94 Weeks and Single Episodes
I've been procrastinating on my braces for a long time because it never seemed like a good time to get them. I was always working and stuff like that. So, finally, my morn and I were like, we have to do this. I got these braces that go behind the teeth. You can't see them at all. For the first few days, I couldn't talk at all and, even now when I talk, my tongue gets cut. But they're removable. I took them out the other day, but then I forgot I put the braces back in, and I was like 'Oh my gosh! My braces!' And everyone was like, 'All right, Emma!' I have to wear them for two and a half years, but that's OK. It's your smile.It is not clear what sort of orthodontic appliance Miss Roberts has. Completely removable appliances are unlikely to have any protrusions that would cut her tongue, and almost all would involve some anchorage that would be visible when she wears it (a labial bow, as on a retainer, for example). Entirely lingual (and hence essentially invisible) fixed braces would not be removable, as she claims her device is.
Whether it is a "retainer"-type device that she removes for all on-screen and public appearances, or some form of lingual appliance that remains out of sight, appearance was clearly the paramount concern in the choice of Miss Roberts' treatment. Being seen with actual braces such as the kind her character Addie wears for the entire duration of her orthodontic treatment was not an option. Superficial aesthetic considerations completely outweigh all others; her teeth must look like there aren't braces on them.
It is not clear what other orthodontic appliances might be appropriate for correcting her bite, but traditional braces such as those worn by the character Addie would probably not have inhibited her speech as badly, nor would she cut her tongue on them. Such braces still cause discomfort, including possibly causing irritation on the inside of the cheeks, but would be less troublesome in all respects for a singer-actor. All respects except appearance, that is.
(It is not clear when Miss Roberts started her orthodontic treatment, but at the time of the interview she was fourteen, a relatively advanced age to rely on any form of removable appliances. It is astonishing that treatment with functional appliances was not tried at a younger age, especially if appearance was such a big concern. Her excuse for putting off getting braces — "I was always working and stuff like that" — isn't very convincing, especially if there was never any intention to rely on fixed appliances. It is, however, possible that the treating professionals felt she did not have the necessary maturity for dealing with the challenging devices and that vital patient-compliance could not be assured before this time.)
II.2 Miss Roberts and her handlers obviously see the metalmouth-look as too potentially damaging to her career to permit her to have it. They may be right. Just as there are almost no lead-characters on TV shows that wear braces of the sort Miss Roberts briefly had as Addie, very few are found in movies. The average American kid may have braces, but not on the big screen. As on TV, if there are braced characters, they are almost always in secondary roles (and often comic ones).
The lack of starring roles for braced characters is a very real consideration for a rising star like Miss Roberts. Would she have been cast as the lead in Nancy Drew (summer, 2007) with braces ? Probably not. She certainly wouldn't have been allowed to appear wearing them.
Actresses have worked around this problem, even getting braces removed for the duration of a movie-shoot, but even off-season day-to-day wear of fixed braces is something that most seem to desperately try to avoid. The nature of the business calls for frequent public appearances of one sort or another, even when not shooting a film or TV series, and so it's almost impossible to prevent fixed braces from being seen by the public. Fifteen-year-old Emma Watson, who plays Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter-movies, was clearly embarrassed to be seen with braces in 2005, tight-lipped in almost all the photo-shoots from that time so no one would catch her true look. (The ElleGirl photo-shoot is typical, though there were a few candid exceptions.)
Miley Cyrus, who plays the lead character on the Disney Channel show Hannah Montana (2006-) has reportedly also chosen to proceed with orthodontic treatment using lingual braces (Miley Cyrus braced for Disney stardom). Like Emma Roberts she plays a character who is also a singer; more obviously than in Roberts' cases her orthodontic devices affect her speech. But clearly it was felt that that was a minor drawback compared to her being seen wearing disfiguring "regular" braces on the front of her teeth. It's a shocking misplacement of priorities, and once again a very disappointing message to send to young viewers.
