“You Couldn’t Kill Me If You Tried For A Hundred Years”: Female Character Development in “Vikings”

Confession time—I am an avid watcher of historical dramas. Unfortunately, there is a common trend among these shows that has turned me into a hesitant viewer: the lack of development for women. Now, to be clear, I’ve never expected a show (at least one that is loosely based on a previous time period) to go out of its way to place women in roles that they would otherwise not have been in. That being said, just because you’re basing your show on the past doesn’t mean you can’t use your female characters just as diversely as your male ones. Which is why I’m glad that I stumbled across History Channel’s show called Vikings. Not only is the show excellent at storytelling, cinematography, and a semi-accurate account of how the actual Vikings were, it has introduced me to Lagertha Lothbrok a.k.a. medieval Wonder Woman (minus the alien part).

A quick introduction to the society that Vikings take place in for those that may need it. The Vikings in the show were a society known for their raiding culture. For most of the year they were farmers, but come springtime men were destined for adventure. They would pack up their ships, follow their leader, and head off to distance lands to pillage. This set up would make it quite easy for the writers of Vikings to follow the binary that Jeffery Brown establishes in his book Dangerous Curves. He says, “[this] situates men as active, women as passive—men as violent, women as having violence done to them.” (21). In this case, men would be the warriors, creating violence in far off lands while the women were at home always act the risk of violence coming to them. While these set ups do occur in Vikings, there is always a twist and that’s where Lagertha Lothbrok comes in.

Lagertha’s everything that is to be expected of her, dutiful mother and wife, but she goes a step further, she’s one of the most famous shield maidens of her time. If you’re not sure what a shield maiden is, they’re essentially female warriors that fought with their male counterparts on the field, and were expected to be given just as much respect as the men.  She’s ruthless on the battlefield and one of the running jokes on the show is that she’s saved her husband’s life countless times. Lagertha is thus one of the show’s most prominent action heroes but, as Brown discusses in Dangerous Curves, she is not simply a man in female clothing.

There is no denying that Lagertha is subjected to the male gaze quite often but like Brown notes her body is not filmed in this manner as a “mere sexual commodity” but also as “a body designed to be functional.” (25). If you look at her shield maiden attire (pictured below) you can see that she is covered in protective gear. Unlike many similar female action heroes, her battle armor is actually practical. Her chest and stomach are covered in chainmail, her wrists in bracers and under her dress she’s wearing protective leggings. While in this still her hair is pictured as free flowing toward the bottom, in most battle scenes it is shown to be tied back, keeping it out of her face.  By showing her to be holding a sword (and her skill at wielding one), Lagertha has “usurped a particular phallic means of power.” (31).

Lagertha goes on to illustrate her skill in warfare by what Brown refers to as “the second most emblematic sign of the action heroine’s masculinized persona,” physical strength. In the pilot of the series, Lagertha and her daughter, Gyda, are left behind while her husband and son go to trade. Referring back to Brown’s claim of the gender binary, this scene is set up for both women to have violence done to them. Two strange men enter the Lothbrok’s workshop, demand that Lagertha wait on them or else they’ll do terrible things to her daughter and herself. She refuses and one of the men say, “I don’t want to kill you, woman.” Lagertha, subtly lifting one of the swords from the fire, hisses, “You couldn’t kill me if you tried for a hundred years.” They fight, the pair of men and Lagertha, and they’re depicted as equals. She eventually wins and the men barely hurry off with their lives (one having been stabbed in the throat with a hook and the other in the gut with a sword). This is just one of hundreds of moments of Lagertha illustrating her physical strength being on-par with the men surrounding her.

Despite all this, Lagertha is still shown to be feminine. She is a loving mother who protects both her son and daughter with the fierceness of a lioness. When later in the series her second husband threatens to have her son killed (said husband has also been hurting her), Lagertha murders him without remorse. This is also a moment of her overcoming gender roles as the murder of said husband leads to her becoming Jarl (lord) of the town. However, her aggressive nature with her second husband cannot be an accurate depiction of her as wife, as with her first husband, Ragnar, she was incredibly loving and wanted to do what would be right by him (although she never did allow him to order her about). When in discussion with those that could be considered traitors, she often uses her femininity as a means of gaining information, flirting with the men or pretending to upset before she walks off to report back. As Brown says, “the conscious manipulation of traditional perceptions of female characters as weak” has become a way for female characters to instead be strong. By exploiting what the men around her think of her, Lagertha can be both spy and warrior.

