Assistive Tech & Pop Culture: “Miss Smith, without your glasses you’re beautiful!”

If you ever want to confuse people, tell them glasses are assistive devices that assist people with lower-level vision impairments, and then compare these assistive devices to such things as arm crutches or wheelchairs. In my experience, they’ll often insist that people who wear glasses are normal. (Not like people who use wheelchairs or arm crutches or any other type of assistive tech, no no, those people are disabled. And everyone knows you can tell who has a disability and who doesn’t just by looking at them, right?)

I’ll often introduce people to the idea that our image of what “disabled” looks like is constructed by talking about glasses as assistive tech, just assistive tech that is generally accepted by society. For a lot of people I interact with every day, getting glasses is routine, and you’ll see glasses everywhere on the street – advertisements for fancy glasses frames! and for new types of lenses! Glasses for everyone! (For certain definitions of “everyone”.)

At the same time, media & pop culture still use glasses as “code” – either for This Is Serious Work, or This Person Is A Nerd/Geek (and a particular type at that) or a scientist/doctor, or a Serious Scholar. This is true whether the person uses glasses all the time, or if they just use them for certain things. On Leverage, for example, when “the bruiser” character Eliot puts on his glasses he suddenly becomes totally sexy and I’d totally hit that because I’m shallow it’s usually an indication that his persona for the episode is Egghead/Nerd or Expert on something. Neal, who is a “recovering” con artist, does something similar in White Collar when he’s doing close-up nerdy-type work on his forgeries, or when his persona is “doctor”. I also clearly remember Elle Woods putting on her Serious Glasses and getting into her Serious Clothes for when she wants to be taken seriously as a lawyer in Legally Blonde. Glasses = Smart!

What brings this back to Glasses As Assistive Tech is that glasses are very normalized to people watching the shows, and yet glasses aren’t all the common as just a Thing The Character Wears in the show. I know why this is – glasses cause light-reflections, glasses make it harder to read someone’s expression on the screen, glasses can be dangerous in fight scenes, if they have lenses they can get scratched up and cause more problems, and if you’re not someone who wears glasses all the time I’m betting they’re distracting.

But, of course, movies and television aren’t the only media we consume. Comics, novels, and video games don’t have these problem. You can give every character in a novel glasses if you want, and it doesn’t really matter. And yet, when I was reading romance novels & chick lit all the time, I can only remember one heroine who wore them, and she went through the whole “Oh, but no one will find me pretty! Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses!” (And, despite her glasses being a huge thing in this novel, the cover art didn’t show her with them. Not that this is surprising, but still.)

So what does this have to do with anything? Well, glasses are assistive tech that is very normalized, and yet doesn’t appear very often in our media. When it does appear in our media, it’s often a code for something. This person is Smart. This person is Studious. This person in Playing A Role. This person is Eliot and his glasses make him really really hot omg why are there not more episodes of him wearing glasses and being friendly? And if we can’t see this incredibly common type of assistive tech in our media being used as just a Thing That People Wear, it’s no wonder we so rarely see people using assistive tech in our media just because Some People Are Blind or Some People Uses Arm Crutches or whatever.

Commenting Note: Sadly, I am still on Thesis Time, and likely will be until the end of the calendar year. Comment-approval/responding to will be slower-than-usual on account of this.

17 Comments

  1. Some people say they were teased for wearing glasses, I can’t say that’s been my experience. (One person made a negative comment – that wearing glasses made my eyes weak, I should switch to contacts. My eyes were getting weaker, but that was because of the thyroid.)

    I wonder if sunglasses are related to this – there’s been a non-prescription, fashionable version of glasses for a long time. And yes, my sister did the Elle Woods thing for a while.

    I’m a bit fried and my American pop culture knowledge is kind of low right now, but Milhouse from the Simpsons is a nerd, and he has said “My glasses, I can’t see a thing without my glasses.” He’s the only one I can think of that has said that. Though maybe Kitty from Arrested Development comes close – she took them off and it was obvious her vision wasn’t the same. (It was also a parody of the sexy lady behind glasses.)

    Stephen Colbert wears them, though I don’t know if he wore them while on the Daily Show. If he did, he may need them. If he didn’t, he wears them now for fake gravitas.

    A side note about making other things “sexy” or “cool” – I just finished “The Westing Game,” and Sydelle Pulaski wants attention so she fakes a bad leg and paints her crutches different colors on a regular basis. She also does this when she actually needs them – I think that’s pretty awesome.

    Is it still a widely used trope that people are beautiful without their glasses?

    One thing that used to only be available in one way is hearing aids. As the American population ages, there are more available… but the ad I saw today was all about hiding it (it looked like a bluetooth device)… not for someone who needs a serious one, but just when your hearing is getting a little rusty.

    Maybe more things will get cooler revamps with the aging population – we had stylish stuff before, why can’t our assistive devices be awesome now?

