The Monstrous Feminine: Women and Horror, Part 2

“Oh, she was so sexy. She was asking for it.” — Hayley (Hard Candy)


We unfortunately live in a world where it's unsafe to be a woman. Having a casual drink at a bar, dancing at a loud party with friends, even walking a quiet street at night: danger lurks everywhere. Simply being, a woman is reason enough to be constantly vigilant. With the threat of violence and sexual assault everywhere it's no surprise that those themes constantly crop up in horror.

I frequently lament at the abundance of such plot devices, yes, and I'm definitely fed up with the constant abuse heaped on female characters and the preponderance of victim narratives.

But rape culture is a very real, very insidious thing, and given how it permeates the lives of women across the world, it's a topic that needs to be addressed. With horror's willingness to discuss taboos, it's only natural for the genre to regularly address the fears of rape and sexual violence.

In Teeth (2007), teenager Dawn (Jess Weixler) finds herself surrounded by terrible, violent men—but also discovers that she has a most unusual weapon in reserve. She first realizes she's not like other girls when an interlude with her first serious crush abruptly becomes a nightmare. In the aftermath, the boy is bleeding to death and Dawn staggers away as frightened by what she unintentionally did as by what Tobey did to her.

A visit to the gynecologist to determine if she actually has a second set of teeth similarly goes badly; it's pretty clear the doctor will never repeat that kind of “examination” on another girl. Not long after, Dawn's first experience with consensual sex—it seems her “teeth” don't engage when she's a willing participant—ends badly for her partner when she discovers Ryan's only sleeping with her because of a bet with a friend. And, finally, in an act of deliberate revenge, she plays on her stepbrother Brad's long-time interest in her to castrate him for his crimes.

The myth of “vagina dentata” is a long and uncomfortable one. More often than not, it's a story that demonizes women. Those with teeth like Dawn's are succubi, because they fully control their sexuality; they're monsters that prey upon innocent men and deliberately emasculate them. In most of the folktales, they have to be properly conquered or tricked by a man in order to be “defanged.”

But Teeth manages to both embrace this concept as well as invert it. In a world where rape has become endemic in certain countries and cities, where the problem is so great that anti-rape devices have been invented and distributed, a woman having a natural defense like Dawn's is fitting. For most of the film, Dawn's teeth are purely defensive, engaging by reflex when men violently force their way past her boundaries. She's wholly a victim.

Then comes the turn, when she realizes that men abuse and take advantage of women in more than one way. Ryan initially seems friendly and respectful, until it comes out that he's only been kind to her because he wanted sex. He manipulated and used her and so is accordingly punished.

Stepbrother Brad is not only a murderer—his neglect and focus on sex directly lead to the death of Dawn's mother—he'd also molested his stepsister when they were children. So when Dawn embraces the succubus role, purposefully seducing the sleazy Brad with the sole intention of castrating him, she becomes the classic figure of the vagina dentata myth. Only this time we see how defensible her actions are.

It's vigilante justice, but with vagina teeth.

It's also worth noting that the men in Dawn's life all initially seem trustworthy. She meets her crush Tobey at a Christian youth group. Dr. Godfrey holds a position in the community that practically demands respect. Ryan fills the “concerned friend” role convincingly, and Brad is her stepbrother.

Teeth emphasizes that anyone can be a rapist; there is no set class or age or background or physical features to distinguish them from the crowd. They can be good-looking, soft-spoken, even someone you've known for years. And this is something that women have to unfortunately remind themselves of constantly.

Being aware of how men view us as sexual objects is something that starts early. Every year, it seems girls are younger and younger when they first learn to be careful, to take precautions, to heed certain warning signs and act accordingly. Hard Candy (2005) is an unflinching look at child predators—with a great twist.

When Jeff (Patrick Wilson) meets up with the girl he's been messaging online, Hayley (Ellen Page), he must think he's hit the jackpot. Hayley's fourteen (of which he's fully aware). He's in his thirties. He takes her back to his house and she makes them both screwdrivers. We think we know where this is going, and we're already uncomfortable.

But then Jeff passes out. Turns out, little Hayley drugged his drink and she's also fully aware of what Jeff is. She tells him, when he wakes up bound to a chair, that she knows he's a murdering pedophile. That he's responsible for what happened to a girl named Donna Mauer. And that he's going to pay for everything he's done.

Hard Candy is a tense thriller and a revenge flick all in one. And by turning the tables and having the character we naturally associate with the victim role becoming the one holding the knife (and gun, and noose), we find ourselves rooting for a very unusual antihero.

Hayley comes across as more than a little sociopathic: she's cold and calculating, she ruthlessly tortures a man she has entirely at her mercy, and she refuses to listen to his pleas or excuses as she purposefully pushes him towards an unavoidable climax.

But then we can't pity Jeff, who deserves everything she metes out and more. His own actions and crimes have brought this reckoning upon him. He's a monster that can't be allowed to go free; the lives of other girls depends upon this. The Big Bad Wolf has met his match in this Little Red Riding Hood.

Director David Slade and writer Brian Nelson crafted such an unflinching character in Hayley, and her characterization is extremely important. Given how so many pedophiles and rapists claim that their victims “asked for it” and brought it upon themselves with their flirting and clothing—which is appalling, especially in the context of children, who don't (and shouldn't) fully understand sexual behavior—having Hayley be very firmly assured in what she is doing feels like a giant middle finger at those cop-outs.

She purposefully plays into the tropes of the Lolita when she meets Jeff, stringing him along skillfully because she knows how men like him think and what they look for. Just as he manipulates young girls into dangerous situations, she returns the favor. Truly, a well-done turnabout can be the most delicious form of revenge. When you're tired of being sickened by the cruelty against women, watching Hayley torment and destroy Jeff feels awfully satisfying.

Read Part 1 of this 3-part feature.

Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.


  1. StephanieR

    Haven’t seen either of these two yet (the subject matter inherently wigs me out) but on the other hand, a well-done revenge flick is always appreciated. Maybe someday I’ll watch. 🙂 Loving this series and I can’t wait for Part 3!

  2. Cade

    I love Hard Candy so much and I wish more people knew of it, that more women had it in their arsenal when discussing rape culture in film. I did think of The Boondock Saints with this article, because of the great reaction news scenes at the end discussing the merits and craziness of the brothers’ vigilante rampage. We’ve seen in real life how media demonizes & slanders victims, or paints them as mentally ill, or looks for any redeeming quality or anecdote they can splash on screen for the violator’s sake. So Hard Candy may just be a movie, but I think it does a pretty fab job of instilling that “vigilante justice wouldn’t be so bad because there are plenty who ‘deserve’ this punishment” vibe that The Boondock Saints is so well known for. But again misogyny & gender & general discomfort at looking at a little girl as the “enemy” or abiter of justice has skewed the general public’s awareness of such a fab film.

    Great set of articles. I have some movies to watch!

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