In one particularly beautiful episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary Richards (MTM) and Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White) attend a broadcasting conference together in Chicago, where they fall victim to a gang of rowdy morticians who want to party down with them. When Mary says she hasn’t any glasses (for drinks) in her room, the slimiest of the morticians tipsily jingles, “It’s fun to make passes at girls who wear glasses!” This is a thesis I’m going to test out this summer and beyond. So far, considering the three disastrous “dates” I’ve been on, I would have to answer that girls who wear glasses may not have so much fun. (I put “dates” in quotes because these encounters with the male kind were really questionable in terms of a proper mating ritual, but they all did spectacularly and depressingly confirm the emotional meaning of “disaster.”) Still, I have to say that I’ve been feeling pretty sexy walking around in my new glasses.
Conventional wisdom about feminine sexiness would have it that blindness is not terribly sexy. Usually, girls who wear glasses have to lose the glasses in order to bloom. There was one spectacular example of this in my high school class back in Iowa City. DN was a very typical orchestra nerd—mousy shoulder-length brown hair, unobtrusive and unremarkable attire, quiet friends, sweet and friendly demeanor, and glasses. Clear plastic frames that were not too outsized, if I remember correctly. Then, suddenly, I think in the beginning of our freshmen or sophomore year, she showed up to school sans glasses. And instead of clear plastic framed spectacles, there was shiny purple eyeshadow! From then on, DN changed in the ways that you’d expect, but also, not changed in the ways that you’d expect. I had quit orchestra after my freshman year (I was a horrible violin player) so I didn’t see DN all that much, but when I did see her she was both familiar and glossily new. She kept all her quiet, nerdy orchestra girlfriends, still played the violin, was still very sweet and friendly to all. But instead of jeans and sweatshirts that maintained a comfortable and modest pocket of air between flesh and cloth, she wore brassy biker-girl leather jackets, and tight, tight, TIGHT black jeans.
The thing about those jeans was that magically, their back pocket suddenly grew a hairy male hand. Yes, quiet shy DN got a boyfriend. And not just any boyfriend either, but one who was very much a bad boy, Iowa City style: whiteboy, long brown hair (might have been a mullet), muscular, walked with a bow-legged swagger that emulated the lead singer or Poison (or Warrant or Winger or Mr. Big). When DN and her boyfriend would walk down the hallway together, he had his hand shoved deep into HER jeans backpocket. On one such occasion of their sighting, I remember overhearing one uptight girl saying to another, “DN is such a slut now!” I didn’t agree; I mean, isn’t it actually nice that tight black jeans comes with a matching hickey? In fact, I quite admired DN for this transformation, and was probably quite envious—of both jeans and boy.
But this is all very regular; DN’s story is not at all unusual. In fact, having been a physically geeky kid myself, I went through my own DN moment in the summer of 1994, when I tossed out my glasses (round wire frames, VERY The Last Emperor), got fitted for contacts, started wearing tight t-shirts to show off worked-out pecs and just generally started slutting around (hickeys included). That was many summers ago, but the feeling seems to have repossessed me. Well, not the hickey and pec and slutting part, but the general feeling of wanting to feel sexy. So why did I have this sudden urge to re-find the very glasses I had abondoned to be sexy? Why do these glasses make me feel sexy?
Well, in truth, it’s not so much about glasses as it is about hair. I personally am not one of those girls who wear rhinestones in their glasses, as you can see. But I think a chic, simple glasses frame can perfectly frame an otherwise hothouse feminine self-presentation. This is all due to Lee Remick in the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder. In this film, Remick plays the sexy (read by others: “slutty”) wife of an army lieutenant. When she is raped by a sleazy bar-owner, her hot-tempered husband goes and kills the guy, which is when Jimmy Stewart his hired as the eccentric defense attorney. Anatomy of a Murder is an interesting text for archiving the filmic representation of female sexuality. It’s kind of infamous for being the first mainstream American film to use the word “panties.” But more importantly, it argues, way before The Accused (1987), that a woman’s sexy self-presentation is most definitely NOT an invitation to rape, or even, sex.
