In the Jewish household I grew up in, our Christmas traditions were fairly customary: Chinese takeout and a movie. Except for one thing. Every December, my dad would look up a time that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would be playing on TV, and gather the family on the living room couch with snacks for an annual screening. Why, you ask? Because my father, who is a dentist, went the whole year without feeling seen in much culture. But once a year, in the 1964 stop motion television special’s Hermey the Dentist Elf, he finally got the positive representation he was looking for.
Having grown up with a sensitivity to dentistry in film, I can confirm that there are few positive portrayals of dentists in pop culture. In fact, they're typically maniacal and cruel villains. Little Shop of Horrors is a classic example of this, with its sadistic dentist antagonist. The list goes on: Novocaine (2001), 1996 Slasher film The Dentist and its 1998 sequel The Dentist 2, Jennifer Aniston’s character in Horrible Bosses. These evil dentists also often pass down traumas to their own families. There’s Dr. Wilbur Wonka, Willy Wonka’s dentist father who emotionally scarred him so much that he became a chocolatier out of resentment. There's that horrible niece in Finding Nemo who keeps brutally killing her fish.
My dad is not like the dentists you see on TV or movies. He's a nice guy! He's never once gone a maniacal killing spree. I never even had braces and still haven’t had to get my wisdom teeth out. I recently talked to my dad about where he thinks dentophobia comes from—he thinks it's passed down.
“Why would a kid be scared of the dentist if they’d never had anything done at the dentist yet? Some of them come petrified. I’ve heard parents say ‘Oh, if you don’t sit still, Dr. Kranc is going to give you a needle.’ Stupid things like that," he tells me. "So people give us a bad rap.” When I ask how that makes him feel, he says “over the years, I’ve sort of developed a shield against it. But it’s very typical to hear that, and it’s annoying that that’s the way it’s always portrayed.” And it’s true. If you forced a bot to watch every movie ever made, they would likely conclude that people go into dentistry simply to inflict pain onto others—that is, if it weren’t for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s Hermey the Dentist Elf.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer offers a very rare positive representation of dentistry in cinema. When Hermey the Elf doesn’t want to make toys like the other elves, and expresses that he wants to study the fine art of teeth instead, he becomes an outcast like the titular Rudolph. But the film teaches us to celebrate differences—at its close, Rudolph saves Christmas with his special nose, realizing that being different is really a gift, and Hermey opens a dental office in the elf village. It’s truly the only film in history that celebrates a passionate dentist joyously getting to do what he loves. “I find it humorous that the ambition of one of the heroes of the movie is to be a dentist,” my dad tells me. “It’s not the typical hero character. He’s kind of like the rebel elf—but the rebel is this nerdy guy who wants to be a dentist, it’s not like he wants to start a motorcycle gang. That’s what his ambition is, and that’s what mine was. So it’s kind of like, ‘you go girl!’ or in this case, ‘you go, dentist!’”
It was always heartwarming and a little hilarious to see my dad smile when Hermey summons the courage to tell his elf boss that what he really wants to be in life is a dentist. Not a superhero or a movie star, but a dentist. So, yes, Christmastime brings joy to a lot of people in the world. The season means family, cheer, warmth, and love. But it also is the singular time of year that your neighborhood dentist gets to feel celebrated in culture. So this Christmas season, settle in on your couch with all the sugary sweets to watch the absolute classic that is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—just afterwards, don’t forget to brush your teeth.
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