Sunday, March 1, 2009
Making Passes at Girls Who Wear Glasses
In Mary Ann Doane's essay Film and The Masquerade she devotes an entire section to the classic movie moment when the geeky girl takes off her glasses and all of a sudden is transformed into a bodacious prom queen.
As Doane puts it "The image is a heavily marked condensation of motifs concerned with repressed sexuality, knowledge, visibility and vision, intellectuality, and desire."
I think most people are aware of the absurdity of the moment when the glasses disappear.... after all if she didn't need them to see why was she even wearing glasses? Yet, when you think about it more the absurdity is really amped up. Are all our female protagonists walking around in a blurry haze of near-sightedness? It reminds me of the original Hans Christian Anderson version of The Little Mermaid where Ariel actually feels broken glass and pins shooting pain through her feet when she walks.....but that's the price you pay for beauty/ to be considered human.
Reading the Doane essay made me realize the interesting way that sexual awakening (aka shedding your glasses) can be seen as being put in your place - such as Ann Hathaway in The Princess Diaries learning to be a real lady or Rachel Leigh Cooke in She's All That learning to keep her yap shut and conform to the high school norm. Or there's the recent House Bunny where a whole sorority turns in their glasses for hair extensions, making female sexuality look like a train wreck of cleavage and fake tans.
Doane points out that "Glasses worn by a woman in the cinema do not generally signify a deficiency in seeing but an active looking, or even simply the fact of seeing as opposed to being seen."
So maybe Rachel Leigh Cooke in She's All That actually was on to something - keeping up in high school in the late nineties sucks, finding yourself doomed to a world of naval piercings and playing hacky sack. She sees it for what it is. Then she suddenly decides to take off her glasses and not "see", prompting the football player to exclaim "Check out the bobos on superfreak" and life becomes about being seen and not seeing.
Doane goes on to draw parallels between the female gaze and horror movie monsters. The horror movie female protagonist will always be punished for looking - punished by a monster that usually mirrors her own secondary status. This reminds me of why the movie Teeth is so great. In Teeth the girl is both protagonist and monster, her sexuality being the creature which must be obeyed. Mitchell Lichtenstein does an amazing job pointing out our fear of what happens when a girl takes off her promise ring.
So glasses are really just a symbol, but one that happens to have lasted since movies were first made. Doane's essay mainly centers on movies of the 1940s, and yet the same cliche rings true today. Additionally, this is one of those cliche's that isn't specific to women, take Patrick Dempsey in "Can't Buy Me Love" or Clayton Rohner in "Just One of The Guys". Glasses are a classic symbol of being in some androgynous state. Yet, as with "movie asthma" you can just throw your inhaler or glasses over your shoulder and get a boyfriend or girlfriend. Unfortunately, you'll probably never know what they look like.