I find it quite amusing that comic book writers and scientist are attempting to answer why Superman can so easily disguise himself as Clark Kent simply by donning glasses. You don’t need science to explain why women seldom make passes at Superman with glasses. You need to consider the history of fashion and that people are lazy.
Slate has attributed it to face blindness. DC Comics explains it by a hypno-beam through his krytonite-lense glasses. My explanation is really more ordinary and widespread, both historical and often come upon in our daily lives.
Let’s go through the history of Superman. Superman first appeared in the June 1938 Action Comics #1. Let’s recall that men’s bathing suits in the 1930s wasn’t meant to show the ab six-pack. Swimsuits were originally made of wool and heavy when wet.
We can blame Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller for developing the first bathing trunks in 1933. According to GetFrank’s History of the Swimsuit, men didn’t bare their chests until 1937. That doesn’t mean the no-shirt movement wasn’t daring.
So what does this have to do with Superman? In a pre-Lycra spandex age, you didn’t see men bounding around in skin tight suits. Today, you see men in similar outfits running track and then there’s the infamous Speedo at swim meets. I suggest that in the 1930-1940s, Lois Lane was awestruck by Superman’s abs and impressive pecs, and men suffered paralyzing inferiority complexes. How could they compete with the man of steel? They couldn’t stand straighter in their suits and simply suck their guts in. Or in the gym, they couldn’t attempt to give themselves a hernia by lifting more weight or jumping higher? Ever been in a testosterone-heavy atmosphere where all the men are attempting to out-do each other without looking directly at each other?
When a six-foot-some-odd humanoid stands in a skin tight blue and red suit and exposes his rock hard muscles, you can just imagine how high the penis envy gets. What man could feel he could measure up except the evil, egotistical villains?
How hard it is for women not to want to look at the overly exposed (for that era) male? Even women at the 1948 Olympics couldn’t show off their body definition in their leotards. I guess that almost explains Purple Tigress and why her bikini and boots was the perfect disguise for the beautiful socialite Ann Morgan in 1944. Yes, Slate, there was a worse costume but it only lasted three issues.
Remember that even in the late 1960s, Americans had troubles with contemplating the belly button of a Jeannie in “I Dream of Jeannie.”
While belly buttons were disturbing to consider, glasses tended to distort a people’s perception of the wearer. The disguising of something attractive with the glasses isn’t something new. Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) noticed this phenomena as it applied to women:
Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.
Ogden Nash (1902-1971) wrote something similar:
A girl who is bespectacled
She may not get her nectacled
And women, needed to be attractive if they were to be married. At least, that’s how the American culture trains women and men to think. Yet why would a bad frame for a pretty picture matter so much unless people don’t bother looking past the glasses. In the 1930s, they didn’t have special light optical lenses. They didn’t have contacts. So by comparison to the glass frames these days, the glasses used in the 1940s, a pre-revenge of the nerds era, were really unflattering.
Give Clark Kent some thick glasses to correct for his superior vision, x-ray vision making him extremely far-sighted. Give him a constant bad hair day. Does anyone remember the on-stage transformation via hair and contorted expressions during the musical “Jekyll & Hyde,” a Broadway version of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”? Clark Kent could be more convincing if the TV and movie directors were willing to go that way.
In a newsroom, Clark Kent would be just one of many white men in a suit in the newsroom, except he’s the one with the glasses. People look for the glasses. Then you could add bad hair.
People choose a feature and use it to identify a person and forget about the details. If you think all East Asians look alike (and wonder how their mothers tell their kids apart), then the ones with glasses become identified with glasses. I’ve heard East Asians say that all Africans look alike. This isn’t face blindness; it’s laziness or lack of practice in finding distinguishing features because a whole race can’t really had face blindness for another race, right?
As someone who was easily mistaken for the other East Asian girl in the class, in the school or in the whole city , I know just how lazy people can be. As a child, I endured numerous inquiries if I was my older sister’s twin despite being quite a bit shorter (at the time), thinner and with hair that curled with resistance to the authority of combs and blowdryers. Her hair was straight and our faces were different shapes, but we both wore glasses. In college, this inability for people to recognize and distinguish East Asian faces came in handy: When I forgot my I.D., I could borrow someone else’s temporarily as long as their hair length was the same.
My sister once told me that if I wanted cars to stop at a cross walk I should wear a dress. This seems to be true and the skirt doesn’t even have to be short. Later, I found out that trading in my thick glasses for contacts had an amazing effect on how people viewed me–not all of it good. For some reason, people assume I’m smarter when I wear glasses.
If I want to be one of the guys, that’s much easier with glasses and no make-up. Men really seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses. Glasses and clothes make the woman, but they also make the man.
If hair and makeup on a Superman movie dressed Clark Kent like he had just fallen off the turnip truck from Smallville, given him the country hickness (like Dennis Weaver as Sam McCloud or Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor) and contrasted that against the city slickness of the people of Metropolis, the whole duality of Clark Kent and Superman would be more believable. Particularly if the action was set in the 1930s or 1940s when white men dominated the newsroom and men just didn’t appear in anything remotely figure-hugging and muscle-revealing as spandex. People would have been so distracted by his body revealing costumery and brazen lack of modesty who would look at his face?
*I have not seen the new Superman movie, but am a fan of Christopher Reeve as Superman.