Though it is in fact a Sexualized Saturday, imagine with me for a moment that it is Transformation Tuesday. The delicate wallflower blossoms into a stunning beauty just in time for her senior prom, the second-string nerd transcends his former self to become the leading man he was always meant to be—all with the simple removal of a little apparatus: eyeglasses. Glasses form the basis of tons of tropes, though perhaps none as infamous as “The Glasses Gotta Go”. From Princess Diaries and the quintessential Magical Makeover in She’s All That, to Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man transformation, pop culture has been helping nerds achieve their sexy potential by liberating them from their bespectacled prisons. Join me as I delve a little deeper into the intersection of sexual capital and corrective lenses, and the problematic territory we find there.
To reach the highest tier of the upper echelons of hotness, the glasses simply must go. One of the images circling at the forefront of my brain as I was thinking of this post was that shown above: in the first season episode “The Undertaking” of Arrow, everyone’s favorite blonde IT girl/hacker extraordinaire Felicity got to step out into the field in the team’s casino mission. To complete her va-va-voom look, she paired that stunning red dress and chic side hair-do with a noticeable lack of her trademark glasses. Why? Would the casino not have let her in while she was wearing glasses? Is she so hideous with her glasses that any thought of her looking extra good necessitates their absence? This is not uncommon when she dresses to the nines, such as for a fancy party in Season 2 episode “The Scientist”. In another Season 2 episode, “Broken Dolls”, Felicity ever so kindly and selflessly offers herself up as bait to help catch an escaped villain who is preying on pretty young women. When she goes out to lure him, she leaves her glasses behind. What?! Is the serial killer honestly gonna say, “Oh, there’s a pretty young—oh wait, glasses? Never mind. I’ll wait for someone else.” I guess it’s true what they say, serial killers don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.
The trope certainly affects male characters too, though the lens of the heteronormative male gaze which colors so much media often makes it work differently. When men are not allowed to be seen as objects of attraction, it’s more a case of “isn’t he a fine specimen, I’d like to be like him” rather than “I’d like to sleep with him”. Such is the case dating back to good old Clark Kent: the shift in perception regarding the mild-mannered, bespectacled reporter becoming a chiseled, beefcake superhero is one of admiration and emulation, instead of attraction, for a straight male viewership that is. However, in scenes like the Spider-Man clip I linked to above, I see this changing somewhat in contemporary pop culture. Media is moving beyond an exclusively straight male gaze (though that perspective still dominates), opening up to different points of view as evidenced by the lingering views of the toned male body—a body that is, nevertheless made more “perfect” and perfectly desirable by the removal of glasses.
This is not to say people with glasses can’t be perceived as hot—it’s just that their hotness is qualified and fetishized: the “sexy librarian” or “hot nerd” instead of the “sexy person” and “hot human being”. At this point, it’s worth taking an honest look at how glasses are primarily used in pop culture: rather than reflecting a fact that many people need varying levels of vision correction, glasses function as a visual cue or social marker to let us know a person is a “nerd” (with whichever layers of stereotypes that involves) or even just smart (or awkward and timid, see: Clark Kent). They can also currently be seen as part of a character’s hipster ensemble — I guess showing how counter-cultural they are by wearing glasses? So edgy. This can lead to characters not even needing vision correction donning spectacles as a fashion accessory, playing into stereotypes (and by extensions, fetishes) about people who actually need corrective lenses. Cosima from Orphan Black is a heavily visually coded character; her glasses are just one more part of her whole ensemble including her hair and her funky wardrobe that lets the viewer know she’s both a brilliant scientist and also an unconventional, quirky hipster-type. Does she even need glasses? You’d think her genetic doubles would require vision correction too if this was the case, though it seems the most common idea on fan forums is “Oh, her eyesight went bad cuz she does too much reading and studying and staring through microscopes!” (This is even backed up by the show’s science consultant.) Don’t read or science too hard, kids, or your eyes will go bad. Sure, eyestrain is real, but to the extent it would cause a woman in her early to mid-twenties to need corrective lenses if none of her genetic doubles show any signs of predisposition to poor vision? Unlikely, I’d say. I would say it’s more likely they are primarily for show to complete her aesthetic.
This whole trope is also frustrating for the mere fact that it makes vision impairment and corollary corrective lenses seem not only inherently visually unappealing, but also such a throw-away trait. When characters who wear glasses suddenly don’t so they can look hot at a party, I wish they would more often include a line referencing how they struggled to put in contact lenses because it had been so long or how their eyes were dry or uncomfortable because they weren’t used to them. Otherwise, these scenes either make it seem like vision problems are as easy to take off as the glasses that correct them, or they put the onus on glasses-wearers to have contacts at the ready at all times in case they need to look their “best” or sexually attract someone. It’s unfair to expect those who do wear glasses regularly to either go without or always have contacts on hand. Some people find putting in or wearing contacts too uncomfortable or unpleasant to do regularly or at all; I know for myself, putting contacts in requires a lengthy hand washing ritual beforehand that has to be restarted if I feel it’s been compromised at any point. In short, though I wear them every once in a while, I don’t usually have time for that. The methods one uses to correct their vision are, of course, totally a matter of bodily autonomy that’s up to each individual, and no one should have to apologize or explain away why they choose glasses or contacts or LASIK surgery. However, it sure would be nice if they ever addressed that on-screen, so creators could stop using glasses as shorthand for “disguised” or “awkward” or just plain “unattractive”.
There is an insidious extrapolation of what I’ve been discussing in this post: by tying glasses and lack thereof to sexual capital, we run the risk of contributing to a transactional model of the economics of attraction. In other words, we impose a sort of point system on attraction. Glasses: -10 pts, no glasses: +20pts (note: can be reversed for sexy librarians and scientists). This is so dangerous because it plays into schools of thought that attraction is something that can be earned; the most familiar example of this is, of course, the infamous “friendzone”. No, you can’t work your way out of the friendzone and into your crush’s heart by earning points for taking off your glasses, just like you can’t win your way into their heart by earning points for “being there” for them or buying them things. Because repeat after me: the friendzone does not exist. I’ll be the first to admit, this unhealthy message about glasses has affected me. Even just last month, I was visiting my old haunts and knew I would be seeing a friend I have feelings for. As I packed for the trip, I frantically thought “where are those spare sets of contacts I never wear?” and was upset I couldn’t find them, thinking I had missed an opportunity to earn a few Attraction Points™. Bad, bad Pisces. I am ashamed :c
So what do you think, dear readers? Have you noticed the icky and pervasive notion in pop culture and real life that to look one’s very best, glasses are not welcome? Why can’t a gal rock a stunning gown, or a gent rock a snazzy leisure suit (or vice versa), and also a nice pair of specs? Does being sexy in glasses have to be either a counter-cultural hipster statement or a niche fetish? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!