Isaac Asimov’s 1956 essay on Hollywood’s depiction of women is on point

11.01.16 1 month ago

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Have you ever heard of “The Glasses Come Off” trope? What about “The Glasses Gotta Go” or “Beautiful All Along?” They've been around a while in fiction but as it turns out sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov recognized it narrative shorthand immediately for what it was – crap.

Those specific tropes spin off the more general one of “Smart People Wear Glasses,” wherein a character is immediately smart (this usually also translates to nerd) if they wear glasses. Like most historical figures (and all humans) Asimov isn't without faults but this page unearthed by Twitter user @DoktorAndy from an Asimov essay titled “The Cult of Ignorance” (collected in “Is Anyone There?” in 1967) is a real revelation.

I transcribed just in case that's unreadable:

The cliche to which I refer is the one whereby it is assumed that a superbly beautiful actress, who we shall called Laura Lovely, is ugly, provided she is wearing glasses.

This happened over and over again. Laura Lovely is a librarian or a schoolteader (the two feminine occupations that, by Hollywood convention, guarantee spinsterhood and unhappiness) and naturally she wears big, tortoise-shell glasses (the most intellectual type) to indicate that fact.

Now to any functional male in the audience, the sight of Laura Lovely in glasses evokes a reaction in no way different from the sight of her without glasses. Yet to the distorted view of the actor playing the hero of the film, Laura Lovely with glasses on is plain. At some point in the picture, a kindly female friend of Laura, who knows the facts of life, removes her glasses. It turns out, suddenly, that she can see perfectly well without them, and our hero falls passionately in love with the now-beautiful Laura and there is a perfectly glorious finale.

Is there a person alive so obtuse as not to see that (a) the presence of glasses in no way ruined Laura's looks and that our hero must be completely aware of that, and (b) that if Laura were wearing glasses for any sensible reason, removing them would cause her to kiss the wrong male since she probably would be unable to tell one face from another without them?

No, the glasses are not literally glasses. They are merely a symbol, a symbol of intelligence. The audience is taught two things: (a) Evidence of extensive education is a social hindrance and causes unhappiness; (b) Formal education is unnecessary…

Being less intelligent will make you more attractive? Holy crap, what a horrendous, fictitious message to put into the world! There's an earlier version from 1956 published in the University of California Press and under the title “The By-Product of Science Fiction” that swaps Laura Lovely with “Betty Grable (or Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell)” and finished that last line with …”can be minimized at will, and the resulting limited intellectual development leads to happiness.” Yeah, there are a lot of harmful tropes out there but this one has to be in the top ten at least.

This trope isn't limited to women of course (Clark Kent/Superman would be an early example of it being attributed to men) but it's amazing such a ridiculous plot device was recognized as being used against women's intellect in the '50s, yet still utilized quite a bit today. Not to mention about 75% of adults in the world use some form of vision correction. Glasses are almost a part of most of us!

There are lots of plot devices we hand-wave away for being ridiculous in order to move things along but “Beautiful All Along” is a rather damaging one for everyone involved. Sending a message that intelligence must be metaphorically removed (or perhaps ignored) in order to be found physically attractive is a terrible lesson. And not one we want any gender buying into.

Remember what Renée Zellweger wrote earlier this year in response to a critic writing an article about her looks changing over the years? “It”s no secret a woman”s worth has historically been measured by her appearance.” And these types of real-world ideas spin off of fictional depictions (and vice versa). Whether they're a character in a story or a photoshopped magazine cover, this type of imagery has ripple effects.

I know a lot of folks just want to consume media and not think about it or its effect on people but if Asimov could realize in 1956 that we were trying to strip women of their intelligence in order to make them more attractive for the masses, surely you could consider the ramifications in 2016.

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