Sexualized Saturdays: On Sexual Capital and Corrective Lenses, or The Spectacle of Spectacles

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.

Felicity, where are your glasses, bb?

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 women all want to date him, the men all want to be him. Newsflash: some of the men do want to date him (and not all the women want to date him). -- image via x

The women all want to date him; the men all want to be him. Newsflash: some of the men do want to date him (and not all the women want to date him). (image via tomwellingmanofsteel)

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.


“The best kind of girl is a quirky girl!” *weird noise*

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!

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13 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: On Sexual Capital and Corrective Lenses, or The Spectacle of Spectacles

  1. This is one of the first things I noticed when I was young, even before the racial stuff I noticed later.

    I’ve been wearing glasses since I was ten and got the message, from the media, loud and clear, that I would never be sexy because I wear glasses. I cant wear contacts, as my problem cant be corrected with those, so I guess, according to TV, I will never be sexy.

    But then that message is just one, among several thousand, that convinced me, at a very young age, that I wasnt even in the running for sexy and never would be.

    • Hi thanks for reading and commenting. sorry it took me so long to respond! I hate that this happens, that these messages reach and embed themselves in children and adolescents growing up. God knows these messages have been ingrained in me, and I feel I will spend the rest of my life trying to un-do their effects on my self-image, if I even can. I hate it so, so much. If people ever doubt the power media has to influence the psyches of youth, I would point to them the innumerable instances that the message is ingrained in young people that “sexy” has EXTREMELY narrow margins (with the corollary that our physical appearances construct our worth). one more reason diversity and representation is so critical to our media!

  2. As a myopic person who has been wearing glasses since the age of six this was the message I always got from the media. I made sure to keep my glasses on every time I went to prom until my doctor prescribed corrective contact lenses for me. But hell– it’s not in the way you look, it’s in the way you see. 😉

  3. I’ve been wearing glasses every waking hour since the age of nine and am a sex-averse asexual who doesn’t really want to be seen as sexually attractive, and I also am adamantly against trying to wear contacts — touching my eyes has always been something I didn’t want to do. I never really thought about how me wearing glasses means I’m actively presenting myself in a less sexy way by conventional standards of attraction, but maybe it was subconsciously on purpose.

    I think it’s a ridiculous and harmful idea that people who wear glasses are somehow less attractive. Or are automatically nerdy. Cosima’s glasses on Orphan Black now are gonna really bother me. 😛

    • hi thanks for reading and commenting, sorry it took me so long to respond!
      yeah it’s weird how in media glasses are so much more an indicator of social status/desirability rather than vision impairment, so that in real life, people who don’t even need them could use them as a tool to signify nerdiness or “quirkiness” or to make themselves less appealing (on the assumption that everyone thinks glasses detract from attractiveness).

      and wouldn’t you know, like the DAY after this post went up, the Orphan Black episode mentioned Cosima’s vision and that she genuinely does need her glasses (i haven’t watched the episode yet, but one of my fellow writers told me about it). so now i feel a little bad for calling her out on it, but i’m still mad at the writers because (1) i still don’t understand *why* she needs them — i don’t like the whole “i science’d and read too hard even though i have genetic double control studies with whose vision is perfectly fine” (2) they are just contributing to what i said above that glasses are used as a tool to signify nerdiness or “quirkiness”; why couldn’t Cosima have been a brilliant scientist who DOESN’T need glasses?? is it her smarts or her unconventional hipster persona that are more threatened by a lack of glasses? Delphine has presumably been in labs just as much as Cosima and doesn’t need vision correction. Leekie is a scientist who was a good deal older than they, and even he doesn’t need to wear glasses all the time. When creating characters, I wish writers didn’t fall into such lazy tropes. we need more scientists and brainiacs without glasses, and more non-scientists/ brainy-types with glasses!

      • Yeah I recently caught up on Orphan Black and couldn’t help but notice that Scott and Cosima are the only two good-people nerds this season (something is just off or at least ambiguous about Delphine this year) and both of them wear glasses.

        The fact that Cosima is blind without her glasses when she’s pretending to be Alison in the episode you mention is funny, and played for humor, but much like the fact that Helena is always blond, I’m a little confused by how far the writers are stretching what differences actually make sense between genetically identical people. I mean, Helena could dye her hair, but does she? And when? She’s been locked up so much of her life? Did other people dye it for her?

        These are the kinds of questions it’s hard not to ask.

        The writers in season 1 got it wrong when they said identical twins share the same fingerprints — they don’t, fingerprints aren’t genetic, they are environmental and caused by what exactly you touch as a fetus with developing fingers in-utero. So the police finding Katya’s (The German’s) body would only have been a problem for Sarah Manning if someone recognized her face or if they had Sarah’s DNA on file and had tested Katya against it.