The only actress who has made no effort to cover up her orthodontic treatment recently is Dakota Fanning. Her orthodontic treatment started at a much earlier age than that of Miss Roberts or Miss Watson, which might also explain why she is less self-conscious or concerned about her appearance. Her treatment also appears to be a considerably more invasive and complicated procedure which has included oral surgery, and is therefore harder to complete discreetly. Even so, Miss Fanning has been particularly open about her braces, frequently discussing them on talk shows and on one episode of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (October 19, 2005) even demonstrating her reverse-pull headgear for an audience of millions (pictures).
What is immediately obvious, however, is that Miss Fanning is a different sort of child star. The audience for most of her movies is an adult one, while Miss Roberts and Miss Watson appear in vehicles aimed largely or even solely at the youth-market. Miss Fanning's headgear-demonstration on The Tonight Show was probably only seen by a very small number of children her own age; almost the entire audience for that show is adult.
It's a topsy-turvy world: the young audience that should see role models like a braced and headgear-wearing Dakota Fanning doesn't. Instead, they are presented with characters like Addie Singer for whom braces are a one- or two-episode trauma, after which she never seems to have to worry about them again — while the actress playing the role also does her best to only face her fans without any unsightly orthodontic appliances visible in her mouth.
II.3 Braces are a complication for actors. Orthodontic necessity often clashes with Hollywood demands, and it's not surprising that most actors handle their orthodontic treatment like Emma Roberts, with removable appliances and as far from the public eye as possible. In admitting to wearing braces Miss Roberts has even been more open about her own situation than most young actors, but in releasing Addie from her metalmouth-look the great potential that the two episodes of Unfabulous showed was squandered.
In some cases keeping a character's teeth free of braces is necessary. Actress Melissa Gilbert underwent orthodontic treatment for years while playing the role of Laura Ingalls Wilder on the series Little House on the Prairie (1974-83) but obviously could not appear on the show wearing braces. The noticeable devices are a 20th century-advance that was unknown on the prairie. But actors on shows such as Unfabulous, set in the present time, don't have such excuses.
A TV show like Unfabulous is a fantasy, and even young viewers realize that what is being shown is often grossly simplified and not true to life. But it is a shame that a show like this is unwilling to be more daring, especially in such an area, where children desperately need role models. Braces can be hard to deal with for any child, and to have a sympathetic TV character one can relate to appearing in braces for a longer period would surely help ease the burden; Addie's braces — or even Miss Roberts' own -- would have been a perfect opportunity.
Miss Roberts' own braces could have been used in the show, too, if Addie's metalmouth was considered to be too much. Even out of sight, for the most part, they would have been a presence, and viewers could have seen her struggles with them. Miss Roberts says that after she got them "For the first few days, I couldn't talk at all," and so they presumably continue to inhibit her speech. Presumably she removes them when she sings, for example, and that could serve as a frequent reminder for the audience of what she is dealing with. But unfortunately, like the retainer only worn at night, if braces can be completely avoided on TV and hidden from viewers that is what is usually done, and that is what has been done here.
III. 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak)
III.1 Addie Singer's brief time in very conspicuous braces was also made more memorable by the song that Addie sings about the experience, 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak), available on the album Unfabulous and More (Columbia, 2005) (Amazon). This Jill Sobule song is an appealing pop tune that could well become an anthem for braces-wearers. Its mournful chorus ("Woe is me") and its self-pitying beginning ("My life is over, at least for 94 weeks") capture adolescent angst about having braces perfectly. As in the episode, The Bar Mitzvah, the about-face is too extreme and comes too suddenly, Addie realizing almost immediately "Life's not over / I was stupid and scared" but the positive message the song ends with, to get on with life despite having braces — "You can't let it pass you by / it's a good time" — might well be inspiring to braced listeners.