From the start, Lagertha Lothbrok has always been what I like to refer to as a medieval feminist. She acts as an idol for the young women in the series, with many of them saying that they would someday like to become like Lagertha. She never tolerates violence to be done to her, both in the physical and emotional sense, and by that she steals the role of action hero out from under the male character’s feet. She is both strong and soft all rolled into one—the female character development that more historical dramas need.

Hope for Teenage Girls: Character Development in MTV’s “Daria”

About twelve years after it went off the air, I fell in love with MTV’s animated series Daria, which is remembered today for its wealth of excellent writing, compelling characters, and genuine emotional impact. It also boasts a variety of interesting, complex female characters filling a variety of important roles in the home, in the school, and in the “real world.” These characters, it is fair to say, rule the men in almost every case. There are many ways to read Daria in as a feminist show, but what I want to discuss in this essay is Daria’s younger sister, Quinn. First, though, a smidge of context.

The Morgendorffer family consists of four players. Helen is a working mom, a powerful, intelligent, ambitious lawyer who often struggles with balancing her family’s needs with her work demands. Jake is a bumbling freelance consultant who struggles with feelings of inferiority due to his unstable relationship with his father and his inability to support his family. Daria is the older daughter. She is seventeen, erudite, and abrasive. Her intelligence makes her just strange enough to be weird, but gives her the confidence to be her own person with her few loyal friends.

Quinn, the younger Morgendorffer sister, finds Daria to be—to put it lightly—a shame. That is, for four seasons, she tries to hide the fact that they’re sisters. She has a high, nasally voice that makes her sound peppy, vanity up the wazoo, and a nice army of dedicated admirers to assure her that she is a goddess walking on earth. On her first day at Lawndale High, she is appointed vice president of the Fashion Club. And this is how she is for approximately three seasons (the show ran for five, with two films). People who don’t watch the show closely might be tempted to believe that this is what Quinn is intended to be: a superficial foil to Daria’s intellectual depth. People who hold this opinion are doing the character, and the show, a disservice, because, like all fifteen year-old divas, Quinn grows. She evolves as a human being, and this is the value of her character: she is a case study of a fifteen year-old girl and the way she is shaped by society’s expectations, but most significantly, she is capable of overcoming these limitations in the end.

Clockwise from top left: Jake, Helen, Daria, and Quinn

The Morgendorffer household is supported by a strong mother who obviously holds feminist values (she rants more than once about Daria and Quinn eventually competing in “a man’s world”), and, in comparison to her Fashion Club friends, Quinn’s character reveals these influences. Unfortunately, at fifteen, the pull of popularity and the desire to be accepted at school overpower any sense she might inherit from her mother. This is actually a fairly accurate picture of the kind of pressure that young girls still face in high school. Quinn can see how people treat Daria, who is known for her brain and, intellectually, soars over her clueless peers, and decides that it is easier to be bubbly and well-liked. Of course, it helps that she is attractive and outgoing—these qualities enable her to achieve her desired popularity. As she is praised for these qualities, she fixates on them even more until they define her identity. On her first day of school at Lawndale High she is elected vice-president of the Fashion Club; this can be seen to represent her conformity with society’s beliefs about who she should be. Her only concerns are clothes and boys, and she dresses well to please boys. Eventually she begins to realize how constraining these limitations are, and how much potential she truly has.

One of the benefits that Quinn enjoys is a gang of boys devotedly worshipping her. Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie represent another challenge that teenage girls have to figure out in high school—the challenge of boys. Quinn’s dating life, in fact, is a fascinating subject all on its own. She is shown constantly going on dates with many different boys, manipulating the boys into buying her things and spoiling her, and talking to her friends about boys and the benefits of each one. Overlooking the shallowness, I believe that this is an area in which Quinn shows remarkable, is misused, intelligence. In every interaction between Quinn and a boy, Quinn is clearly the one in control. She is shown employing planners, schedules, and exhaustive lists to organize this part of her life. On top of that, it is always clear that the boy is lucky to be on a date with her, and they both know it.

What Quinn never does in the series, even once—that’s five seasons and two movies—is kiss a boy. For all that she and her Fashion Club friends are “boy-crazy,” their interest, or at least Quinn’s interest, seems much more strategic than sexual or even romantic. From boys, Quinn gets physical things, displays of affection that may boost her self-esteem, a sense that she is valued as a human being, and a way to bond with her female friends by sharing a hobby with them. On the one hand, this shows that Quinn is in control of her physical relationships; she has agency. On the other hand (and the show examines this idea a few times), it looks like Quinn lacks the emotional maturity to engage in a serious relationship. Whenever this comes up, however, it is concluded that there’s nothing wrong with that; the show tells the viewer that it’s okay to enter into a relationship with different goals, even though it doesn’t necessarily condone manipulating boys into buying you things (this is shown by the scorn that the other characters show in response to her serial-dating).

