Aside from the occasional joke about headgear, braces rarely make an appearance on television. There are a few reasons for this: most “teen” actors aren’t at orthodontia age, people really only have braces for 24 months, and, in short, braces aren’t that cute. But also, they are!
In Big Mouth, which saw its second season premiere Friday, October 5, Missy (voiced by Jenny Slate) is a full-on metal mouth, which is part of her appeal. In Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s directorial debut which arrived this summer, the object of Kayla’s affection is Aidan, a boy chock full of braces. In Netflix’s The Rain, one of the show’s most docile characters had a shy set of braces, a feature she kept hidden. On My Block opens with a character getting her braces off. A January casting call for American Vandal asked for “a real high-school look: braces, pimples, and all.” Now that the era of real teenagers is upon us, is the era of braces is here, too?
“I mean, [Big Mouth is] about middle school. So someone was gonna have braces,” says Jennifer Flackett, who created the show alongside Mark Levin, Nick Kroll, and Andrew Goldberg. Missy, she says, got the metal because she’s the opposite of most middle schoolers. She’s not self-conscious.
“For Missy, there was always this kind of wonderful, un-self-consciousness about her. There was something about even as we were discovering her, how she could wear her braces so easily,” Flackett adds. “It wasn't like how some kids cover their mouth when they speak.”
Later in the season, Missy becomes suddenly self-conscious — but not about her braces. After a new girl in school (voiced by Gina Rodriguez) shows up with a pair of pubescent boobs, Missy becomes concerned about her flat chest. She’s pulling her hood over her hair, worried about her appearance, but she’s not nervous about her braces.
“You look like a boy!” Missy tells her reflection. “Jeez Louise. Your chest is concave. It’s like a spoon!”
Recently, braces have been showing up in the subtlest of ways, on characters without comment. In Eighth Grade, Aidan (Luke Prael) is the hottest guy in his class, the kid with the prettiest eyes. Oh, and he has braces. His braces are an afterthought, something the filmmakers left in as an inside joke. Of course, Prael acts with his mouth barely open, the way kids do when they’re worried about flashing their metal. Braces are a big deal when you first get them; not so much once you have them — which makes it all the weirder that they don’t usually appear in teen properties.
Netflix has been especially good about braces inclusivity. The Rain, a Finnish show about apocalyptic rain, had a main character outfitted with braces for the entirety of the show. Lea (Jessica Dinnage) was the nervous, shell-shocked member of the main ensemble. Her backstory, the show revealed, involved vicious bullying via a Snapchat-esque social media. Her braces — which she keeps for all the years post-apocalypse when she’s forced to wander the hillside — served as a reminder of the stagnation of her childhood. When reached for comment, representation for The Rain confirmed that Dinnage actually had braces when she auditioned, and production thought they added a nice touch to the character.
On My Block’s Monse (Sierra Capri) has braces for all of one episode, the pilot. In that episode, Monse undergoes the first steps of puberty, getting her braces off as well as a growth spurt on her chest. Of course, when Monse reveals her newly straightened teeth, her friends immediately remark, “You got boobs!” Braces are a big deal mainly to the wearer.
Braces pop up only occasionally in film, and the past decade has been a bit of a lull. Sean Astin had braces in The Goonies back in 1985, and Anthony Michael Hall wore a set in 1983's Sixteen Candles. In 2000, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) on Sex and the City got adult braces, but she quickly got them removed. In the same episode, a 13-year-old socialite also sports some metal. The Proud Family had Zoey (Soleil Moon Frye), a nervy brace-faced sidekick, and Rugrats: All Grown Up gave Chucky some well-deserved braces. Then, in 2006, Eunice (Emily Perkins) in She’s the Man wore some impressive metal.
After that, things dry up! The kids on television are alright — so alright that they don’t need braces. The big teen shows from the past ten years mostly involve kids who are slightly glossier. Pretty Little Liars was all about blowouts. Gossip Girl had knee socks. Friday Night Lights was all about mouth guards. Even Stranger Things, which is otherwise pretty truthful in its child actors, didn’t bother.
Braces are a flash-in-the-pan part of puberty. Most kids have them for only one to three years, and less than half of the population will get them. (Orthodontists estimate that 45% of kids need braces, which doesn’t account for the fact that braces can cost as much as $6,000 without an insurance plan.) Mainly, though, braces are good storytelling elements. Monse getting her braces off in On My Block marked a movement from pre-pubescent to very much in puberty. (Shortly after, she starts hooking up with her best friend, for which she gets slut-shamed.) Missy on Big Mouth doesn’t care about her braces, which is important to Missy’s gleeful nerd persona. And Eighth Grade built its empire entirely on the casting of real middle schoolers. One auditioner for the movie, director Bo Burnham told Seth Meyers, said that “eczema” was one of her special skills. Kids are weird! And, too often, kids on TV are just too prim to be interesting. Braces can’t solve that problem, but they’re a goofy-looking start.