How This Alien Eye Look Blew Up
You may have noticed a look being celebrated among many female characters and actors in movies and TV––the “wide-eyed girl” look. And it’s not just you; people have been doting on the look for ages. In movie history, it’s been admired by the likes of actors such as Audrey Hepburn, Shelley Duvall, and Bette Davis, as well as in animations where the wide-eyed look is taken to an impossible extreme. People have compiled lists online of famous wide-eyed women and girls using various terms: From “enormous alien bug eyes”, to “doe eyes,” reminiscent of a Bambi-like female deer.
Intuitively, the look communicates a sense of innocence, youth, and naivety. The term “wide-eyed” is defined as “naive and full of wonder.” But even though it conjures up images of baby-like features, it’s also associated with seduction. And sometimes it’s also coded as weird, if not creepy. Amanda Seyfried, who often tops these lists, once said in an interview that her eyes make her look like a frog. Anya Taylor-Joy also said she didn’t initially get the positive feedback she enjoys now. And the look has also been used to inspire horror. Here’s our take on why the “wide-eyed girl” look is such an “in” beauty and what exactly about her so intrigues our culture.
The Biology & The Impact Eyes Make
So what do bug eyes and baby faces say of a person? There’s a famous story about George “Baby Face” Nelson, a bank robber during the Great Depression. He was said to inspire trust and innocence due to his baby-like facial features, yet he was a particularly ruthless killer. While investigating the babyface phenomenon, science journalist Zaria Gorvett wrote, “If you’re blessed with big doe eyes, it can help you get ahead and get away with more than you think” —which is backed up by the fact that baby-faced defendants found guilty of a crime have historically received less severe sentences. And the “babyface overgeneralization hypothesis” suggests that we’re more likely to dote on and care for adults with baby faces due to the instinctual urge to care for actual babies.
So in media, big eyes are often used to elicit a sense of love and warmth. It’s well-documented that pupils can get bigger not only due to lighting changes but also due to physical state and emotion. According to The Scientific American, pupil enlargement–which can give the impression of “bigger” eyes–can denote sexual interest and attraction. Perhaps the TikTok “pupil test” best illuminates this.
When Wide Eyes Are Alluring
The wide-eyed girl onscreen is an object of desire, whose appeal essentially stems from a version of the problematic Lolita ideal. While the wide-eyed girl might not be explicitly a Lolita or underage, she’s a visual combination of youthful innocence and sexiness. And if biology biases us to see wide eyes as markers of innocence, youth, fertility, and therefore sometimes attraction, this is all reinforced and exploited in media and storytelling. Image makers use wide-eyed girls and women to represent innocence and beauty in young female characters throughout our most iconic films and shows. Costuming and makeup depict this type of femininity as submissive, pure, and sometimes kinda dumb.
We can see the subtle ways big eye obsession takes root in animation – from the famous “anime eyes” to the big-eyed Disney princesses whose eyes, some have observed, can actually be bigger than their waists.
The baby-ish features make cartoon characters endearing to us – which is why children so readily connect to the big-eyed heroes. Yet, when Buzzfeed showed us what Disney princesses would look like with normal-sized eyes, the results actually feel disconcerting.
Making these unrealistic expectations worse today, we have eye-enlarging phone filters that allow us to see ourselves with those impossibly proportioned eyes and even get used to that self-image, despite it being practically unattainable. This glamor trend has inspired extreme plastic surgery. And that’s not the only way this bizarre fascination has proven to be harmful. Today, there are growing concerns that some anime hypersexualizes young girls. A clear issue arises when this constant reinforcement pushes beauty standards to get even more “baby-like”, thus sexualizing actual adolescent girls.
Other cultural fixtures like Bratz dolls contribute to the problem too. Sarah Simon writes in L’Atelier, “As a 12-year-old, I related to their plump baby faces… They tugged at a sexy-cute dichotomy that has influenced female beauty standards for millennia, encouraging women to be desirable while remaining childlike. Bratz embody the infantilization of beauty”. So it’s important to be conscious of how this biological fixation and influential media messaging can subconsciously alter our perceptions.
How Bug Eyes Freak Us Out
When the wide-eyed girl isn’t just sexy, she can also be creepy or otherworldly. Dolls, which often look like young girls, can become terrifying in certain contexts due to the uncanny valley effect, and their uncertain existence in-between human and inanimate objects.
The same may explain the use of the wide-eyed girl trope in horror, which is having a big moment today with examples like Mia Goth in various A24 and Neon horror flicks, Lupita Nyong’o in Us, and Amie Donald in the new screamer M3GAN. The wide-eyed girl in horror scares us because something’s off and she’s not acting the way the big-eyed babyface should – like George “Baby Face” Nelson there’s a disconnect between their supposed, outer innocence, and the monstrosities they’re actually committing. Scarlett Johansson famously played a literal alien wearing a bug-eyed human costume in the eerie sci-fi film, Under The Skin.
This figure might also be playing on the tension and moral discomfort that results from our culture’s oversexualizing of young girls. Yet the wide-eyed horror girl, like a doll, still retains that baby-faced charisma that draws audiences to her on some level. Tim Burton – who was influenced by artist Margaret Keane, the subject of his movie “Big Eyes,” – has often used big-eyed characters that feel creepy, yet still childlike. And wide-eyed “weird girl” heroines like Wednesday Addams and Lydia Deetz combine that endearing admirability with the weirdness of alien eyes. So the “unnatural appearance” of baby eyes on adult faces can play as sexy, or creepy, and often both.
A Social Bias From a New Lens
Research has found a preference for neotenous faces across cultures and ethnicities, but the preference for wide eyes is an especially strong Western beauty standard (one that’s undoubtedly spread throughout our global culture). Many of the most high-profile wide-eyed icons are white, and attractiveness and trust have long been equated with whiteness. A study from Northwestern University found that Black CEOs in the U.S. were significantly more baby-faced than White CEOs, and the authors suggested that this babyface-ness may be a “disarming mechanism that facilitates the success of Black leaders by attenuating stereotypical perceptions that Blacks are threatening”.
This research on what the wide-eyed aesthetic culturally implies gets at what can sometimes be hard to talk about–that how we look has a big impact on how we live. Fortunately, today many wide-eyed actors are giving this trope a refresh, including Aubrey Plaza, who often plays discerning, intelligent, and attractive women. Jenna Ortega, who perfectly encapsulates the horror “weird girl”, was lauded for her performance as Wednesday Addams, and is also set to play Lydia Deetz’s daughter in an upcoming Beetlejuice sequel. Lupita Nyong’o recently took on the role of fighter-activist Nakia in the Black Panther series. Amanda Seyfried, who was originally known as Mean Girls’ Karen Smith, wowed audiences by playing against type as Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout, which explored how Holmes’ looks influenced the tech industry’s treatment of her in a complicated way. And of course, there’s Anya Taylor-Joy–whose parts in The Queen’s Gambit and The Menu have likewise explored how the world perceives and potentially misunderstands wide-eyed girls
So instead of only casting the “wide-eyed girl” as someone to coddle, fantasize about, or even fear, we should take stock of the way culture and media have conditioned us to view these cherubic features and recognize that humans are much deeper than their peepers.
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