Later on, in the first movie (which aired between seasons four and five and was called Is It Fall Yet?), Quinn gets a tutor to raise her standardized test scores. For the first time in the series, she engages with a boy on a strictly intellectual level. When she tries to slack off during their session, he scolds her about wasting his time and hers, but he also tells her that he recognizes her intelligence and wants to help her. There are times in the series leading up to this when Quinn is revealed to be thoughtful, but no character has ever called her smart (barring the “Quinn the Brain” episode, where it was all a fluke), and she is surprised when she starts to develop feelings for her tutor. This reveals a problem with the way we treat young girls today: if all we expect from them is low-performance vapidity and sex, we will never learn their true potential. Quinn is excited by a relationship with a boy that challenges her intellectually, and her respect for the tutor allows her to develop genuine feelings of desire. By the end of the movie, she has achieved a clear improvement in emotional maturity and responsibility, and her grades improve.

After this experience, Quinn can be said to come into herself. She maintains her Fashion Club friendships, but with a seeming awareness of how empty it truly is. She continues to date, but she no longer neglects her schoolwork and begins to do quite well. Her relationship with her sister is shown to become very strong in this season. In the episode “Lucky Strike,” the teachers go on strike and Daria is hired as a sub in Quinn’s English class (just roll with it). When Quinn goes to her to ask if the test will be easy, “because if it’s not some popular people might not like it and might take it out on another popular person even though it’s not her fault,” Daria demands to know why Quinn is “defending the stupid when [she’s] not one of them.” Quinn gets a good grade on the test, then, in response to bullying from Fashion Club president Sandy, publicly admits that Daria is her sister.

By this point in the series, Quinn is shown to have realized her own skewed viewpoint and corrected her beliefs. Although she is merely a fifteen year-old girl in the eyes of society, she is shown to be thoughtful, capable, and in control, while she knows that she still has some growing to do. She recognizes the importance of her family ties, particularly the support she is given by her brainy big sister. This is why Quinn is my favorite character: her character growth is equally fascinating, refreshing, and exhilarating. At the end of the series, the Fashion Club disbands, but the four girls decide that they will continue to be friends and spend time together, valuing the individuality that each girl brings to the group. This is Quinn’s irrevocable liberation from the restraints of society. From this point, she is a strong, independent woman, and you’d better believe she’s a feminist.

“Walden, the Humanities, and the Classroom as Public Space.” A lecture by Professor Kristen Case

*Originally presented as part of the Center for Global Humanities Lecture/Seminar Series at the University of New England.

Abstract: Defenses of the humanities against charges of irrelevance and elitism usually come in one of two forms: a practical argument on behalf of the in-demand skill set afforded by a broad humanistic education, or an idealistic one about the intrinsic value of literature and philosophy “for their own sake.” This lecture questioned the dualism upheld by both types of response by examining the ethical and political stakes of the continued existence of physical humanities classrooms in the public university. As recent attacks on humanities programs at public universities and the growing prevalence of online courses have made clear, such classrooms are more and more seen as luxuries that public universities and their students can’t afford.

Case 002 (1280x853)

Case began the lecture by listing many keywords from Thoreau’s “Economy”:


Neighbor (etymology: something by or near)


Accident (etymology: from a latin word meaning to fall. Case notes that this suggests passivity.) 

Experience/experiment (“ex” meaning to try

She talks about how each of the words can be thought about in relation to education. She uses the classrooms of Roberts Learning Center to prove her point. The classrooms of this building have concrete walls, tile floors, small windows, and mundane seating. Although it might not be the most inspiring space, it meets the needs of necessity: it gives us what we need to remove ourselves from the pressures of society, to think about literature.  

At the beginning of the lecture you presented a list of keywords (removal, neighbor, necessity, accident, and experience/experiment) from Thoreau’s “Economy,” and you asked that the audience think about them in relation to the humanities and the public classroom. Moving forward, do you think that people should continue to look to these words for (a sort-of) guidance?

Well, I do think those happen to be particularly rich and useful words to think about, words with wonderful and complex etymologies and histories, but the more important thing for me is Thoreau’s lesson about paying attention to words generally, particularly words we use often and usually without thinking: to think seriously about what we mean by our words. The words I listed were his important touchstones, but we could all make our own lists. Lately I’ve been thinking about the words practice, poetry, and friendship.

Right now arts and humanities programs across the country are under attack for being impractical; they are hobbies that do not translate into successful careers. Resultantly, in addition to university-wide budget cuts, arts and humanities programs are being placed on the back burner, if not being thrown away entirely. Funding is being reallocated to more “practical” fields of study, i.e., STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs.

