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Glasses, Marilyn and Me

2012 January 31

‘Men aren’t attentive to girls who wear glasses’ is Marilyn Monroe’s sober pronouncement at the end of 1953′s classic How to Marry a Millionaire. As the myopic Pola, she’s spent the whole of the film whipping off her glasses as soon as she gets a whiff of aftershave.

‘Honestly Pola, why can’t you keep those cheaters on long enough to see who you’re with?’ asks exasperated gal pal Lauren Bacall, to which Pola replies:

‘Oh no, I’m not taking a chance like that! You know what they say about girls who wear glasses.’

Apparently – according to a single and slightly biased internet source - this wasn’t a million miles away from Monroe herself, who was ‘nearsighted and often wore glasses at times when she was out of the limelight’. If we believe this Fun Fact, its absence from the public domain underscores the irony. You know what they say about girls who wear glasses.

Got To Put My Cheaters On!

I’ve got a lot of sympathy for poor Pola-Marilyn. I’ve had moderate to severe myopia since primary school, and spent a large portion of my teenage years bumping into things and hugging strangers out of a misguided desire to be considered attractive by the Average Teenage Boy.

Cartoon of a girl with a fringe and glasses looking in the mirror

The Glasses Situation, by Hodge.

To be fair, I am unluckily one of those people for whom glasses do not automatically provide a sense of insouciant high-end Tom Ford cool - all the angles of my face are fattened and distorted with a bad pair of frames. And the laws of statistics and dubious teenage taste dictate that most longstanding myopics will choose a bad pair of frames several times over the course of their younger lives before alighting on the style that works for them. (I’ve always considered it very mean that the average glasses model can be selected for her glasses-friendly angles, whereas Real Life distributes myopia and astigmatism with no such aesthetic consideration. But lol fashion industry / real womenz / shocker.)

Marilyn Monroe wears cat-eye glasses in How to Marry a Millionaire. Used under Fair Use guidelines.

Marilyn as Pola in How to Marry a Millionaire

To bring the sob story towards a conclusion: I got contact lenses for my sixteenth birthday, wore them every hour of consciousness (to the long-term detriment of my ocular health), got a few erosions, corneal scars and whatnot due to excessive wear, finally accepted I needed a good pair of glasses and recently found the pair of frames I like with the help of a critical and dedicated sales assistant and a significant wad of cash. I objectively like my glasses nowadays. But I still don’t wear them if I can help it.

Yes, I know. What.

Eyes Wide Shut

I have a literary precursor as far back as George Eliot, whose short-sighted Dorothea Brooke misses part of the plot of Middlemarch, by being ‘aware that there was a gentleman standing at a distance, but see[ing] him merely as a coated figure at a wide angle’. For Dorothea, the sights of Rome on her honeymoon are like ‘a disease of the retina’. On faut souffrir pour être belle, non?

Indeed, you certainly don’t see many glasses on women pre-1950 or thereabouts, although they’ve been around for a while. While part of this is undoubtedly an expense issue, pre-Nye Bevan and the NHS ‘John Lennon’ frames, and in the age of the Sherlock Holmesian ‘gold pince-nez‘, I think it was an aesthetic thing too. It’s significant that once bespectacled women start to appear in film and books they are generally working, or practical, women: Midge in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, who is opposed to the mysterious Madeleine Elster, a lady of leisure; the (sexy) secretary / librarian trope; the Plain Jane in need of a makeover and the woman who’s really very intelligent but not very sexy – the one you have to really look at closely to realise – gosh! – she looks like Kate Winslet.

‘Do you know? – without your glasses, you don’t look half bad.’
‘Do you know? – without my glasses, nor do you.’

Kate Winslet in Enigma (2001)

These last are very much about glasses as a cover-up for something more exciting (whence, I assume, the provenance of the sexy secretary’s appeal). In another Marilyn Monroe film, The Seven Year Itch, the protagonist imagines his secretary throwing off her (tailored) jacket, throwing out her hair and losing the glasses, to reveal ‘I’m a woman! I’m flesh and blood!’. In much the same way, any unattractive high school social outcast has but to throw off their frames to reveal a Rachel Leigh Cook or an Anne Hathaway. Glasses, a synonym for intelligence and mystery, are the first things to discard when you want to seduce the hottest guy in school, trust.

A medieval illumination showing an elderly man reading a book by the aid of large white spectacles. Used under Fair Use guidelines.

