Why do nerds so often wear glasses? This is an interesting question, and obviously it has a significance in my own life and career.
The word "nerd" was actually coined by my favorite fiction writer, the great Dr. Seuss. In 1950, in Dr. Seuss's book If I Ran the Zoo, Seuss drew a non-human creature called a 'nerd" from the land of Ka-roo. This is the first instance of the word "nerd" in print. Some theorists believe the word started at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the 1940s. The students who liked to party there were called "drunks" and the quieter, less-inclined-to-party types were labeled "knurds." See, "drunk" spelled backwards is "knurd," the precursor to the modern "nerd."
In 1957, in Glasgow, Scotland, "nerd" was first defined as "square."
Motion pictures, the most powerful medium of communication in human history (before television) had, of course, a huge impact on the lives of almost everyone on earth. The "nerd" in movie history has not, to my knowledge, ever been fully written. As far as I can determine, the first nerd in movie history was the popular silent comedian Harold Lloyd. Lloyd played a weak, underdog type of comedic character, one bullied by men and ignored by women. But in the end, he would triumph and inevitably get the girl of his dreams. The Lloyd character wore trademark glasses. In fact, Lloyd always referred to his character as the "glasses" or "glass" character, much as Charlie Chaplin was "the Tramp."
After Lloyd, the nerd character was on the shelf for many years in movies -with sporadic exceptions. Ironically, Cary Grant, perhaps the most dapper actor in movie history, donned glasses and played a nerd character in 1938's classic comedy Bringing Up Baby.
In the 1950s and '60s, the great Jerry Lewis often played a nerd-type character in his wonderful comedies. Once in a while, Jerry would wear glasses in his films, notably The Nutty Professor and The Ladies Man. One of his early films with Dean Martin (That's My Boy) Jerry played a classic glasses-wearing nerd. Jerry as "Junior Jackson" is a shy, clumsy nerd who is trained to be a football player by the handsome, popular Dean Martin. Lewis almost always played a semi-nerd, but it was always a bit of a very cool nerd with Jerry Lewis. While Jerry was always a dumb klutz in his films, he always danced gracefully and also, Jerry was a relatively good-looking fellow, unlike most nerds (or comedians) in comedies. And of course, Jerry did not usually wear glasses. But the movies next classic nerd did.
Woody Allen made his movie debut in 1965 in the smash hit What's New, Pussycat? Allen, besides being Lewis' successor as the next great movie comedian, also took over the crown as "movies' next great nerd." By the late 1970s, Allen had stopped playing a nerd in hilarious comedies and took his bespectacled character into more serious films.
In 1972, in a homage to the film Bringing Up Baby, Ryan O'Neal dons glasses and plays a nerd character in What's Up, Doc?, one of the last great screwball comedies (and the only Barbra Streisand film I ever liked).
It was in the wonderful classic American Graffiti (1973) that Charles Martin Smith played a 1950s-type nerd character named "Toad." Smith was wonderful and his portrayal was the first modern movie "nerd." Smith's brilliant portrayal set the standard for the modern nerd as we all know him -glasses, pocket protector, unkempt hair, etc.
About five years later, after a fallow "no nerd" period in the mid-1970s, I started playing the nerd character as my one and only character. I may be a lot of things, but a versatile actor is not one of them. Maybe because I grew up worshiping the great comedians: Chaplin, Buster Keaton, The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, Dean and Jerry, Laurel and Hardy, et. al., I early on decided that I would only ever play one character. These classic comedians always played just one basic character.
I just did a slight variation on the person I am in real life. I was always the offbeat character, never a handsome guy, never a great athlete, never a ladies' man. But I was always a relatively funny guy; I always enjoyed making people laugh. I wore glasses naturally and because I was skinny and had scoliosis (my spine is curved), I always moved in a comic way.
churning out films -mostly B-movies, but a few good ones. Grease is the standout, although ironically Grease is actually the movie I have the smallest role in. I started playing the squeaky-voiced, spastic, clumsy nerd character and soon, a lot of nerd movie (and TV) characters followed. Okay, enough of my autobiography.
Nerds quickly spread like wildfire in many movies, A-movies and B-movies alike. The nerd character was frequently featured in 1980s low-budget films, and it became a standard movie "type," much like the "jock," the "spoiled rich kid," the "dumb blonde." the "best friend," and the "gay guy." In 1984, the nerd in movies reached its peak in Revenge of the Nerds, a comedy classic.
The last truly great nerd character was in one of my all-time favorite films Superbad (2007). Christopher Mintz-Plasse as "Fogel" creates a hilarious nerd character and almost steals this excellent movie, except for the fact that the entire cast is great.
Okay, enough movie history- Why do nerds so often wear glasses? I have always had three theories about this...
1. The nerd is always an outsider. Glasses immediately make a person appear different. In a random group of ten men (or ten women), if one person in that group is wearing glasses, he or she is very easily identifiable. In a quick glance at any group, a person wearing glasses is immediately seen as somehow looking different. The 'different one" in almost any group is the one who is laughed at, and put at a distance from the other, more "normal" group members.
2. Glasses symbolize weakness or a low confront. The nerd is thought to be a not very strong character. Let's face it, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, etc. would not wear glasses in their movie roles. Neither would James Bond or Rambo. Superman wore no glasses. Clark Kent did. Whereas Superman could and would confront anything, Clark Kent would inevitably run away. The typical guy hero can face evil or villains or tough situations. Glasses symbolize a type of low confront or non-confront. Where a typical guy hero has a "high confront" of life, a guy wearing glasses apparently has a "low confront" level. There is also something inherently funny about a guy who is in fear.
It is worth noting that almost every great comedian in movie history had a cowardly side: from Bob Hope to Jerry Lewis to the Three Stooges to Laurel and Hardy to Don Knotts to Abbot and Costello. Pretty much every great comedian has been in a haunted house and ran away scared and screaming from ghosts or whatever. The sight of a man running away in fear is just naturally comical. The nerd wearing glasses appears to be a "low confront" guy.
3. Glasses symbolize sexual unattractiveness. This generally seems to hold true for both men and women. Remember Dorothy Parker's famous quote: "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses." The nerd is thought to be sexually unattractive and thus wears glasses. Interestingly, I have never though this about women or girls. On the contrary, I have always been very attracted to girls and women who wear glasses. I never thought they lessened a woman's attractiveness.
Miss C says: Glasses may designate a nerd character, but we aren't really fooled."