The other day at our library’s Lego Club, I overheard my 8-year-old daughter talking to another little girl about the Lego Friends. “But none of them have glasses,” she said out of nowhere. “Yet. They should make one with glasses.” Then, a few minutes later, learning that the other girl was also a fan of toy-unboxing YouTuber CookieSwirlC: “Did you see,” she said excitedly, “that she has glasses in real life?!”
What inspired this theme? My daughter has always wanted glasses, to the point that she’d shoplifted a pair of try-on frames from the optometrists’ when she was five. This fall she outright admitted to her classroom teacher that she was having trouble seeing the board. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a student realize that on their own,” her teacher told me. “Usually the yearly eye tests catch it first.” This was miles from the traumatized reaction I’d had at the same age. And yet she can’t help noticing the rareness of girl-with-glasses representation in pop culture, either.
I touched on this when I wrote about that childhood trauma, last year on the occasion of her older brother’s first pair. “Occasionally you saw a girl character with glasses, but they, when they happened, were just like the boys,” I wrote. “Could there be no trace of femininity with glasses? Was I no longer allowed to love dressing up in pretty dresses and imagining myself a princess? I didn’t want to be relegated to Ugly Stepsister!” But my main focus then was on the negative representation: that awkward, laughable nerd stereotype. Who, yes, was usually a boy. The lack of aspirational girl characters with glasses is even more glaring. Particularly if that girl character is not a nerd.
Not that there’s anything wrong with nerds, naturally. The problem is more that pop culture’s nerds tend to all be alike, and not take into account that there are shy nerds and pretty nerds and nerds who get into physical fights (looking at you, Meg Murry), nerds who love princesses and nerds who love hard rock (looking at you, um, me). The thing they all have in common is a geeky fascination with learning and a general—not just one type of—awkwardness. The biggest irony is how pop culture uses glasses as a shorthand to signify the awkwardness of the nerd, when it’s the love of learning that’s why so many nerds have glasses in reality.
My parents’ optometrist friend had told them once that introverts tend to be near-sighted, extroverts far-sighted. Genetics has an effect, which is how my extrovert sister, who did indeed start with reading glasses, developed astigmatism eventually from the eyes she inherited from a couple of introverts. But it’s the ways introverts and extroverts tend to use their eyes that stretch them toward one way of seeing or another. And introverts tend to be closed in, enjoying close-up solitary activities, like, you know, reading. Our eyes get used to focusing nearby and can’t see so well far away anymore. So yeah, lots of nerds have glasses. Our love of learning has kept us focused on a page or, nowadays, a screen.
But who nowadays doesn’t spend time focusing on little screens? The cool kids have smartphones, and more than a few of them are likely to strain their eyes on them. So why don’t cool kids in pop culture wear glasses? Why don’t glasses signify a character who does a lot of close looking instead of one who’s awkward? And again, why on Earth are girl characters with glasses never considered pretty? Why, when she undergoes the inevitable MAKEOVER! montage, do they always make her ditch the glasses?
While browsing upcoming book releases for my day job recently, I spotted the cover of Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe, by Deborah Blumenthal, and the first thing I thought was, “Wow, she has huge glasses.” Then I thought, “But that’s not that one fashion designer with huge glasses [that’d be Edith Head, inspiration for The Incredibles‘ Edna Mode], is it, this is someone else,” and then I thought, “of course they both have huge glasses! They sew! They spend their lives focusing on tiny stitches! It’s a wonder all fashion designers don’t wear thick glasses!”
So why are glasses so often considered unfashionable when the very creators of fashion wear them? I suppose it’s because the models of the fashions don’t. Suddenly the clothes models become the role models instead of the people who actually create the look, which I’ve said before is sad, because so many nerds like me don’t realize that fashion can be their thing, too. (While I was writing this, I saw this amazing Tweet thread explaining how much STEM knowledge goes into high fashion.* See, you need to be a nerd to go into fashion design!)
Why don’t more of the stylish, tie-in-doll-based characters young girly-girls love wear glasses? Judging by the glowing grin I caught on my daughter’s face the other day as she watched a fan-made YouTube video acted out with princess dolls, in which one of them got glasses and was needlessly embarrassed by them since everyone thought they were cool once they found out? There are a lot of little girls hungering for such characters. As a children’s librarian I’m always concerned about having enough representation in the books I buy for the library: I want every kid who comes in to be able to find at least one good character who looks like them in a book. With the push for more #OwnVoices authors, it’s gradually becoming easier for children of many different backgrounds to find themselves in books. It may not seem important, but it is. As a white middle-class mainstream-Christian American girl raised by my two married biological parents, it was not hard for me to find characters like me. But even I know the excitement of getting to see a girl character with glasses who does not have to go through the MAKEOVER! montage.**
So, step it up, children’s media. More aspirational girl characters with glasses, please. You may think, oh, that wouldn’t sell, because we want characters girls can admire and want to look like, but they’re not going to know glasses are a want-to-look-like look unless you give them to a popular character! Girls are going to need glasses in real life whether or not their favorite characters do. Reflect that reality. Give them that little bit of representation.
* Side note I’ve always considered writing an article about but don’t think it’s quite enough for an article: isn’t the “math=not for girls” stereotype extra weird when you consider how much of home economics (which was once a girls-only secondary school class) is math? In fact, as someone who doesn’t have a STEM career, all the math I do as an adult is home economics. There’s the arithmetic of the bills and budgeting, of course. There’s the constant fraction work involved in adjusting a recipe, and the basic trigonometry of changing oven temps and baking times to handle multiple dishes (granted, I usually just estimate there). There is so much geometry in sewing (and a lot more math—I gather, as I don’t do it—in knitting and crocheting as well). Oh, and for my traditionally-female children’s librarian work last night, I was trying to build three-dimensional shapes out of cardstock for my storytime attendees to use in a craft. MATH. It’s so GIRLY.
**Also, I’m always excited by awkward blonde girls. You’d think there’s been more than enough representation of blonde girls, but they’re too often the bombshells or the popular ones. It’s strangely refreshing, as a nerdy blonde, to see characters where blonde does NOT equal beautiful. Or, for that matter, ditzy.