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The Eyepatch: A Brief History photo

When I was eleven, I saw the hip-hop group TLC bust onto the stage of some live TV show wearing giant colorful overalls and oversized hats, with Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez standing center stage, the star of the show, sporting a condom eyepatch. I was stunned. I put the baseball cards I was organizing down and watched, rapt. Left Eye didn't wear the eyepatch for any functional purpose, it was just part of the group's safe-sex-endorsing, condom-strewn wardrobe. It wasn't even a patch in the traditional sense, just a condom set into a pair of costume glasses, but I didn't know that at the time. As a white kid without older siblings in the rural Pacific Northwest, I didn't know what their condom clothes meant, didn't understand why said clothes didn't fit them, and didn't realize that the chorus of “Ain't Too Proud to Beg” was a joyful celebration of penises of all lengths and degrees of firmness, but I loved the whole spectacle. Especially the patch.

 My first exposure to the eyepatch was, likely, on fictional pirates. The eyepatch is the most recognizable signifier of pirate; the simplest pirate Halloween costume you can buy is a paper mask with an eyepatch drawn onto it. When you wear it, everyone knows what your costume is. But this image is, like most things I believed in my childhood—Santa Claus, the world of Western films, happily-ever-after—not true. Or at least it isn't widely true. There doesn't seem to be any well-known pirate from the Golden Age of Piracy or beyond that we can prove wore an eyepatch. The patched pirate appears to be an invention born in fictional representation, but the origins of this invention are muddy. Though sailors were often caricatured with eyepatches, there are no patch-sporting pirates in any of the influential 18th and 19th- century sources for our modern image—A General History of the Pyrates,Treasure IslandPeter PanPirates of Penzance—or in the surviving theatrical descriptions of pirate costumes from the 19th and early-20th century. Though almost impossible to say, it could be the patched Long John Silver from the now-lost 1920 silent-film adaptation of Treasure Island that placed the patch into the popular imagination. An Our Gang short featured a prominent pirate patch a few years later, and by the time Disney picked up on the image for a Mickey Mouse short a decade after there was an entire pirate crew with patches. The image had spread. Some who don't want to believe that the patch is a lie suggest real pirates used eyepatches not to protect an empty socket from infection, but to keep one eye adjusted to night vision for going below deck—a technique the United States Navy employed during World War II—but this is just a fun possibility rather than an historical fact. 

As a kid, I mostly knew eyepatches from movies. It often meant tough: John Wayne in True Grit, Kurt Russell in Escape from New York, Adolfo Celi as the suave Bond villain in Thunderball. But it also sometimes meant silly: Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, or Chevy Chase in Spies Like Us. Sometimes these meanings combined into a cartoonish cool that often existed off the big screen: Sammy Davis, Jr. before he got his glass eye; David Bowie as alter ego Ziggy Stardust; famed Northwest glass artist Dale Chihuly, who was a staple of Seattle public television throughout my childhood; or actual cartoon character Bazooka Joe, whose gum-paired comic strips I collected.

But soon after seeing TLC, my associations with the eyepatch largely became connected to hip-hop and the eyepatch in hip-hop begins, as do many hip-hop histories, with Slick Rick, the genre's most sampled artist. As an infant in South London, he lost his eye to a shard of glass and began wearing the eyepatch when coming up as a rapper in the Bronx of the mid-1980s to stick out in the crowd, soon evolving into his full-blown image as The Ruler, or the “black Liberace,” covering himself in rings and chains, the king of cartoon-cool. I knew him mainly from used record store bargain bins, his covers looking like skewed after-school specials. Unaware of his renown, he was just the eyepatch guy who did “La-Di-Da-Di” with the albums no one seemed to want.

When I was 18, I bought De La Soul's Buhloone Mindstate from Goodwill and, putting it on the moment I got home, was greeted by the opening track, “Eye Patch.” The seemingly nonsensical lyrics (“Can the cat's tongue lip, you do the da zip/Take the horse into the jolly ranch/Keep the hush . . . Show the sheep cause I found the food”) were to me wide open for interpretation and provided no clues for the eyepatch of the song's title. So I relied on the song's opening refrain—more incantation than chorus—for meaning: “mess up my mind, mess up my mind, mess up my mind with the eye patch.”

Later, I learned the song was a takedown of record label executives who were trying to make De La's clever, playful take on hip-hop more accessible to the masses by covering the group's metaphorical third eye with a patch. But at the time I assumed it was a song about a girl with an eyepatch and interpreted it as a celebration of unconventional beauty—akin to a love of crooked teeth, of facial scars, or unusually placed moles. I was listening to the song in 2000, seven years after the album came out, a year where “Back That Azz Up,” “Thong Song,” and “Whistle While You Twurk” dominated pop radio. While all fine songs in their own right, they were songs that paid tribute to oft-celebrated aspects of female beauty. But I'd never heard anyone celebrate an eyepatch. What a wonderful thing, I thought.

