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94 Weeks and Single Episodes
The Unfabulous Appearances and Reality of Braces on TV

by Dr.Samantha Wrighting

A reminder: Dr. Samantha Wrighting is a fictional character and not a real doctor. She exists only on this site, in books such as Retainer Girl, Love and Braces and The Braced Experience and in the imaginations of readers. This essay and all essays attributed to Dr.Wrighting represent the opinions of her character. They should not be construed as the opinion of anyone with any actual orthodontic expertise or training.


Introduction

In The Bar Mitzvah (also called The Party; video), episode 13 (first aired March 6, 2005) of the first season of the Nickelodeon series Unfabulous, 7th grader Addie Singer, played by Emma Roberts, faces what many tweens and teens do: she gets braces. The half-hour episode follows a predictable arc, as Addie moves from the shock of getting braces through the pain of adjusting to them to the fear of how the boy she likes will react to them. The episode concludes with the inevitable happy ending where she realizes that she has overreacted. Revealing her new braced self is not the end of the world; it doesn't scare the boy off.

Taken as a self-contained story The Bar Mitzvah touches on the concerns many children have when faced with getting braces, and then shows some of the difficulties patients encounter, from the physical pain involved to the awkwardness of facing friends and family with a mouthful of braces. So far, so good. But unfortunately Unfabulous does not go much beyond that. Indeed, almost everything positive about the episode is quickly undone.

There's a song to go with Addie's sentence in braces, "94 Weeks (Metal Mouth Freak)" (clip), in which Addie worries that "My life is over, at least for 94 weeks". She expects her treatment to last for some 600 days and laments: "and that's a long time". This is, however, roughly the median duration for orthodontic treatment for teenage patients; in other words, exactly what most kids her age can expect. But while Addie still appears in braces in one additional episode of Unfabulous (The Rhinoceros in the Middle of the Room (video), first aired September 10, 2005) all traces of them vanish after that. Instead of a realistic picture of what it means to wear braces which means, above all, wearing them continuously for a span of upwards of 94 weeks Addie is only really seen bearing this burden for little more than the blink of an eye.

This way of presenting braces is a very common one in television series. It is also a deplorable one, and all the more egregious and regrettable in this instance because even as Addie's braces are abruptly lost to sight the actress playing Addie continues to undergo orthodontic treatment. Emma Roberts needs and has braces but they're not like the ones Addie had to wear for those two episodes, and not ones which she or the show-producers were willing to integrate into the TV series.

The double-deception sends a terrible message to impressionable viewers, and is particularly cruel to the fan who identified with the Addie of The Bar Mitzvah and The Rhinoceros in the Middle of the Room. From looking forward to being able to relate to a similarly burdened TV character for 94 weeks girls with braces found themselves, after only two episodes, left on their own with their metalmouth-look again. And what small comfort can be taken from the fact that the actress playing the role wears a different sort of orthodontic appliance is presumably outweighed by her unwillingness to more publicly share that experience; it's not her duty to do so, but after the tease of appearing with braces in The Bar Mitzvah and The Rhinoceros in the Middle of the Room it is surely an enormous let-down to find out that, as far as braces go, Addie/Emma isn't like you or me after all.



I. Braces on TV: the exceptional, the unremarkable and not at all

I.1    The prevailing approach to braces on American television is one of complete denial. Characters with braces remain uncommon on scripted television, even as the child-actors in dozens of series clearly have had or are undergoing orthodontic treatment off-screen. While the studio audience of any TV show made up of the 8-to-18 demographic will include a significant number of clearly braced mouths, almost no TV actors are featured with them. There are exceptions, but compared to the percentage of the population which does wear braces, especially in that 8-to-18 age-group, they are extraordinarily few.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of this state of denial is the almost complete absence of any characters who wear the most common of all orthodontic devices, the nighttime retainer. While fixed braces can't always be avoided, and characters will occasionally even be seen putting on headgear at bedtime (example: Tootie (played by Kim Fields) on The Facts of Life (1979-88)), there are almost no instances of TV characters owning up to nighttime wear of retainers or being shown putting in or taking out such devices when going to bed or getting up. Even among the small number of characters who are shown wearing braces on TV shows, the transition to retainers is often skipped over. (Surprisingly, it is any reference to the continued necessity of wearing retainers at night (in other words, only part-time) that is avoided at almost all costs: the few cases where characters explicitly have retainers almost all involve full-time wear of the device (example: Kimberly (played by Dana Plato) on Diff'rent Strokes (1978-86)).)