        The idea that needing glasses is something that could potentially be environmental and not genetic is an interesting one to toy with. The idea that maybe so many things that make you who you are are not innate. But we see non-congenital disability way more often on TV anyway than we see people genetically predispositioned to it. Needing glasses in today’s society isn’t really a disability in most situations, but… it’d be nice if every single one of the clones had needed glasses, were blind without them, and many of them chose to wear contacts but not all of them. Poor Helena was actually blind all the time because she never had parents that loved her and spent a lot of her life essentially in prison with improper care or something too. I think that choice, that difference between the clones, where genetically they all have that problem, but who they became as people made how they reacted to poor vision different, would’ve been a much more interesting thing to explore.

        I don’t know.

  4. There are lots of levels that contribute to the beauty standards concerning corrective lenses:
    1. Like the way job interviews demands suits regardless of how well a person can rock other fashions, there’s an element of “Are you willing to put in extra effort for this thing? I am.” That extra work needed to deal with putting in contacts, to put on makeup, to do your hair, to put on formal wear, becomes a sign of a person’s investment and desire, and thus is its own form of flattery of the other party.
    1a. In this case, fiction mirrors real life. People who find contacts to be a hassle, (including yours truly) have priorities that do not find the advantages of contacts to outweigh their inconveniences. We might value spending our time otherwise, (on work or pleasure) or value our ocular hygiene more. At the same time, there are lots of people who don’t have perfect vision, but wear neither glasses nor contacts, because their work/hobbies don’t need that kind of precision eyesight. It’s the people who read a lot, or examine small details, that really need to wear corrective lenses. Hence the nerd/studious glasses-wearing tendency.
    2. Studies have shown that people can create the feeling of a deep emotional connection simply by holding extended direct eye contact, gazing into each others’ eyes. Any form of glasses with a noticable frame draws attention to the fact that there’s something else standing in between. Clark Kent wears glasses as a mask, as a means of not letting others see the “true” him, and that association carries over. There’s a sense of not fully seeing the glasses-wearer’s face, when a part of it is covered by the glasses.
    2a. Older models of glasses did actually do this. Their designs were ugly, and a person looked notably different wearing one. Newer designs can avoid this effect, or be designed to fit in or even enhance the wearer’s face, which is why more modern versions of the “glasses off = hot” trope are hackneyed, and we are seeing the “megane fetish” gain more mainstream ground. There’s even an anime about celebrating the glasses-wearing bishounen! (And a “glasses kink” tag on smutfics.)

    • hi thanks for reading and commenting, sorry it took me so long to respond! these are all very valid points — it goes to show just how complex the whole situation really is! to address the points: (1) the whole appearance politics is weird. like how people seem to think having tattoos will affect a person’s ability to do work? it’s frustrating the norms are so restrictive, but at some point I guess following norms is part of the social contract we make to live in society? but i obviously still think the limits should be pushed ! (1a) this is very true — I wish characters would talk about this more; “yeah i wear glasses sometimes, but i don’t NEEED to in order to get by”. i would hate them a little less in their glasses-free ball gown outings lol (2) this is an interesting point. one of the good sides is that in more intimate relationships there will be moments that are well, more intimate, in which a person likely won’t be wearing their glasses. so in some ways, i kind of like that not everybody gets to see me without my glasses? (2a) this is definitely a big factor — though it’s interesting how even minimalist frames vs. no glasses can change a person’s appearance/perception of their appearance. keep up the good thinking!

  5. I based an entire burlesque routine on this trope. I wear these big nerdy glasses through most of the act. At the very end, I try to take them off and be sexy, but unlike the movies, I can’t see at all. Not sexy. The first time I performed it, someone in the audience yelled, “NOT THE GLASSES!” when I was taking them off so yeah, definitely some fetishizing there.

    I’ve worn glasses since I was 5, and I can only wear rigid permeable lenses so contacts are really uncomfortable for me. Nevertheless I’ve always felt compelled to wear them instead of glasses for photoshoots, formal events, etc. There’s this idea (perpetuated by media) that glasses don’t make you look good, especially when you’ve got a heavy prescription. I used to joke with my friends about how my sexy burlesque persona should never be seen in glasses minus the prop ones, but that’s just not possible when your contacts sometimes hurt your eyes. Plus I’ve found that I actually look better with glasses because my eyes are really small and the glasses help take away from that (nobody ever believes me… or they’re trying to make me feel better about having very narrow eyes).

    • hi thanks for reading and commenting, sorry it took me so long to respond! it’s such an interesting issue — i certainly wouldn’t want anyone to feel compelled to alter their appearance in ways that literally cause physical discomfort, but at the same time, i would never want to take away someone’s freedom of choice and autonomy on how they want to look for a given event. and also i totally hear you about the looking better in glasses — and wondering if people are just being kind and not telling me my eyes are too close together lol

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