This is problematic, because public access to the humanities is in danger. You may have heard the argument that the humanities are dying, but Case insists that is not true. Rather, they are becoming a luxury. For example, she cites Governor Patrick McCrory, who says, “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it, but I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” The devaluing of these programs is the bigger problem. Beyond the obvious discrediting of the humanities, McCrory is nodding to the idea that only well-off individuals have a choice in their studies; everyone else, well, they need to study something that will enable them to work, something “practical.”

Case says, “Education is indispensable to the growth of freedom of thought, faith, enterprise, and assertion.” We need a Thoreauvian removal, which is what the humanities allow. They allow people to think beyond the rulebook of a flawed system. By restricting whom can study the humanities, we are inhibiting the natural flow of knowledge and the appreciation for it.

Currently there’s a major push for STEM  programs. Often, this push includes additional aid and benefits for students pursuing these fields. What advice do you have for students that are interested in pursuing the arguably less-valued arts and humanities?

First, I just want to acknowledge how hard it is right now for students in that position; that, in this economy, despite what we know about how hirable humanities majors really are, it’s nevertheless a risk to major in something that doesn’t provide a clear and direct pathway to a specific profession. I think we have to acknowledge both that there are legitimate reasons for not wanting to take that risk and to applaud and support those students who do make it. My advice would be, first: be the best damn humanities major you can be. Work toward a Wilson project or an Honors thesis. Do an internship or an independent study. Find ways to connect your out-of-the-classroom interests to your in-classroom work. Make your work mean something to you. If you think you might want to be a writer of any kind, remember that every single thing you write is an opportunity to practice your profession: start thinking of it as your profession now. Second, I would say, approach your professors about what you want to do or think you want to do, or about the fact that you have no idea what you want to do and are getting nervous about that. We can’t force you to have those conversations with us, but we’re here, and we want to help, and we can make a difference.

Using a discussion of Thoreau’s Walden as her point of departure, Case argued for both the practical and ethical (though not always quantifiable) value of the humanities classroom and of the critical questions asked within them. Moreover, the defunding of the University of Maine System is not unique: it is a country-wide problem that Case argues is hurting the more than just the students—it is hurting the United States. The average debt for a graduate from the U. Maine System is $30,000. This, in addition to the unemployment rates, is evidence of the “failure of the promise of public education.”

Ultimately, over the next few years, what would you like to see from the postsecondary education system?

I mean, are we talking about my dream world here? If so, I’d like to see all colleges become tuition free. Short of that I’d like to see the federal and state government decide that college access, and income inequality more generally, is a real problem and begin working toward a fairer allocation of our national resources. Taxpayers shouldn’t be funding for-profit institutions, and massively wealthy colleges like Harvard should pay taxes. I’d like to see all colleges adopt UMF’s standard for percentage of tenure-track faculty. I’d also like to see more funding for programs like Upward Bound that help students prepare for and transition to college. And I’d like to see us do more to help all students see their education is something personally empowering and meaningful, not just a credential.

About Case: 

Let’s talk more about you and your work now. It’s really impressive that you could use Thoreau’s work to illuminate the topic of the humanities and the public classroom. I think many people are wondering how one even begins to construct something coherent out of what appears to be two huge and distinct topics?

That’s an easy one: I was an English major, which taught me to make connections between different topics, different disciplines, different writers, to hold different ideas in my head and the same time. It might be the most practical skill I’ve ever learned.

Moreover, much of your career is focused around Thoreau, how do you stay interested in his works/continue to find material to think about?

That’s a great question. The amazing thing is, and I think this is true of anything, the more you learn the more you realize how much more there is to learn, how deep it goes. Thoreau wrote every day of his adult life, and his writing touches on about every facet of life. He was a poet, a philosopher, a scientist, a musician, a political activist. I could get advanced degrees in a dozen fields and he’d still be ahead of me because for him all those things were organically connected, connected to his lived experience, which of course I’ll never know. But it’s wonderful to keep learning, to develop a sort of intimacy with someone in the past. It feels to me like I have a very interesting and provocative and sometimes exasperating but always brilliant friend, who happens to live in the nineteenth century.