Since it is removable, the nighttime retainer is easily avoided or at least kept out of sight, but the braces most American children and teens wear before they reach that stage are not. The preferred method of orthodontic treatment in the US remains fixed braces, and children wearing such devices are found in large numbers in any school in America. It is only in TV-series-schools that the proportion is all out of proportion, with braced faces at best a tiny minority. If the metalmouth-look can be avoided, especially in the long term (characters who wear orthodontic devices for several episodes or seasons), it almost invariably is.


I.2    TV shows sit-coms in particular have historically treated characters with braces in one of two ways, either as exceptional or as unremarkable. Series which treat them as exceptional typically have a braces-themed episode; the iconic example is Brace Yourself (first aired February 13, 1970), episode 20 of the first season of The Brady Bunch (1969-74), in which Marcia (played by Maureen McCormick) gets braces. From her tearful breakdown in front of the mirror as she finds she's "ugly, ugly, ugly" to her concerns about being asked out looking like this to the happy end where the girl gets the boy, Brace Yourself has been the template for many braces-episodes in later series. The Unfabulous episode, The Bar Mitzvah, sticks particularly close to the original script the arc is almost identical and few series have strayed very far from it. Notable examples are Old Scrapmouth from The Partridge Family (1970-74), episode 16 of the first season (first aired January 15, 1971), in which Laurie (played by Susan Dey) gets braces and is embarrassed to be seen with them and Last Exit to Springfield, episode 76 (season four, first aired March 11, 1993) of the animated series The Simpsons (1989-) where Lisa gets a horrible set of braces and headgear because Homer lost the company dental plan.

In all these episodes where so much attention is paid to braces the braces are exceptional. They are one-off props used for a single episode. Without explanation, The Brady Bunch's Marcia's braces are never seen or mentioned again; needless to say, she also never wears a retainer. Other series at least offer some sort of explanation for the disappearing braces: on The Partridge Family Laurie chooses to make the "sacrifice" of having the fixed braces removed and enduring a longer treatment with a nightbrace, though that is never seen or heard of either. On The Simpsons the dental plan is reinstated and Lisa's horrible braces are replaced by completely invisible ones so invisible that it's like they aren't even there, which is how they're treated in the rest of the series. (The one-off is not restricted to adolescent characters: in Hot Child in the City (episode 45, season three) of Sex and the City (1998-2004) the adult Miranda (played by Cynthia Nixon) gets braces, only to almost immediately have them removed.)

(When it comes to using orthodontic devices for just a single episode the easily removable retainer is also a popular choice. Episodes in which getting a retainer is central to the plot include Evie's Double Trouble (first aired February 17, 1990), episode 62 of Out of this World (1987-91), in which Evie (played by Maureen Flannigan) gets a retainer, as well as The Retainer (first aired September 22, 1991), the second episode of Eerie, Indiana (1991-2) in which Marshall (played by Omri Katz) also gets one. In both episodes orthodontic devices have supernatural elements (Evie's retainer comes with powers, and a tune she can't get out of her head, while in The Retainer mysterious things happen to a boy who had to wear headgear) which is at least a slightly more imaginative excuse for why the characters are never seen wearing the devices again.)

Any show that makes a production out of braces in particular by having an episode that centers mainly on a character getting them or being worried about getting them will invariably almost immediately dispense with them. The characters don't undergo orthodontic treatment, they face a single episode of orthodontic adventure and adversity, and when the credits roll it's done with and forgotten. No follow-up visits to the orthodontist, no annoying retainer, no problem. In this hocus-pocus version of righting teeth braces are an inconvenience that lasts, at worst, for the duration of an episode (or two), vanishing without a trace from one week to the next. Where braces are treated as exceptional they are made to be the exception, and that exception is made even more pronounced because the character only deals with them for such an unrealistically short time. Unfabulous clearly follows in this tradition, though they get a bit more mileage out of Addie's braces another episode's worth before having them disappear.


I.3    The preferred alternate way of presenting braces in TV-series has been to treat them as entirely unremarkable. In this far more realistic approach shows in which characters actually wear them for more than one episode tend not to make much of an issue about them. There is no special "braces episode", and at best the braces occasionally figure in the plot of an episode.

A likely explanation for the use of the unremarkable approach is that it arises out of necessity: the child-actors come to the series already with braces, as was the case in series from Family (1976-80) where both Buddy (played by Kristy McNichol) and Annie (played by Quinn Cummings) wore orthodontic devices, to The Cosby Show (1984-92) on which Denise (played by Lisa Bonet) wore braces for a time, to the short-lived Bless This House (1995-6) on which Danny (played by Raegan Kotz) did too. It is extremely rare for a character to get braces over the course of a TV series and that not be an exceptional (and single-episode) event; The Facts of Life's Tootie is among the few examples.


