Why the Big Eyes?

January 21, 2010

girl with big eyes

Applying Tinkerbell-sized eyes

I have a problem with the big eyes.

[Note: I have small eyes – tiny, beady eyes that I always wished were bigger – it’s a sore point with me, so if I sound slightly bitter, now you know why.]

But even despite my personal hangup, you have to admit that from the Disney princesses to the Dora dolls to Tinkerbell fairy cartoons to all the little dogs and cats and ponies marketed to young children, the eyes are always MASSIVE, completely out of proportion, and bordering on the hypnotic/psychotic/ frightening.

The eyes on Josephine’s Tinkerbell doll take up HALF her face.

Believe it or not, I have a theory! Sure, on the surface, toy designers are probably exaggerating features known to be attractive, the way cartoons tend to exaggerate features as a general strategy to make a character larger than life. We all know big eyes are signs of beauty. So, make them BIGGER and the doll will be REALLY BEAUTIFUL. (Ahem.)

But there’s more than meets the eye (ha ha) if you dig deeper and consider research that looks at iconography and symbols going back into the old stone age and beyond.

Psychologists have found that infants register their mother’s eyes and recognize faces in general by the eyes and maybe mouths – not noses or head shape of anything else – they play a prominent part in forming our earliest imprints of connection.

Anthropologists have used these findings to explain the predominance in the many ancient goddess/mother figures dug up in Turkey and thereabouts, have only eyes, maybe mouths, where the eyes are huge.

Greek religious ikons also feature giant eyes; so do our contemporary imaginings of aliens.

It seems humans tend to attribute mythic, spiritual, special beings – deities, saints, aliens – with the large eyes that connect in our deepest brain matter to our first images of love – our mothers.

I took a film class in college where the instructor showed us a number of films that used iconography to imbue main characters with that supernatural quality – of course, all of the actors in these roles had prominent eyes.

So, go figure – that annoying, horrific, plastic Tinkerbell doll shares her cultural roots with Venus figurines in Mesopotamia and Greek Orthodox Madonnas. The toy and cartoon producers know instinctively what features will make their characters seem extra-special to our children. Too bad the doll is still really ugly.

And can we do anything to promote the idea that people with small eyes can be attractive??