Do you wear glasses? I do, and so does AddAltModeB. But then of course we do, we’re geeks, right? And it is a truth universally acknowledged that geeks wear glasses. Just how firmly that particular stereotype is grounded in truth is open to debate, but there’s no doubt at all of the extent to which glasses have become a visual pop-cultural shorthand for all sorts of behaviours and character traits that are typically considered “geeky.” They even market glasses-shaped paperclips “for geeks” because, you know, glasses on our faces just aren’t enough anymore. Apparently we need them on our dead-tree documents too.
In Hollywood, glasses are often used as a quick and/or lazy way to signal that a character is smart or bookish. Want to give that background scientist character authenticity without having to give them lines? Easy, just stick them in a pair of specs! Now intelligence really should be considered A Good Thing but the stereotypes around glasses cannot be compartmentalised in anywhere near such a neat or positive way. Just take a peek at the TV Tropes page for Glasses which lists more than 30 specs-related tropes, showing how they can signal, among other things, both ugliness and sexiness, weakness and badassery.
I’ve been thinking about glasses-related stereotypes a lot lately, prompted by the fact that I’ve got an eye-test coming up…
Glasses and me
I started wearing glasses about 5 years ago. Shortsightedness isn’t common in my family, so, as the optician confirmed, myopia in my case is almost certainly lifestyle related. I’ve always been a bookworm but my eyesight was excellent when I began my postgraduate studies… by the end of my course it wasn’t. Turns out it isn’t just sanity that can be eroded by three years spent squinting at poorly-scanned facsimilies of seventeenth-century texts, vision can be too. So I guess I’m a pretty firm confirmation of the “bookworms wear glasses” trope; albeit a rather less literal embodiment of it than the character Lex from Popcap’s series of Bookworm games, who is a actually a bespectacled bookworm of the green bug-like variety.
When you don’t drive it’s possible to get by in a myopic haze for quite some time without realising it. My career is in the library field and, perhaps appropriately, it was while I was away on a library training residential course that I first realised glasses may be necessary. I was struck at the course registration/welcome session by the fact that I was one of very few attendees who wasn’t wearing glasses (that cliché about Librarians is true). Then I took my seat for the first lecture of the day – habitually gravitating towards the back of the lecture theatre – old undergraduate tendencies die hard – – only to discover that I couldn’t make out any of the text on the board or projector!
So I came home from the course, had the eye test and soon found myself selecting my first pair of frames. I remember feeling a little peeved about it, but mostly because glasses are really expensive and that was money I’d rather have spent on other things.
Looking the part
So my initial reluctance to wear glasses was rooted in miserliness rather than vanity. Indeed, in terms of looks, wearing glasses has never bothered me at all. Of course the whole benefit of them actually correcting my vision was pretty nice. As I’d been stumbling around short-sightedly for some time by this point, when I finally got the lenses I needed it truly felt like my graphics card had been upgraded and my world had suddenly switched from 2D to 3D! But more superficially, as soon as I started trying on frames I realised that glasses really suited me, fitting both the shape of my face and my self-identified style as a robot-obsessed bookish geek.
The bespectacled genius might be a fairly lazy pop-cultural trope but it’s so pervasive that it does rub off on a day to day level. I am not a genius (very far from it), but I did find that starting to wear glasses made me feel smarter. After getting my glasses, the first few times that I had to do demonstrably “smart things” at work, giving presentations or leading training sessions, I remember genuinely feeling more confident that I looked the part. It’s probably the polar opposite of smart to allow such superficialities to influence me in that way, but then again I’ve long suspected that so much of life is about performance, and, if so, there’s a lot to be said for having the right props.
But as empowering as the “smart people wear glasses” trope can be, intelligence isn’t the only factor signalled by wearing glasses, there’s also that pesky persistent notion that glasses are ugly. Dorothy Parker’s couplet, “Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses” is one that still has a worrying degree of pop-cultural currency. Of course, I like to think this is because girls who wear glasses are smart enough to realise they don’t have passively to wait for men (and/or other women) to make that pass, they just get out there and approach who they want (why don’t you quiz AddAltModeB on who asked whom out when we first got together?) But sadly that isn’t the prevailing sentiment projected in film and TV. TV Tropes has collected a long list of examples of what it calls “the glasses gotta go” trope: in which characters lose the glasses and instantly become more desirable.