  2. I’ve been catching up on “30 Rock” this past week, and the whole use of glasses as shorthand has really gotten to me (as have many other of the show’s comments on beauty, body image, and ability).

    The reason I’ve been watching so much TV as of late is that I’ve been stuck in bed with a painful infection. As an indicator that I haven’t been well, I’ve noted to myself “I’ve been wearing glasses for a week” (i.e. I haven’t put in my contact). Seems that in my own code glasses stand for “low on spoons” where as contacts stand for “cleaning up nicely.” Glasses are “not passing’ and contacts are “passing”.

  3. The without-your-glasses-you’re-beautiful thing is a trope used in every movie where someone (female) gets a “makeover” and OMG, they are suddenly beautiful! I remember it best right now in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” but “She’s All That” and “Strictly Ballroom” also come to mind.

    According to the TV Tropes page (“The Glasses Gotta Go”), there’s even a scene in “The Princess Diaries” where the person giving Princess Mia a makeover actually takes off her glasses and deliberately breaks them. I haven’t seen the movie, but that’s appalling.

  4. tennant’s doctor had a par of glasses in one of his pockets that he put on for Very Serious Science Time. i think he actually had that pointed out by another character on the show at least once.
    otherwise i can only really think of jack making sawyer a pair of prescription reading glasses out of two other pairs they had lying around. and that was about the only time i can think of where glasses were ever actually a plot point and not just decor.

  5. @seandehey, in Time Crash, Ten comments to Five “Oooh, and the glasses come out! You don’t even need them, you just think they make you look a bit clever!” (slight paraphrase, that may not be the *exact* wording) It’s fairly deliberate parody, I think.

  6. notemily – that scene pissed me off soooooooo much. (And I don’t recall it happening in the books… or if she had glasses in the books.)

    That scene – and any makeover that involves removing your icky glasses – assumes that we all have “normal” vision problems and can easily wear contacts. I think the person doing the makeover should pay for more stylish glasses (gag), instead of forcing us to wear something we’ve never worn before.

    I think that’s akin to taking away the assistive device you’ve been using to get around and replacing it with one that does the same job, that you can use, but that you’re not at all used to or comfortable with. You don’t need this old thing – go burn it.

  7. i remembered another one – on due south, third season? with the second ray, he and fraser had the following exchange (going from memory) while in a gunfight in a graveyard (long story):
    fraser – you might also consider some remedial practice on the target range, your aim is appalling.
    ray – i’m a good shot!
    fraser – by what criterion? you fired seven rounds and never came anywhere near your target!
    ray – i’m a good shot, i just need my glasses! i left them in the tomb.
    fraser – oh. here you are. (pulls ray’s glasses out of his pocket)
    ray – why didn’t you tell me you had them?
    fraser – i didn’t realize you were blind!
    ray – i’m not blind, i just don’t see all that good!

    this scene still makes me laugh but i can’t decide if it’s a good presentation or not. if i remember right, ray was the only person on the show who wore glasses, and generally only when he needed them for reading or suchlike, which is actually a fairly accurate depiction of many people (i only need mine for reading), comparable to admiral adama wearing his while doing paperwork in his office, but not while on the c.i.c..

    the teasing thing never troubled me because i got mine in fourth grade and got past it along time ago. then again, i don’t care about going bald either, and when my hearing goes out i’m getting an ear horn, so i’m probably not a good case study. i also don’t want to put contact lenses into my eyes, so i’d rather just wear stylish glasses anyways.

  8. I was mocked for them, but by the same token I was already being pretty severely mocked for existing, so it doesn’t seem indicative.

    I know poeople who skirt the line of legally blind without their glasses, whereas I’d have serious headaches for a week or so while my eyes readjusted but would otherwise have my life pretty much unchanged. So while acknowledging my use of assistive tech and existence along the spectrum of vision impairment seems important in terms of helping normalise disability, I seldom do because it seems appropriative. Walking a few extra feet to be able to see signs is not exactly life changing.

  9. There’s some comics where the women characters wear glasses… Thessaly in The Sandman wears glasses. I liked her.

    And there’s a webcomic where a lot of the girls wear glasses. It’s not really relevant to the story (most of the time) but I thought that was neat because I so rarely saw the proprtion of be-spectacled characters outnumber characters without glasses.

    I took more crap as a kid from having to wear an eye patch before switching to glasses. I’ve seen kids these days still trying the eye patch thing to strengthen their weaker eyes and sometimes I feel like I’m the only one around not phased from seeing the patch. People make comments… What, you never saw an eye patch before?

  10. On any form that I fill in that asks me if I have a disability (though the wording varies), I write that I need glasses. I have no idea how that is received by employers etc, but I always thought I should write it in to show that disability affects a wider range of people than you’d think, even before I came to feminism and disability rights awareness.

