Column: The glasses trope, from 'Pride and Prejudice' to 'The Office'

A common trope in television and film is that characters who wear glasses are dowdy and undesirable – at least until they take them off. (zubrow/Flickr)

While discussing “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen in one of my English classes this week, it was noted how often in film and television productions of the novel, perfectly attractive actresses play Mary, the “plain” sister of the main character. However, to emphasize Mary’s supposed unattractiveness, the character is usually put in glasses. 

A common trope in television and film is that characters who wear glasses are dowdy and undesirable – at least until they take them off. When that happens, they’re suddenly gorgeous. This Hollywood stereotype seems to follow writer Dorothy Parker’s famous adage, “Men seldom make passes / at girls who wear glasses.”

In “The Princess Diaries,” Paolo, the stylist tasked with giving nerdy Princess Mia a makeover, literally snatches Mia’s glasses off her face. “Do you wear contact lenses?” he asks her before snapping her glasses in half and replying, “Now, you do.” Apparently it’s very offensive to sport such eyewear. 

In “The Office” episode “Did I Stutter?” Pam must wear her glasses to work after sleeping over Jim’s house and forgetting her contact lens solution. 

“Oh my God, Pam, those make you look so ugly!” Michael immediately exclaims when he steps out of his office. 

“Um, Pam, in order to get hotter you take the glasses off. You’re moving in the wrong direction,” he further advises as Pam stares bewilderedly at the camera.

However, this trope doesn’t just apply to women. 

In “Spider-Man,” Peter Parker’s eyesight is corrected by his newfound super powers. Mary Jane, his neighbor and longtime crush, only acknowledges him once his glasses are shed. 

“Hey, you have blue eyes,” she says. “I didn’t notice without your glasses.”

Similarly, in the “Superman” films, Clark Kent wears glasses in order to keep up his “mild-mannered” persona and conceal his identity as the brave and gallant Superman. 

The glasses trope is also mocked from time to time. In the “Arrested Development” episode “Visiting Ours,” Gob tries to seduce his father’s unattractive secretary, Kitty, in order to obtain information about some of the Bluth Company’s international files. 

Gob requests that Kitty take off her glasses and let down her hair in an attempt to make her less ugly, but this backfires – Kitty’s eyes immediately cross and her hair is a ratted mess. 

“Take off your glasses. Oh ... Wait, wait. Let down your hair. No, glasses on, hair back up. Let's just get that hair right back up,” Gob commands as he tries to find some sort of attractive combination.

“Let me turn the lights off,” Kitty finally accedes.

“Yes, yes, please,” Gob can’t help but urge.

The “get rid of the glasses” trope is a staple feature of most makeover scenes in television and film—usually, it’s one of the first steps taken in them. One of the most irritating features of this trope is the fact that glasses, a necessity for those will poor vision, are so often disparaged as “unattractive.” However, what irritates me most about this trope is the nagging question that often accompanies it and is rarely addressed, once the glasses are gone, what happens to the vision problems that once necessitated the eyewear? We may never know.


Helen Stec is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at helen.stec@uconn.edu.