In the years since this false interpretation, the eyepatch has become regularly celebrated on screen as an accoutrement of unconventional female beauty and strength. The origins of tough women with eyepatches on screen probably begin with Bette Davis as the controlling matriarch in The Anniversary, but it's Wendy Robie as the superhumanly strong Nadine on Twin Peaks that defined the trope and created a legacy that's continued in recent years on Pushing Daisies and Doctor Who. But the origins of sexualizing eye-patched female strength might lie in '90s anime, or perhaps the late-'90s rise in steampunk fashion, and was certainly popularized by Daryl Hannah in Quentin Tarantino's 2003 film Kill Bill. This was followed by sexy eyepatches in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow Reason, The Mindy Project, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Favourite, and Chicana Stardust. Not to mention the wealth of anime, where eye-patched female characters with giant breasts in tight clothes are abundant—from my outside perspective, a full-blown fetish—and are present in at least a dozen anime series in recent years.

Because of this prevalence, eyepatches are, to most people, more film trope than a thing people actually wear. It's not a real-world tool, it's a Hollywood shorthand that, according to writer Hanh Nguyen, signifies “some sort of trauma” and shows “a badge of suffering.” It's also a way to set a character apart by giving them “a dangerous, rakish or even quirky air.” And this shorthand has never been used as much as it is now.

We are arguably in the heyday of eyepatches on screen. The list of movies and TV shows that have used them in the past couple decades is extensive and, in addition to the recent eye-patched women, patched men have appeared in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harry Potter, Battlestar Gallactica, The Invention of Hugo Cabaret, Lost, Mad Men, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Game of Thrones, Oz, The Walking Dead, The Avengers, and of course the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

I always enjoy seeing an eyepatch onscreen. I like the trope, the ease of its shorthand. Even at its toughest, it's always a little cartoonish, always over-the-top—something theatrical and fun. It's playful. But when I sit in ophthalmologist and retinal specialist waiting rooms, the people with eyepatches are just regular people with appointments. They're often construction workers in their safety vests, likely with an eye injury. Or they're elderly people, often in wheelchairs, who, if the conversations I've had over the years are any indication, have most likely lost an eye due to diabetes-related complications. They're definitely never over-the-top cartoons. They're never visibly tough or silly or cool. They're just stuck with an unwanted practical tool that most people think of as a playful costume accessory.

There aren't a lot of eyepatch-wearing Hollywood actors. Rarely, if ever, does the actor behind an eye-patched character use one offscreen. Wearing an eyepatch eliminates binocular vision, which affects depth perception and peripheral vision, but eye-patched characters are often more agile than their two-eyed opponents. In terms of film tropes, this makes it a close cousin of the “blind seer,” where a visual limitation leads not only to more finely tuned non-ocular senses, but great wisdom and near-magical abilities.

Off the screen and outside of waiting rooms, the eyepatch is a rare sight. “I'm usually the only person walking down the street with a patch on,” Slick Rick says. Kids with eyepatches—who often wear them to strengthen an amblyopic (or “lazy”) eye—get bullied. From what I've read, they usually don't turn into raffish anti-heroes who fight back, or become the stars of the school talent show, but instead suffer from low self-esteem.

Rick says having one eye determined who he became. Instead of playing in the streets with the other kids, “I stayed indoors and wrote stories,” he told The Guardian in 2016. The dozen times I've had a retinal hemorrhage, I've wondered who I would become if I lost the hemorrhaging eye and donned a patch. It's of course more difficult to go through this as a kid, but still, would the patch change me? It's usually just a silly question of aesthetics more than a real worry—a distraction for my mind—but it happens every time. Any hints of cool left my style as soon as I turned 30, and I currently feel most comfortable in sweaters and vintage button-ups worn by straight-laced dads of past eras, so an eyepatch would be a surprising addition to my wardrobe. I would, very suddenly, present differently to the world.

The other day, I bought an eyepatch from the drugstore. While I've had very little sight out of one eye many times, I've never had one completely covered for longer than it takes to read some letters from an eye chart. So I wanted to know what it was like. The patch was black with a strap, like I hoped it would be, but it was also padded, which I didn't expect. The padding made it so, when I put the patch on in the empty parking lot behind the store, my glasses barely fit back on my face. They sat precariously on the end of my nose, a little crooked. The patch was also giant—nearly twice the size of what I expected. I caught my reflection in a car window, and I was, objectively, a mess. I'd left the house early that morning, without a shower, covered in a random assortment of layers and a haphazardly tied scarf. Due to a medication side-effect, I've been losing hair rapidly in recent months, turning what's left of my already unruly hair into something even more gravity defying, and its state in that moment was absurdly windblown. I wasn't cool, but I was certainly a cartoon.

As soon as I put the patch on, I felt my brain retraining itself, furiously adjusting to this new limitation. Without binocular or much peripheral vision, I had to turn my head fully to each side before crossing the street, rather than the slight glances I could normally get away with, but that was the only immediate challenge. I walked through my neighborhood, past the pizza joint, the coffee shop, the sandwich place where the uniformly pretty people eat Midwestern food. Other than my favorite barista doing a double take, no one seemed to pay me much mind. When I got home, my roommates weren't there, so there was no one to surprise with my new, temporary addition. I walked to the bathroom, took the patch off in the mirror, taking note of how its absence turned my face back into something more recognizable, as light flooded my senses, my eyes excitedly joining forces once again. I pulled up an early TLC live performance on my phone and made myself a cup of tea, swiftly forgetting my experiment, my toe-dip into the land of what-ifs, allowing myself to return to a place where an eyepatch was just a matter of aesthetics, a playful accessory, a Halloween costume, something actors wear.


image: Betsy Agosta