    I’ve never worn contacts either, and I hate the “you have to wear contacts to look pretty” and “you have to have the most fashionable frames” opinions of the media (and sometimes my optometrist!) Took me WEEKS to get used to my new “fashionable” frames, because they were harder to adjust to fit me properly (my ears are different sizes so my glasses sit funny if not specially adjusted) and because they are that narrow rectangle shape, as though one only needs to see a narrow line of the world when one is profoundly short-sighted.

    Why can’t assistive tech work properly AND be fashionable without detracting from the function? For that matter, why can’t clothing and shoes work properly (cover bits of me that I want them to, be comfortable and not shift around while being worn) AND be fashionable without detracting from the function?

  11. The example of someone actually *breaking* the person’s glasses makes me see red. The whole trope infuriates me immensely anyway, but BREAKING them? Oh, sure, go ruin a person’s assistive device, great plan. Especially a person’s EXPENSIVE assistive device (I paid almost three hundred pounds for my last pair, and I’m still reasonably uncomplicated, just very nearsighted wtih some astigmatism).

    I always feel surprised when I realise just how many people wear glasses in RL, possibly because it’s so atypical in the media.

  12. Tangentially, I still think one of the best inversions of a glasses-related trope can be found in the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movie.

    Usually, the trope goes that a character who wears glasses takes them off and everyone thinks they look so much better without them. There’s even a name on TV Tropes for this: “The Glasses Gotta Go”.

    In Cloudy, however, the female protagonist is a weather reporter. She initially looks… well, like your stereotypical TV news person. But it turns out she’s actually quite a geek, the sort of person who became a meteorologist because she hyperfocused on weather as a kid– and she’s been covering it up, because she didn’t want to look nerdy. But the male protagonist, a geeky mad scientist, convinces her to put her glasses on and her hair in a ponytail… and actually ends up liking her better that way.

    Yeah, I cheered when I saw that scene. ^_^

    Oh, yeah, and the film also shows that she can’t see all that well without the glasses either.

  13. …And I really should read the comments more carefully; I see notemily already linked the TV Tropes page that I referenced.

  14. I recently got a mail from an online store (I subscribed to the newsletter, they inform me of new stuff) and they had this new item in stock:
    http://www.attitudeholland.nl/va/15960/Nerd-glasses.html
    (links to a page with ‘nerd glasses’ sold as a prop/accessory for somewhat alternative people)

    So I remembered this post.

    On the one hand: glasses=nerd, nerd=glasses *sigh*. Or that there is some type of glasses that are nerdy (all of them except sunglasses?).
    On the other hand, these are sold to actually make people more attractive, not less, also supported by the picture of the girl modeling them. Instead of people having to take them off.

  15. My college roommate from Southern California told me once that in her high school there was a time when kids who didn’t need glasses wore them as a fashion statement.

  16. When I got my first pair of glasses, my uncle told me that I could wear my glasses and look smart or take them off and look beautiful. He meant that as a compliment in the sense that I had the advantage of looking both.
    I also had many people who suggested the make-over trope to me, telling me that I should cut my hair (it was really long, but long hair was my trade mark and my comfort zone), get my ears pierced, put on make-up and (ta-da) get contacts.
    Since I had only mild vision problems at first, I gave into this trope, taking off my glasses for parties and dances.

  17. Zellie – no one ever told that to me, and if a prospective date does, it’s over. Besides, how can I look beautiful without them when I can’t see myself? “Oh you’re so pretty without your glasses, especially when you’re 2 inches away from my face so you can see me.”

    I’ve had them for about 12 years, they’re a part of my identity, who I see in the mirror.

    I hate that glasses are like make-up or a haircut for some people (nahin, not my hair!!!), yes I take them off at night, but um… no. Call me when the “natural look” includes dry, flakey spots and a huge unpoppable zit.

    I got my ears pierced just as or before I turned 12, when I was going into 7th grade. At Wal-Mart. I felt like I was so grown up, going to get the milk after, while my mom was like “noooooo, they can’t grow up.” I only did it because everyone does, and I stopped wearing them within a couple years, but the damn holes won’t close. The eyebrow and then the nose? My choice, even though I claim my sister made me get my nose done. I’d been wanting to do it, she pushed me by saying come on, we’re here already. I’m a sucker for benign peer pressure!

    Especially if I wanted it already. But make-up? No, that’s her thing, not mine.

    I’ve trailed off from glasses, haven’t I?

    Funny now, not at the time glasses anecdote – I was looking for them while wearing them. Not so funny – having that bloody screw come out at about 2 am having to use scotch tape to hold them together because I was house-sitting. Why wasn’t everybody awake and willing to help me?! The dogs were no help!

    The reason I came here – I’m watching “Life in a Metro,” a realistic Bollywood movie. When we meet Konkona’s character, Shruti, she’s wearing those rectangular glasses. When she switches to contacts (in hopes of getting a man), we don’t just see the “after.” We see her trying with her hand a foot away, her eye running away! Very realistic, I thought.