This argument of course hinges on Lee Remick’s embodiment of feminine sexiness. Remick is utterly wonderful. In her more overtly sexy scenes, she really is all jazz and jiggle in tight capri pants and braless sweaters. But what is even more intriguing is that Remick’s sexy character wears glasses. Of course, following the cultural script about girls who wear glasses, she doesn’t wear them all the time—and she hints that she prefers not wearing them. But as she explains at one point, “I wear them to read, play pinball.” (It’s a disturbing kismet that Jodie Foster’s character in The Accused is raped on a pinball machine, and Lee Remick’s character plays pinball the night she is raped.) But this is what is so beautifully idiosyncratic about Remick’s femininity in the film. The glasses are not a deterrent to but an accoutrement of her sexiness: she has to play pinball to “jiggle” her tight-panted butt, and in order to play pinball, she has to wear glasses. So, the glasses become necessary to her sexy aura.
This is a point that is underscored in the courtroom scene in which the prosecution attempts to prove that Remick’s “sexy” is actually “slutty.” When the trial starts, Jimmy Stewart anticipates this and orders her to look the part of a “good wife”: tweedy suit and hat, glasses firmly in place. The prosecution calls a witness to describe how Remick looked on the night of the murder, to show that she is indeed a slut who was not raped. When he begins to describe what her hair looked like, Stewart simply asks Remick to take off her hat and show the court her hair:
I find this scene glorious. It’s like a shampoo ad as assault rifle: Remick whips off the hat, and tosses her hair about and then sits there, fully proud and unashamed of her femininity. This gesture says to the court: "Yes I am sexy but you will not make me feel shame about my femininity." But I also love that she doesn’t take off her black, heavy-framed glasses. I love the nonchalance of the gesture, and the new kind of femininity that it creates. Remick’s subtle argument is that the geekiness of black glasses is not discordant with a traditional feminine sexiness. The message here is not “You can be a sexy girl in spite of your glasses,” but “You are a sexy girl because of your glasses.”
So I saw the film again a few weeks ago, and totally became obsessed with replicating Remick’s courtroom look. I hunted around for frames, and finally came upon the perfect pinball-playing pair: Tom Ford TF5040, a.k.a. “Cary.” You know you’re making an investment on your femininity when a pair of prescription glasses cost the same as a good cashmere cardigan or a Lanvin bag on markdown at Barneys. I’ve stored away my contact lenses for now, and been wearing these glasses almost every day. I feel pretty sexy in these glasses (and hopefully it's not totally delusional!); I think that the heavy black 1950s-style frames go well with big hair, and makes my face feel smaller. I’ve been feeling not only like Lee Remick, but also my pop-cult namesake, Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirshner) on this past season of “The L Word”: Jenny also wore heavy black frames to great effect when playing at being a film director.
But unexpectedly, I felt like my own self--more specifically, my adolescent self. My very first pair of glasses were black-framed. I picked them out myself, with no cultural referents—just the budding and questionable personal taste of a 14-year old fag.
I don’t know why I’m holding this blue balloon from the First National Bank of Iowa City in this picture; maybe I’m dreaming of being floated away out of the midwest into some beautiful homosexual heaven. Wearing these glasses today, I’m Lee Remick and Mia Kirshner but also my own babyfaggot self—fresh pimples and all. Wearing my new glasses connects me now—with my banged long hair, my lipstick, my shameless femmeness—with that kid with the black glasses. I’m taking an Bic pen to those beginning days of adolescence, and doing some badgirl vandalistic doodling: drawing a web of curlicues, hearts, rainbows, fairies, princesses, potential boyfriends’ initials, around that babyfaggot who felt so physically and psychically so ugly, and making him an antique desk to be velvet roped in the museum of my heart.