitively addressing the modes of experience in which damage and trauma are elicited. I routinely conjure up comic horror scenarios of mass-produced handouts designed by well-meaning educators listing triggering events to avoid or systems whereby we force those students who are experiencing symptoms to out themselves in order to protect themselves, thereby introducing new forms of trauma to the educational experience. Yet the complexities of teaching challenging texts mitigate against easy formulas.

The constructive lesson I can take from the controversy about Teeth is that it reminded me of the value of the everyday work that contributes to a “feminist classroom,” by which I mean the instructor’s ability to prepare a group of students for challenging material over the course of a semester, rather than presenting it at a single screening event. This is a useful distinction that reminds us of the importance of framing, of careful course and event planning, and of the immense privilege of spending time with students in the classroom. I will no longer take for granted the intangible ways that meeting students over the course of a semester builds trust and permits us to adopt a shared and supportive approach to challenging material.

1 See the special issue of Films for the Feminist Classroom on Barbara Hammer (Issue 2, summer supplement).

2 The Interview, directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Culver City, CA: Columbia Pictures, 2014), 112 min.

3 Teeth, directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein (Los Angeles: Roadside Attractions, 2007), 88 min.; Tammy Oler, “The Brave Ones—Rape-Revenge Films Have Evolved Since the Days of Exploitation Films Like I Spit on Your Grave—This New Breed Has Teeth,” bitch 42 (2008), 31-34; and Demonista, “‘She Would Never Be Conquered’: Feminist Resistance in Teeth,” Demonista, July 16, 2010.

4 The final girl, a concept theorized by Carol Clover in Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), is a gender-ambiguous young woman who embodies both victim and hero.

5 Amanda Marcotte, “The Year of the Trigger Warning,” Slate, December 30, 2013.

6Trigger Happy,” New Republic, March 3, 2014.

7 Jack Halberstam, “You are Triggering Me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma,” Bully Bloggers, July 5, 2014.

8 Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens, “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue around Diversity and Social Justice,” in The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Facilitators, edited by Lisa M. Landreman (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2013), 139.

9 Margo Cully and Catherine Portuges, “Introduction,” in their Gendered Subjects: The Dynamics of Feminist Teaching (New York: Routledge, 2013 [1985]), 2; emphasis in the original.

10 bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 22.

A graduate of Williams College (BA) and Emory University (PhD), Maria Pramaggiore is a professor and Head of Media Studies in the Department of Media Studies at Maynooth University in Ireland. She is the author or editor of five books, including Making Time in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon: Art, History, and Empire (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Film: A Critical Introduction (with Tom Wallis; Laurence King, 2011), and thirty journal articles. Her current projects include “Vocal Projections: The Voice in Documentary,” coedited with Bella Honess Roe, “The Equine Imaginary: Modern Visual Culture from Marocco and the Houyhnmhns to My Little Pony and Rafalca,” and “Dynastic Celebrity: Affect, Economics, and the Inheritance of Inequality.”