The song focuses on Addie's main concern, which many of her fans presumably share: that the braces make her look unattractive. She sees herself as "some metal mouth freak" and wishes it were Halloween so that she could hide behind a mask. She even sings
Can't you see life will have to waitShe clearly thinks she looks anything but great with her braces, and she acknowledges how important looks are. If she isn't pretty, life may as well be put on hold. The attitude is superficial, but widespread among teens and very real for them.
At the end of the song Addie comes to the realization that it was foolish that she was "Worried about who cared that I have braces" (the first and only time the dreaded b-word is mentioned in the song). Learning this kind of lesson is among the most common television stories, repeated in hundreds of sit-coms and TV series, especially those aimed at a younger audience. Over and over characters are shown realizing that it doesn't matter what others think and that people shouldn't be judged by their looks. The song condenses this lesson into just a few minutes of music, but the arc is the same. Sung by the vulnerable braced girl, 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak) is more memorable and moving than most versions of the lesson.
By itself, the song sends a powerful positive message, and in capturing the depths of Addie's misery so well at the beginning much of it is also believable. This isn't some adult telling you that braces are no big deal, this is someone who has the same concerns. Girls with braces can identify with what Addie is singing about, and even if the turn-around in Addie's feelings about her braces comes about too suddenly and easily, it is a hopeful ending that may well be encouraging to braces-wearing adolescents.
Unfortunately, the song is undermined by what happens on the TV series. While viewers may be used to everything coming easier to TV characters, the speed at which Addie moves from being troubled about having braces to again being able to display a full set of teeth with no metal or wire on them comes as a crushing blow. Suddenly her concerns sound much more hollow: it's easy to sing that "life won't have to wait" if the braces are as good as gone. And of course she doesn't have to worry about who cared that she had braces; she barely had them at all.
One of the hardships of dealing with having braces is that treatment generally takes a year or more. The six hundred days Addie sees stretching out in front of her is not untypical; the quick jettisoning of the braces as happens on Unfabulous is. While Addie captures the angst of the newly-braced teen perfectly in 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak), the ease with which she moves beyond braces must look like a cruel betrayal. Coupled with the knowledge that Miss Roberts continues to wear orthodontic appliances but keeps them well-hidden, the braces-wearing adolescent can't help but think that for her, unlike for the star and the character she plays on TV, in real life life will have to wait — not necessarily "until my teeth are straight", but at least until there are no more disfiguring braces visible on her teeth.
Fortunately, the song exists separately from the TV series, and perhaps listeners will be able to tune out what they know of Addie and Ms.Roberts' own experiences with braces, taking 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak) at face value. (Unfortunately, the picture of Miss Roberts on the cover of the album also does not show her wearing braces.)
III.2 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak) is a catchy, appealing song, and a rare case of the experience of having braces being dealt with in a pop tune. It may well have a more lasting impact than the Unfabulous TV episodes. It is quick, memorable and portable, much more so than the two Unfabulous episodes, leaving more to the imagination and allowing listeners a more immediate response and one that is repeatable at will. Unlike the TV episodes, the song also allows for the listener to adapt it to her own situation. Most importantly, the singer has not abandoned the listener at the end of the song, while at the conclusion of The Rhinoceros in the Middle of the Room the Addie Singer character has. In the song Addie only goes so far as to realize she was foolish to worry what others thought about her having braces. The song ends with her being able to sing "Yeah it's a good time" despite still having braces, while in the TV series the ultimate relief only comes when the braces are removed.
Few songs deal with the experience of wearing an orthodontic device to the extent that 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak) does. Frank Zappa's Valley Girl, from the album Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (1982) is one of the few others, and probably the best-known. Its realistic lyrics are far more descriptive, and while the song doesn't pack the emotional punch that 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak) does it at least honestly relates a few concerns of an adolescent with braces:
Hi -- I have to go to the orthodontistConfronting what it's like to face making the transition from braces to retainers is presented well here, but that is only a small part of the orthodontic experience. It is that more overwhelming initial concern of what it means to face the world with braces when you first get them that's central to 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak), and in so successfully presenting that this song obviously speaks much more directly to most braced patients. Zappa's lyrics are specific and precise, while 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak) are more universal; it also feels more heart-felt, and Emma Roberts' rendition of the song conveys that too.
