Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Whiter Shade of Dishonesty

     When did having fluorescent white teeth become a prerequisite for physical beauty? Brad and I just finished watching "Saturday Night Fever", which originally premiered in 1977, during which we simultaneously noticed that Stephanie's teeth were kind of dingy in contrast to Tony Manero's, and that both sets of choppers were off-white in comparison to today's movie stars. Neither of us remembers noticing that "flaw" as teenagers 25 years ago, and frankly, I don't think we would have noticed it ten years ago. When Saturday Night Fever (SNF) hit the theaters, it received overwhelming, unanticipated critical acclaim, single-handedly defining an era and fueling the disco culture of the 70s. Aside from the smash success of the SNF soundtrack, which instantly catapulted the Bee Gees from washed up recording artists to overnight international sensations, the graphic intensity and subject matter of the script had a significant cultural impact, exposing the pre-AIDS sexual promiscuity of those times, as well as racial prejudice, gang violence, rape, abortion, and attitudes towards women in the workplace. It's a masterpiece of cross-marketing, where the individual elements of acting, choreography, screenplay, and soundtrack each stand out uniquely, yet flow together seamlessly to create a truly palpable cinematic experience.  If you haven't seen it recently, I highly recommend watching it again, but make sure you see the unedited version.
    The movie is a snapshot in the life of nineteen year old Tony Manero, played by John Travolta, an Italian kid from Brooklyn with a flair for disco dancing. His parents idolize his brother, who is a priest, and Tony lives with them, enduring their constant criticism and verbal abuse. He works in a dead-end job in a paint store, hangs out with his four rough-and-tumble best friends, and finds salvation on the dance floor of the local discotheque. Initially, Tony is preparing for a dance competition with a local girl named Annette (Donna Pescow), but their chemistry as dance partners is complicated by her unrequited love for him. He becomes smitten with Stephanie, an elusive, attractive older woman and accomplished disco dancer, played by Karen Lynn Gorney, who he relentlessly pursues until she agrees to become his new dance partner. The rest of the plot, you'll have to see for yourself.
     The "look" of Tony and Stephanie was iconic, inspiring major fashion trends. High school guys started blow drying their hair and snapping up white leisure suits, gold chains, and platform shoes to wear to their proms, while young women abandoned the de rigeuer shaggy haircuts and baggy clothing of the 70s, in favor of couture and a more refined, polished style. Both Travolta and Gorney were considered beautiful people, yet neither of them were in possession of the fluorescent white teeth which dominate Hollywood today. It simply wasn't a beauty standard back then. Although Pearl Drops Tooth Whitening Polish was advertised on TV, with a near-orgasmic blonde woman running her tongue over the front of her teeth while purring "Mmmmmmmmmmmmm!"into the camera, we weren't flocking en masse to the drug store to buy it. We also weren't lining up at our dentist's offices for the experience of having our teeth engulfed by a dental mold full of hydrogen peroxide, just so our incisors would glow in the dark.
     When California Boy and I were seeing each other, sometime around 2006, he insulted me by telling me my teeth were "kind of brown." He doesn't remember saying this, but I was very hurt by that thoughtless comment. I'd already struggled so much with my self esteem and physical features, such as my prominent nose and my Polish lady legs, that I was crushed. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I wanted his approval. For whatever reason, his opinion mattered to me, and I knew that there was something I could do about it. I didn't think twice before rushing out to Target to buy a box of Crest Whitening trays, the ones that are as close to professional-strength as you can get. For the next two weeks, my teeth were ultra-sensitive, my gums bled, and I gagged at the taste of the gel in those trays. It was absolutely disgusting, but I ended up with pearly white, albeit de-mineralized, teeth. I can't say that having whiter teeth has been a life-altering experience for me. I still hate the way I look in photographs, a personal quirk which never had anything to do with the hue of my teeth in the first place. It's really almost tragic. The first thing people usually notice about me anyway are my blue eyes, the whites of which remain several shades lighter than my teeth. It makes me wonder, who came up with the idea that our teeth should match the whites of our eyes? Since when did bettering ourselves become synonymous with having whiter teeth?
     Watching Saturday Night Fever, after noticing the not-so-white teeth, really got me thinking. What is it that we are trying so hard to hide? Shouldn't the primary goal of improving ourselves be focused on developing altruism, instead of narcissism? Having whiter teeth certainly doesn't make us more honest people. I'm willing to bet that all of the Wall Street investment and banking tycoons had toothsome white grins, which they happily flashed while screwing the American public. Does this we-must-have-whiter-teeth phenomenon somehow correlate with the active and aggressive camouflaging of our society's current shortcomings or is it merely a red herring? Are we so captivated by what our leaders and politicians are wearing, what they're drinking, who they're boinking, where they're vacationing, and of course, the color of their dental enamel, that we'll willingly overlook the resurgence of bigotry, homophobia, greed, and religious intolerance which are gripping this country? In my humble opinion, what we need now is a little more "Hmmmmmmmmm..." and a LOT less "Mmmmmmmmm!"

Pearl Drops Tooth Whitening Polish, 1975

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