by Aditi Hukerikar //
We’ve all seen it in at least one movie. The awkward, nerdy girl realizes the lack of attention towards her, especially from the men in her life, and decides to drastically change her looks. She takes off her glasses, puts on more makeup, and suddenly, everyone around her notices how gorgeous she is.
Listen, I love the Princess Diaries movies, but Mia’s iconic makeover by Paolo in the first film is the epitome of this problematic trope. Paolo breaks her glasses (after Mia mentions that she doesn’t enjoy wearing contacts) and Mia’s curly hair is straightened during her transition from unlikeable geek to a gorgeous princess. A turning point for her character in the film, Mia’s new looks quickly catch the attention of her crush Josh and eventual love interest Michael, sending the message that Mia’s looks were what was standing in the way of her and the men she wanted to be with.
Now, discussing the issues with naturally curly hair being labelled as ugly compared to straight hair could take up its own article; straight hair tends to be associated with Eurocentric beauty standards, and though Mia and other curly-haired protagonists may be white, young BIPOC girls will still see scenes like this and start to feel that their ethnic hair texture is less beautiful than straight hair. I certainly thought so when I was a child watching these movies. But let’s look towards the role of the glasses in these scenes and how girls who wear them, according to certain pieces of media, become less attractive because of their desire to see clearly.
The Princess Diaries is certainly not the only example of this trope; women in movies are constantly changing their looks in order to better appeal to the men in their stories. And while many times, the made-over woman realizes in the end that she didn’t need the man to be happy after all, she still retains her new look throughout the course of the film. So even though this character decides that she isn’t going to focus on adjusting her looks to look attractive for a man in the film, she must still look appealing to the audience, and that includes keeping her glasses off. These makeover scenes are a clear illustration of Laura Mulvey’s cinematic theory of the male gaze: essentially, the camera itself takes on the perspective of a heterosexual man, leading to the sexualization of the women on-screen. Even in movies marketed towards young girls, such as The Princess Diaries, the male gaze promotes beauty standards that the characters must follow, and when those standards include ditching a pair of glasses, young girls who wear glasses start to associate the objects that help them see with being less beautiful.
Taking a Closer Look at Glasses
In 2018, the Vision Council reported that an estimated 164 million adults wore glasses in the United States, and even more wore some type of corrective vision. So why is removing glasses such a common movie trope? Despite how frequently you’d see someone wearing glasses in your daily life, it’s not very common for film or television protagonists to have them on.
It’s worth noting that oftentimes, glasses can be seen as a sign of intelligence. So what does it say about the message of these films when a woman removes her glasses to become more beautiful? Teen movies especially end up typecasting characters who are women as either smart and unattractive or attractive and unintelligent. There shouldn’t be an expectation for women to choose between being attractive and being intelligent; really, someone’s appearance shouldn’t comment on their intelligence at all. But if movies continue to utilize tropes and archetypes that reinforce imagined dichotomies, the danger of these tropes will grow.
Blurring The Lines Between Cinema and Reality
When movies targeted towards younger audiences use these tropes, they promote ideas that could impact how children see themselves. As someone who started wearing glasses in first grade and had characteristically bushy hair for most of my life, seeing this nerd-girl-turned-gorgeous trope—in which a girl whose appearance wasn’t too different from mine was constantly the one in the ugly “before” photo—certainly impacted my self esteem. If I had seen more characters who didn’t have to take their glasses off or otherwise change their appearance to become well-lied by their peers, it’s likely that I would have felt a little better about myself back then.
We shouldn’t be sending the message to young girls that they need to change aspects of their appearance to be considered beautiful, especially when the metric of beauty is set at male attention. Sadly, this is exactly the message sent when the makeover trope appears yet again and has a woman on-screen remove her glasses in an attempt to become more attractive. It’s no secret that the characters we see in our favorite movies or television shows have an impact on us, especially when we’re young and impressionable. Therefore, it’s essential for popular media to ensure that women on-screen removing their glasses isn’t associated with a significant change in their attractiveness.
Looking to The Future, Is There Hope?
As opposed to the simple archetypes of the past, more women in films today are written as complex, interesting characters. Still, I could not tell you the last time I saw a woman who was a main character in a popular movie wearing glasses. Fortunately, there does appear to be change in sight: when I saw the trailer for Encanto, an animated film in which the main character Mirabelle is wearing glasses, I was thrilled to finally see a woman on-screen who keeps her glasses on. Let’s hope this change also continues with live action films in the near future.