The 'Glasses Apostle' by Conrad von Soest (1403)

Of course, the popularity of pre-makeover glasses – and their enduring use in teen films – is partly practical. Glasses are the easiest way to disguise a Hollywood beauty, and an instantly recognisable trope for your basic socially inept personality traits: ‘brains’, ‘practicality’ etc. But as a teenager you’re inevitably subjected to a series of little humiliations and embarrassments that go on to dog you, to a greater or lesser extent, for a large part of your adult life. As a girl growing up behind a pair of glasses, and steeped in the standard adolescent amount of ideological nonsense, you cannot but associate all that tedious baggage (‘I’m unattractive! I’m awkward! Nobody fancies me!’) with the teenage glasses, and shedding it with embracing contact lenses.

Indeed, it even seems to be a kind of ironic (and slightly obnoxious) appropriation of these ideas when, conversely, glasses are deemed ‘sexy’ in themselves. One slightly palm-sweating blog in this vein compares them to garters – ‘men want to take them off [the woman wearing them]‘, except more  fetishy. Personally, I just wear them cos I like …seeing.

Glasses-wearer By Day, Superhero By Night

This is not just one for the girls – before he discovered the famous NHS frames, a very image-aware (but severely myopic) John Lennon refused to wear glasses when playing live, making him a Beatle who didn’t actually see the Cavern Club. But, by and large, men in glasses seem to have had an easier ride: the counterpart to the ‘sexy secretary’ is, rather unfairly, the Clark Kent / Peter Parker paradigm, or rather, ‘glasses-wearer by day, superhero by night’. Compare this to the excellent typist who ditches the glasses only to show her employer that, actually, she does enjoy sex (hmmm… enjoying sex / saving the world…).

Moreover, the weakness myopia is seen to connote in men is generally considered more attractive than the dowdiness it suggests in women – ‘You don’t think they make me look like an old maid?’ worries Marilyn-Pola, through her Dame Ednas, as does Bette Davis pre-makeover in Now, Voyager (1942) - and millionaire-seeking once again in Some Like It Hot, Marilyn hopes ‘her’ man will have glasses. ‘Men who wear glasses are so much more gentle, sweet and helpless’, she says. Indeed, there’s even a sense here that a man with glasses becomes less frightening or powerful, less brashly ‘male’. The only disadvantage for Marilyn is that when she kisses the one she finds, his glasses steam up.

But perhaps she has something when, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes she asserts to her (bespectacled) groom’s disapproving father – who sees right through her gold-digging tricks – ‘Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a woman being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a woman just because she’s pretty but, my goodness, doesn’t it help?!’.  If a woman’s face is her fortune, best not to cover it with glasses, eh?

But actually, I think the time has come to take that as exactly the nonsense it is. Seeing is sexy. Wear your glasses with pride.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Sarah permalink
    January 31, 2012

    I used to hate my glasses, and went till I was about 20 without wearing them when I was supposed to (even at university, which meant I couldn’t see what was going on half the time… urgh.)

    And then I got a pair of glasses I loved, and now… I think I look hideous without them! Which may also not be sensible. But yeah. My glasses are kind of a part of my face now.

  2. Jenni permalink
    January 31, 2012

    Great article. I’ve often thought that glasses as a turn-on has something to do with them making a woman ‘vulnerable’ – like high heels.

    • Kirsty permalink
      February 3, 2012

      thanks! and yes – interesting counterpoint to the men-in-glasses thing, there, too.

  3. January 31, 2012

    I think glasses look good on most men but not most women. Must be a face shape thing.
    I do love a man in glasses.
    Anyway I have just had laser eye surgery so no more glasses for me till my mid-40s! :-). They were annoying when doing active things (although good protection when chopping onions) and I was always paranoid about losing/breaking them, however, there is something about being short-sighted I will miss, summed up by the ever-delightful Wendy Cope:

    Haiku: Looking Out of the Back Bedroom Window Without My Glasses

    What’s that amazing
    new lemon-yellow flower?
    Oh yes, a football.

  4. January 31, 2012

    I’m short-sighted, a huge MM fan, and a feminist (these things are not incompatible). I hadn’t really thought about the (mostly satirical) implications of glasses-wearing in her movies. Thanks for this!

    • Miranda permalink*
      January 31, 2012

      Definitely not incompatible – I think those three things apply to a whole bunch of the team at BR Towers :)

  5. June 22, 2012

    odd. i never thought that glasses made me ‘less than sexy’ (although a lot of other things did). wore them as a method of screening out idiots in the meet-market all my life.

    it didn’t necessarily always work. that’s probably because they didn’t make ME any smarter about whomever it was i was currently infatuated with.

    another thing about marilyn–she has more ‘candid’ photos of her reading than almost any other thing. either she spent a lot of time doing it, or wanted people to think that she did. either way, such a smart girl. too bad she’s gone!

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