Ditching the specs is always the first step in any Hollywood makeover. Off come the glasses and it turns out the ugly duckling was a beautiful swan all along. Pass the sick bucket. It’s a trope I particularly hate, but it’s very much ingrained. Equally, glasses are often used in film and TV to make conventionally good looking actors or actresses appear less attractive. America Ferrara in Ugly Betty might be the obvious example but you can trace this right back even to the earliest days of cinema. One of silent cinema’s most famously bespectacled figures is comedian Harold Lloyd’s “Glass” character, a figure whose distinctive horn-rimmed look was said to have been created “after [a suggestion] that Harold was too handsome to do comedy without some sort of disguise.” Donning a pair of glasses then, was intended to make the early twentieth century star less attractive, more relatable as an every-man character, and thus, much funnier.
Of course, as with any accessory, some styles and colours will suit an individual more than others, Harold Lloyd deliberately went for very thick and unflattering frames to make himself less handsome. With the huge range of frame shapes, sizes and colours available today I genuinely think there’s a pair of glasses out that would suit everyone, and that glasses can look seriously hot! Fortunately, pop-culture recognises this too with recurring tropes like that of the Sexy Spectacles – a notion which seems to be deeply rooted in the idea that smart people wear glasses, and intelligence itself is a trait that can be pretty damn sexy. Yet despite the Bayonettas of this world flying the flag for sexy specs, the prevailing notion still seems to be that glasses are not an attractive feature. It may not be terribly scientific but Googling tends to be a pretty good barometer of cultural opinion. Search for the question ”are glasses ugly” and what is the top result? Some awful Wiki How article How to Be Hot Even If You Wear Glasses. That “even if” is such a killer. Is it any wonder I know too many people who try to avoid wearing their glasses as much as possible for reasons of (perceived) vanity. It’s a real shame.
I remember quite soon after I started wearing glasses a few people asked me if I wouldn’t prefer to get contact lenses so as “not to ruin my looks.” From that moment on it pretty much became a case of geek pride for me to continue wearing glasses. I genuinely like how I look in them, and B does too. I always said glasses are fine, better than fine, they’re pretty cool. I’ve long been attracted to guys in glasses but then wit and intelligence are probably the traits I find most attractive in a man. You can’t really see these things, but thanks to pop-cultural conditioning glasses can work as a pretty firm signifier of them. So every time I’ve visited the optician they’ve suggested a contact lens trial, and every time I’ve refused.
A change of heart?
So, uh, what if I tell you that when I go for my eye test this time and the subject of contact lenses inevitably rears its allegedly-less-ugly head again I’ve actually been thinking of saying yes, sign me up for a contact lens trial. Am I traitor to my tribe? Have I let all those ridiculous Hollywood makeover stereotypes erode my will at last?
Let me tell you this… I have no plans to give up my lovely glasses. But if it was geek pride that stopped me investigating other corrective vision options in the past it’s a different kind of geek pride that’s finally propelled me in this direction. Have you any idea how little I can see in my Slipstream helmet? I can’t wear my glasses when I’m in costume and add to that the impediment of peering out through a red lenses and it’s a wonder I’ve survived all the events I’ve attended in my Decepti-gear. Cosplay is important to me. I have plans to make 2 new costumes for myself next year: I’m still sketching out the details and finalising my plans but such things as masks, helmets and coloured lenses are all highly likely to be on the agenda. I’ve no desire wear contact lenses all the time but the more I think about it the option of disposable ones that I could wear when I’m in costume does seem increasingly appealing. This ugly duckling has no tinsel-town illusions that ditching her glasses could suddenly turn her into a swan (and who wants to be a swan anyway), but if contact lenses could make me a better, say, Autobot, well that’s an entirely different transformation story….