Thursday, October 11, 2012

Marxist Implications in Popular Culture Portrayals of Dental Wellness

After many months of dental treatment, made necessary by a long sabbatical from dental care, I remarked to someone how devastated I was about how many fillings I needed. I have a much better oral hygiene regime than some people I know, and yet they never seem to have cavities. This person was trying to comfort me, and she told me "Teeth are just teeth. They don't say anything about you."

I didn't say it aloud, but I was thinking "Are you kidding me?! There are so many assumptions we make about a person based on how their teeth look! Are they straight? Are they white? Are there any visibly missing?" Based on how a person's teeth look, we can draw conclusions regarding their upbringing, their financial security, their education, and therefore their intelligence, their employment ('good' jobs often come with dental insurance).   .  . our teeth say a lot about us!

This got me thinking about how characters' teeth relate to them in the context of their story as well as in the greater context of our society and the omnipresence of Marxism in our lives.

 So, without going into a long and detailed description of Marxism as a literary theory, I present here just a couple examples of how a person's teeth represent and symbolize their class status as it coincides with or complicates their moral goodness.

My first example is the new series of Batman movies from Christopher Nolan. Bruce Wayne is a millionaire. He has the intelligence, security and wealth to maintain the health and appearance of his teeth. They are straight and white (especially considering that he is the Dark Knight), and the audience must assume that they are strong likewise, since Batman survives how many fights and tumbles and tussles with nary a chipped tooth.

And, of course the actor cast to play such a picture of perfection is Christian Bale, whose grin makes so many women goofy happy.

On the contrary, his nemesis the Joker is of unknown origins. We do not know where he came from, what his former life was like, or even what his real name is. We DO know that he's psychotic though! His teeth are a sickening yellow color, which implies that he did not have the financial ability to maintain them in his earlier life.

This assumption is supported by his obsession with money- if he had grown up with wealth, then he probably would not be robbing banks and making dealings with gangsters to obtain it. Perhaps the Joker's deep dark secret is that he's from a working class family?

He obviously does not possess the wealth and intelligence that is so often attributed to people with perfect white sparkling smiles.

His discolored teeth also symbolize the moral decay that must be present in a conniving, murderous villain. When we are able to see decay on the outside, we naturally assume that there is more decay on the inside, which is not visible because it is not a tangible flaw that can simply be drilled away and filled in.

The appearance of teeth as an indicator or a character's moral fiber is a concept that even small children can understand, whether they realize it or not. For example, in the Disney movie "Aladdin", our protagonist is a teenaged beggar boy, who has lived his life on the rough streets of Agrabah. This guy cannot even afford to buy a single apple, so we know that he has no money and his diet must be suffering as a result. Obviously, if there was any dentistry available at all in ancient Agrabah, this guy wouldn't have access to it. And yet, look at his smile!

It's almost as good as his singing voice! How could a "street rat" possibly have such a healthy set of pearly whites? His perfect smile indicates the goodness found within him. In contrast, the evil sorcerer Jafar is of the upper class, lives in the palace, is a confidante of the Sultan himself, and oh yeah, he knows magic! He certainly would have the security and capability to have himself a great set of choppers; if a dentist couldn't do it, he could just cast a spell on himself and voila! dynamite dentition!

But Jafar is too concerned with world power to think about his dental health (aren't we all?). When he disguises himself as an old crippled beggar, he purposely makes himself the most cringe-worthy grin Mickey Mouse has ever seen:

His teeth during his disguise communicate his intention to portray a man of the lowest economic/social class, as seen by people of the highest class, implying that this is how lower class people are viewed by anyone above them on the socio-economic ladder. Anyone who has the money and intelligence to ensure the health and appearance of their teeth does, and anyone lacking those characteristics obviously allows their mouth to fall into disrepair.

I think the misalignment of these teeth is a pretty clear metaphor for Jafar being a "crooked" character. His priorities are not in order either: orthodontics versus world power? (once again, can't blame the dude).

As far as cartoon caries are concerned, not even Jafar's smile can compare to one of the most famous characters in literary history.  . .a guy whose physical appearance and malevolence are the subject of a holiday song heard ad nauseum from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day. Do you know who I mean yet? Let me give you another clue: "he has termites in his smile."

That's right! Dr. Suess's greedy Grinch is a Christmas icon. We are always suckers for stories of repentant villains, and this is the quintessential tale of one. It is interesting to note that in the book, the Grinch;s teeth are never illustrated. Yes, he smiles quite a bit as he steals puddings and gifts from the Who's, but he never shows his teeth. Likewsie, Theodore Geissel's (Dr. Suess's) text also gives no indication of the Grinch's dental health. The song, which was also written by Geissel, is responsible for characterizing his termite-infested teeth. This trait was further expanded upon in the 2000 live action film starring Jim Carrey. In fact, the Grinch's teeth were viewed as such an integral part of his character development that the film employed a "key teeth technician" to design a full denture for Carrey to wear. 
A picture is worth a thousand words, so I doubt I need to say much about this smile.

 In tight competition with The Grinch for Most Popular Holiday icon is a tacky leg-shaped lamp. Anyone who has ever turned on a television on Christmas Day is aware of the 24 hour marathon of the 1983 cult classic A Christmas Story. The film depicts the Norman Rockwell-esque childhood of author Jean Shepherd, and centers on young Ralphie’s quest to obtain a Red Ryder BB gun. Classic milestones of childhood are also included, such as Ralphie’s first fight.

The neighborhood bullies, Scut Farkus and Grover Dill, are introduced into the narrative famously accompanied by the Wolf's theme from Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. Ralphie describes Grover Dill as “Farkus’s crummy little toadie.  . .mean, rotten, his lips curled over his green teeth” (A Christmas Story). Grover Dill’s teeth are a representation of his malignant presence in the social world of elementary school. Scut Farkus, the senior bully, shows gleaming orthodontics when he smiles, indicating that his parents must have the financial ability to pay for them. 

He comes from a family secure enough to fix his teeth, yet in this instance they only highlight the fact while his family apparently has money to spare, Ralphie is from a working class family, and wears cracked glasses. This is significant when viewed in the context of Marxist theory because in their climactic fight, Ralphie triumphs. According to Marx, the exploited will take action against the exploiters, and a class struggle will ensue.

I speak from the position of a dentophobic graduate student, which probably makes me the worst patient possible. Not only am I unpleasant and argumentative, but then I make the poor dentist listen to my pretentious, self-important theories. All he wants to do is fix my teeth, and all I want to do is analyze the symbolism and significance of incisors. Reconciling my extreme fear of dentistry with my passion for popular culture has been my ‘crowning’ achievement- pardon the pun, I’m a grad student, not a comedienne.

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