You’ve seen it a thousand times: the drably-dressed, ‘ugly’ smart girl wearing glasses who immediately becomes desirable once those glasses come off. At last, the hunky jock can see beyond her icky smarts to the hot bombshell she’s always been underneath it all. And they all lived happily ever after, right? Movies have relied on this maddeningly overused and offensive trope for far too long, and it’s time we moved on.
Last week, Dr. Andrew Porwitzky, a research physicist from New Mexico, stumbled upon the 1956 Isaac Asimov essay “The Cult of Ignorance” from the book Is Anyone There? Porwitzky tweeted a passage from the essay that discusses the ‘ugly girl in glasses’ movie trope.
Isaac Asimov's critique of the "ugly girl with glasses becoming popular" from 1956 is spectacular. pic.twitter.com/toxMCVRLgA
— Andy Porwitzky (@DoktorAndy) October 30, 2016
In the words of John Oliver, how is this still a thing?!
“Not glasses! They’ll make me look absolutely positively goofy!”
Throughout pop culture, glasses have been used as a lazy shortcut for “smart person” or often “nerd”. You want to make your scientist, chemist, lab worker, librarian, or any other number of “smart person” jobs look intelligent? Chuck on a pair of glasses and you’re good to go. Look at the scientist played by Charlie Day in Pacific Rim, boy genius Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory, humorless genius Velma from Scooby-Doo; the list goes on.
Poet Dorothy Parker once wrote, “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” but it seems that Hollywood took that a little too literally. Unfortunately, for some reason, women wearing glasses and exhibiting signs of intelligence are instant turn-offs to leading men of cinema. Worse still, much like Clark Kent’s super effective disguise, no one even notices the pretty girl behind the specs until the ever-so-necessary make-over by the wise and popular beautification fairies. Pop culture is constantly telling us, if you want to be loved, take off the glasses.
Glasses Equals Unhappy
“But I need those!” A girl may protest. Silly girl. No you don’t. Even turning into a princess means you have no need for seeing anymore, so it’s perfectly okay for a man to rip those glasses off your face and snap them. With money and power, who needs eyesight anymore?
This is why the trope is so dangerous — it uses harmful stereotypes to reinforce these negative ideas. If glasses are a shortcut for intelligence, it stands to reason that when the ugly girl in glasses has her corrective lenses removed and becomes the beautiful swan, then intelligence isn’t an admired quality. As Asimov said in his essay, the trope teaches audiences that “extensive education is a social hindrance and causes unhappiness.” This Hollywood lesson has been drummed into us for more than half a century, so it’s no wonder society reveres those who engage in less than intelligent endeavors and treats those born into wealth as role models.
Men Aren’t Safe Either… Sort Of
Men aren’t entirely immune to the glasses effect either. Characters considered ‘nerds’ are also at the receiving end of makeovers involving the removal of glasses. In fact, reality show Beauty and the Geek used this as a premise for an actual TV show.
The difference here is that even with Clark Kent’s thick, black frames, he still lands a classy broad like Lois Lane. Likewise, Indiana Jones — the bespectacled nerd in the classroom/20-20 vision’ed dashing hero in the streets — definitely snags his fair share of ladies. Even the painfully awkward Leonard Hofstadter in The Big Bang Theory lands the hot dumb popular blonde, Penny. Wearing spectacles for male characters brings an air of wisdom, not one of sad desperation. Sure, our nerdy glasses-wearing male heroes may be socially inept, but they still usually land the babe in the end.
Is Sci-Fi Helping or Just Part of the Problem
Asimov’s essay argues that science fiction is a place where these stereotypes are an exception. He says, “a significant fraction of science fiction stories have as their chief motivating force some kind of technical problem, and as their chief characters, technically trained people.” Given that we’ve already established that Hollywood is lazy and throws glasses on anyone with smarts, perhaps this is a way to break the stereotype and show men and women in these fields as attractive and bespectacled (or not), that smarts don’t have to equal sadness and loneliness and general undateability.
Perhaps one example of a hot, smart girl who also happens to wear glasses is Arrowverse’s Felicity Smoak. While she often comes across as being the adorkable nerd, for the most part, she rocks her intellect like few others have. Sadly, however, even she has fallen into the same trap, for when her glasses are slowly removed by her hot male love interest, the sexy times can begin.
Played For Laughs
Subverting the trope for laughs is also quite common among parody films and comedy shows. In a South Park episode (and a few other shows and movies), one character tells a girl she’d look better without her glasses. She complies, but nope, still fugly. While it’s all well and good to mock this awfully reductive trope — and it absolutely should be mocked — this still reinforces the idea that a woman’s worth is to be admired as an object. Isn’t it funny that she’s still ugly? Smart girls just can’t catch a break.
Legally Blonde plays with the trope in a more nuanced manner. Already looking at the stereotype that fashionable women who appear ditzy can’t also have intelligence, Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) turns up for her first day at school sporting glasses. Her outfit could be best described as a fashionable, smart girl costume. But this works for her character. She’s highlighting the trope for what it really is — a costume choice. It’s a shortcut. But Elle shows that she doesn’t need shortcuts to prove she’s smart — she can be herself, rock a bangin’ outfit, and still use her brains for good.
On the other side of the gender equation, the Ghostbusters reboot puts hunky Chris Hemsworth behind a pair of specs for comedic effect. The extremely clueless and awfully stupid Kevin wears fake glasses and shows off two shirtless headshots of himself as a doctor — one with and one without glasses.
Hemsworth’s character is clearly going for the gender role reversal, and he does so pitch perfectly. The dumb, bumbling yet extremely attractive secretary is bad at their job but allowed to stay because they’re so hot. A part of me wants to hate it for all the reasons that women have been objectified throughout film history. However, it deliberately highlights the issue in a film that was already highly contentious around gender roles and politics from the outset. As a result, it absolutely works. Its point was to be overt in its silliness to show just how sad the trope really is.
Kill It With Fire
Today, we can be accepting of all people, and all people should be represented fairly. Are all people who wear glasses smart? Of course not. Are all women who wear glasses just waiting for a dashing prince to rescue her from her spectacles-induced black hole of unpopularity and loneliness? Absolutely not! So we shouldn’t accept these horrible and harmful tropes in our pop culture either.