For braced girls of a certain age, 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak) is a song they can fully identify with. Effectively communicating a typical teenage vulnerability, self-pity and overreaction, the Addie that sings this song speaks to and for girls in a similar position. Even the feel-good resolution is a welcome positive note to end on; like a love song holding out the potential for romance it is the happy end the braced listener wants to believe in. And while the turn of events in The Rhinoceros in the Middle of the Room may have shattered hopes, the catchy 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak) allows them, at least in small part, to be recovered.
Because Addie gets braces in the last episode of season one of Unfabulous and is rid of them only at the end of the first episode of season two there was a summer of hope, a span of almost 27 weeks (between the first airing of those shows) in which viewers could believe that Addie might share the burden of having braces with them for a longer period. But in TV-land two episodes is already longer than most series will permit a leading character to appear with braces, and Unfabulous unfortunately was no exception. (Other viewers, familiar with the use of the special braces episode on a TV series, might have expected The Bar Mitzvah to be an exceptional episode and might even have been surprised to see Addie still wearing braces at the beginning of season two at all.)
TV and film demand a sort of perfection. Adolescent leading characters rarely have glasses or are chubby, and braces are treated like an even worse affliction. Removable orthodontic appliances, which many child-actors presumably wear off-screen, generally noticeably affect speech and are therefore also an uncomfortable fit for TV or film: it's bad enough if a character's look are blemished by braces, but it's even worse if she can't speak clearly.
Unfortunately, this refusal to honestly represent adolescent life on-screen goes completely counter to the lessons so many of these shows pretend to offer their viewers. By not showing children dealing with braces to a similar extent as one finds in all walks of real life these TV shows send the unmistakable message that looks do count for almost everything, and that it is almost impossible to be considered good-looking while wearing braces. Braces are to be avoided or at least hidden at all costs. And by not honestly showing how long orthodontic treatment takes, and how frustrating it can seem for the patient, this Hollywood-version of reality is even more discouraging for viewers, right at a time when they are feeling particularly vulnerable. Supposedly feel-good episodes like Brace Yourself from The Brady Bunch and The Bar Mitzvah from Unfabulous offer a brief comfort, only to pull the rug out from underneath viewers' feet an episode or two later when the character viewers identify with is no longer seen wearing braces.
Unfabulous at least dealt with having braces, and with the song 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak) does offer something more that viewers can take from it. But Addie's braces — and Emma Roberts' — were also an incredible missed opportunity. Instead of trying something as radical as continuing to show the otherwise attractive star of the series in braces for a realistic amount of time, Unfabulous does what far too many shows have done before and takes the unrealistically easy way out by releasing her from them. It may make the character easier on the eyes, but integrity is sacrificed as the role model is transformed from a down-to-earth everygirl many viewers can identify with to being a fantasy figure.
Braces are considered too unsightly for most TV shows and films, despite how common they are in every school, mall, and playground in America. A temporary phase that many children have to go through, braces deserve to be more openly supported, or at least acknowledged. Maybe audiences aren't ready for Emma Roberts playing Nancy Drew in braces on the big screen, but Addie Singer's struggles with them for two episodes on the small screen were inspiring, and the effect would have been all the more impressive if she had been shown adjusting to and dealing with them for some ninety more weeks — perhaps even really and convincingly coming to see that "Life's not over" when she has them. Most of all, it would have been a great service to her audience.
For now teenage TV viewers must still wait for a role model who undergoes orthodontic treatment just like they do, but at least they can hum 94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak) while they wait.
The author thanks Natalie Wrighting and Ashley H. for assisting with the research for this paper and for their TV and teen pop culture expertise, and the staff of Intraoral Press for their editorial advice and help.
Other Dr. Samantha Wrighting essays:
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