Examining the portrayal shift of a device traditionally used to signify meekness/ugliness/smugness/ other undesirable traits in pop media.
Something happened recently that spurred me into writing this post: my seven-year old niece found out that she had to start wearing glasses. She was initially quite upset, so her mother and I spent some time convincing her that it’s not a bad thing to wear one and that she could switch to contacts if she still hates it in the long run. After it’s pointed out that she simply couldn’t go on squinting at everything, we went to the optician’s (coincidentally, I’ve got a glasses benefit from my company that I haven’t used yet) and picked up the frame that all of us think suits her the most. She’s been growing increasingly comfortable with it ever since.
The whole episode led me into realizing that anti-glasses sentiment still persists among children these days. It could be caused by a combination of possible factors; a simple realization at the inconvenience of having a foreign object stuck on your face, an observation at seeing their bespectacled peers bullied at school,and/or the influence from mainstream media. Let’s delve a bit into that last one.
Casual perusal of my local media would yield a few patterns in the depiction of bespectacled fictional characters, who is mostly either: (i) a senior citizen, (ii) comic relief character, or (iii) character in waiting for eventual makeover. The last one is a particularly harmful trope, basically conveying the message that, “HEY, YOU WANT TO BE AN AWESOME COOL PERSON BELOVED BY EVERYONE?? WELL, GET RID OF THAT GLASSES, YOU NERD!!” I don’t know about you guys, but I certainly spent a long while in my life before I even saw an instance where a pair of specs on the lead character aren’t actively treated like a subtractor on their value as a human being.
A lot of times, it’s conveniently gender-coded. In the simplest of terms: glasses make men weak and women ugly. Like many other forms of pop media, anime and manga aren’t exactly invulnerable to this kind of signification.
Well, I guess it’s pretty awesome when your eyesight problem is cured by genetic mutation/alien-induced superpower/curative magic shenanigan. But let’s not kid ourselves here: the literal removal of glasses had long been established as a symbol of young male empowerment, the wish fulfillment transformation from a wimp into a badass. It’s been there since the days of Peter Parker, and still commonplace in modern works such as Birdmen (the screencap above). Heck, in the recent anime adaptation of Parasyte, one of the character design adjustments is to have main character Shinichi wears glasses initially (he never wears one in the manga), solely so that he could get rid of it later as part of his growth into a AXE model Real Man. Meanwhile, on the other side of gender representation, you’ve probably seen more than enough of the whole “take off the glasses, let the hair down, show your true beauty” dance. The ugly duckling transformation sequence is a mainstay for female protagonist in romantic drama/rom-com genre, and a lot of shoujo manga (e.g. Kare First Love) have certainly been guilty at indulging in this nonsense. Better switch to contacts if you desire true love, girls.
In the big picture sense, it’s perhaps not that big of a deal. In some of the cases, this trope is justified or downplayed enough that it’s far from ruining the entire thing, and God knows there’s a bunch of more godawful tropes existing in the realm of animango. But you know, it’d be neat to have counter-examples, showing Prominent Good People wear glasses and remain that way, as a result possibly sending positive reinforcement to that one kid who prefers to constantly stumble over and fail to recognize people rather than risks wearing glasses outside.
The good news is, those counter-examples are growing more apparent each day. Subversions may already exist since long ago, but you need to squint hard enough to find them, whereas these days they’re easier than ever to find.
….Okay, Sakamoto from the hit manga and very recent anime adaptation Sakamoto desu ga? May not be the most relatable character around. He’s not even just an ‘unattainable ideal’, he’s ‘an existence far beyond our mortal comprehension’. But it’s hard to ignore the symbolic significance: here we have character who isn’t to be messed with, who is the embodiment of every superlative word ever created, who oozes complete confidence and control—and he wears glasses. How novel is that? There’s a few instances where we see Sakamoto sans glasses, but he honestly looks like your standard-issue bishounen, while with one he’s… Sakamoto. Either it’s a blatant subversion, or Nami Sano really thinks a bespectacled dude could be irresistible (or, quite likely, both).
In a less flashy but just as significant examples, we have characters who start sporting the specs midway through a given series. Clannad’s Tomoyo Sakagami eventually picks up her prescription glasses in favor of contacts, as does Tanaka-kun’s Shiraishi very early on once she stops worrying what others may perceive of her and just stick with the one thing that makes her feel much more at ease. And then, there’s Kaoru Mori (of the wonderfully exquisite Bride Stories, who already featured a prominent bespectacled female lead in Emma. She also wrote the short story To Come To See (featured in the anthology/artbook Anything and Something, licensed in English by Yen Press), in which a schoolgirl gets her first glasses. It’s a gentle encouragement to overcome the anxiety my niece and many other kids experienced, conveyed effectively in just a few pages through powerful impact frames.
So yeah, glasses are no longer solely portrayed as emasculating/disfiguring device. A few years ago, I also watched a local film Di Timur Matahari (East of the Sun), set in Papua, a region torn by tribal warfare, dispute against foreign oil company, and separatism issue. A major kid character there gets a pair of glasses, and it’s no coincidence that he possesses the foresight and wisdom that the warring adults around him lack. A simple, yet effective, metaphor.
In a general sense, it’s no longer a strange thing to see a main character sporting glasses and no one makes a big smelly deal about it. Countering the old and tired tropes, there are many positive examples of them in anime and manga, with varied personality and fulfilling a multitude of roles. The glasses are an integral part of their visual identity, and not significantly different with other distinguishing facial feature like a mole, type of haircut, piercing, etc.
In the end, what matters the most is what makes you comfortable. If you simply prefer the alternative options, it’s obviously your prerogative to do so. For those of us who stick with the glasses whether by necessity or by choice, there’s no shortage of role models nowadays—whether fictional or real—to take heart from, that you could always embrace it and turn it into a strength. And when you do wear them with ease of mind and comfort, it shows. It really does.
Several days after my niece got her first glasses, I asked her how she’s doing. She enthusiastically reported that she cleanse it every day, and that a few people in school had praised her new looks. Best of all, she’s able to follow everything in class much more easily. Then, I told her that she could someday rid the glasses when she gets older, through either contacts or corrective surgery. She pondered that for a second, and then stared straight at me, her eyes completely focused beneath those lenses.
“Nah, part of me now. I like it!”