I.4    Not all TV series fit these narrow categories precisely, but few deviate very far from them. On Even Stevens (2000-3) Ren (played by Christy Carlson Romano) has braces and they are treated as unremarkable for the first season. In a clever and unusual twist they only become the focus of an episode in Shutterbugged (episode 23, first aired June 22, 2001) when they are removed. A reaction to the procedure leaves Ren with swollen chipmunk-cheeks on class picture day. For once it is at least indirectly the absence of braces that causes embarrassment. (Unfortunately, however, Even Stevens does continue the tradition of ignoring the necessity of retainers after braces are removed. Ren is never seen getting or wearing any.)

TV series in which braces are both a prominent and enduring presence and play a role in the plot are exceedingly rare. Two recent examples are Ugly Betty (2006-present) and Braceface (2001-2005), but both are unusual in a number of ways.

Braceface is among the shows that has most successfully and authentically conveyed the adolescent experience of living with braces, the main character Sharon Spitz (voiced by Alicia Silverstone) realistically enduring them for several years. It is, however, an animated series, and though Sharon's experiences are often not that different from those shown in live-action sit-coms producers initially felt the need to add some supernatural elements to the braces. Ordinary braces wouldn't do. Despite this, Braceface is among the only TV shows that have dealt with braces in an exemplary way.

Braces are also pivotal in Ugly Betty, in which the title-character is an adult with braces. A show for maturer audiences, the experience of having braces shown here is significantly different from that of the age-group where braces are far more prevalent. Many adults do undergo orthodontic treatment, but Betty's braces stand out as much and are about as common as daytime headgear-wear is for younger patients. The orthodontic experience conveyed here is not the one most children have, and in this sense Ugly Betty is hardly encouraging or comforting, and likely not something braced children can relate to. Still, the show must be praised for allowing the leading character to wear braces, even if it is implied that that is part of what makes her "ugly".

(Ugly Betty is only one of many international versions of a Colombian telenovela, Yo soy Betty, la fea (1999-2001). Her braces are an integral part of the character in each version, obviously meant to be disfiguring even as they are also self-improving. The US version only appeared after other versions had been successful in many other countries. Was the delay because the American aversion to having characters with braces on TV is so strong that it took so long to convince TV executives of the viability of the concept ?)


I.5    It is only the archetypal family sit-com, The Brady Bunch, that has it both ways. After the first-season exceptional approach in the episode Brace Yourself the show came to accept braces as such an integral part of the American childhood experience that when three more Brady-kids Jan (played by Eve Plumb), Bobby (played by Mike Lookinland ) and Cindy (played by Susan Olsen) got braces no mention was ever made of them. Despite their obvious metalmouth-look, the characters' braces were neither an issue nor used as part of the plot even as Jan refused to wear her glasses in yet another episode in which a character's concern about appearances were aggravated by a corrective device.

The 'braces' worn by Marcia did not look real, while those later worn by the other Brady kids were clearly authentic orthodontic appliances. It is possible to see the later presentation of braces on the series as compensating for the unrealistic exceptional presentation of Marcia's experiences. Attentive viewers will have noted the difference: the Brace Yourself-episode was a TV fiction in every respect, a compressed and simplified dramatization of everything having braces might involve so fake that it didn't fool or convince anyone. On the other hand, the later episodes, in which Jan, Bobby and Cindy had braces, went on to convey much more of what it means to have braces. Even as the trauma of getting braces and adjusting to them is ignored, these episodes at least show the everyday life of children undergoing orthodontic treatment. There is little question that it is these later episodes that are far more encouraging to children with braces or who face getting them, and in their refusal to treat having braces as being anything even slightly out of the ordinary (they are never mentioned or even alluded to by the braced children or anyone else) these episodes are exemplary.


II. Emma Roberts' Braces

II.1    The quick disappearance of Addie's braces on Unfabulous is bad enough, but what makes it so much more disturbing is that actress Emma Roberts continues to undergo orthodontic treatment even as the character she plays looks as if she doesn't have braces any longer.

At least Miss Roberts is refreshingly open about her own orthodontic treatment, revealing in an interview with Jodi Bryson in Girls' Life (Oct-Nov, 2005) that:

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 wait
until again I'm looking great
and that's a long time

Life is over, at least for 600 days
She 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 orthodontist
I'm getting my braces off, y'know
But I have to wear a retainer
That's going to be really like a total bummer
I'm freaking out
I'm SURE
Like those things that like stick in your mouth
They're so gross . . .
You like get saliva all over them
But like, I don't know, it's going to be cool, y'know
So you can see my smile
It'll be like really cool
Confronting 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.


Conclusion

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.


Addie Singer (Emma Roberts) in 'The Bar Mitzvah' episode of Unfabulous



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:
Lolita's Braces: The orthodontic treatment of Nabokov and his nymphet



See all the Dr. Samantha Wrighting books currently available.


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