Kristen Case teaches courses in American Literature, environmental writing, and the intersection of 20th- and 21st-century American literature and philosophy at the University of Maine Farmington. She has published articles on Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost and Ezra Pound and is the author of American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice: Crosscurrents from Emerson to Susan Howe (Camden House, 2011). Her poems have appeared in Chelsea, The Brooklyn Review, Pleiades, Saint Ann’s Review, The Iowa Review, Wave Composition, and Eleven Eleven. Her chapbook, Temple, is forthcoming from Miel Books. She is the editor of The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies. Her essay, “The Other Public Humanities” recently appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Celebrities and Children: The Jennifer Aniston Dilemma

The double standards between men and women concerning the professional world and their place in society is the theme of Roland Barthes’ short essay, Novels and Children. A quote from the essay that will curdle every feminist’s milk, says, “Women are on earth to give children to men; let them write as much as they like, let them decorate their condition, but above all, let them not depart from it” (50)” Barthes is referring to the magazine Elle, which introduced a list of women novelists, along with their number of children, illustrating what this essay seeks to expose: that women are mothers first, professionals second.

The author notes that this edition of Elle was some time ago. We like to think that professional women today, are more widely recognized for their achievements in the work force, rather than bearing children. However, if we can still read our quote from Barthes and say that it no longer applies to women today, then why are people so obsessed with asking famed childless actress Jennifer Aniston why she has not settled down, got married, and given birth?

In an ABC interview about her film “We Are the Millers”, Aniston says journalists try to ask her questions related to her film family by “trying to relate it to the movie with, ‘Oh, if I was to have a child how many kids do I want?’ And ‘do I want a boy or a girl? (ABC News, Jennifer Aniston: Stop Asking Me About Babies!)'”

Aniston says repeatedly in interviews that she is “happy” and feels “content” surrounding herself with friends, her partner, fiance Justin Theroux, and her dogs. That the actress must assure the public she is indeed happy without having children to add to her list of achievements, implies that today’s society has not totally abandoned the principle Barthes discusses in his essay.

Aniston is a Golden Globe and Emmy award winning actress who has starred in over fifty movie and tv show productions. Her movies have grossed over $1 billion worldwide. She is a business women, philanthropist, director, and face of Smartwater. She also happens to be unmarried and childless at the age of forty-six, which even in everything goes Hollywood, makes a person stand out more than starring in a blockbuster movie or wining shiny awards.

Aniston in a December 2014 interview with Allure magazine said:

I don’t like [the pressure] that people put on me, on women — that you’ve failed yourself as a female because you haven’t procreated. I don’t think it’s fair. You may not have a child come out of your vagina, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t mothering — dogs, friends, friends’ children.

The actress touches on the assumption that a woman has somehow failed or cannot be happy in life if she has not had children. Because bearing children is singular to women, it is expected that carrying out this process is the natural thing to do, and to not do so, is strange, making those childless women outcasts. A woman who has succeeded in their professional life has not truly succeeded until she has succeeded at becoming a mother.

Barthes writes, “But let men be quickly reassured: women will not be taken from them for all that, they will remain no less available for motherhood by nature” (51). When google searching Jennifer Aniston, ‘kids’ is one of the first words to appear as the search engine’s automatic filler, atop ‘movies’ and ‘net worth’.

Unsurprisingly, these are not the results if you were to search the actress’s fiance, Justin Theroux, or newly-wed George Clooney. Even when a woman is as successful as her male counterparts, who may or may not choose to have children, her choice to not have children will always stump us, because that is what she is supposed to do after all, right?

Arietta: Fragments after Beethoven’s Sonata 32 in C Minor

English Professor Kristen Case’s contribution to UMF Music Professor Steven Pane’s collaborative Beethoven project.

Introduction to Mythologies

Roland Barthes’s landmark study of popular and mass culture, Mythologies, was first published in French in 1957 and was translated for the first time into English in 1972. In referring to “mythologies,” Barthes means something other than our more commonly understood definition of mythology (as in “ancient myth,” “classical myth,” the “myth of Sisyphus,” etc.)

In the essay “Myth Today” (included in Mythologies), Barthes explains that “myth is a type of speech” (109). For Barthes, myth is the means by which contemporary mass society “naturalizes” ideology and thereby conveys messages that are not necessarily inherent in the “obvious” or common sense meaning of an image, phrase, or even an event. Through mythologies, society “speaks” its version of the “truth.” Or, through mythologies, society justifies itself (speaks the “truth” about the inevitability and naturalness of a given power structure or hierarchy).

One of the insights from Mythologies that has been particularly influential is Barthes’s argument that anything (not just words) can be made into language, that is, can be used to communicate ideas and concepts: “We shall therefore take language, discourse, speech, etc., to mean any significant unit or synthesis, whether verbal or visual: a photograph will be a kind of speech for us in the same way as a newspaper article; even objects will become speech, if they mean something” (111-12). Thus, among the many essays collected in Mythologies, Barthes advances his “ideological critique bearing on the language of so-called mass-culture” through clever analyses of wrestling, soap-powders and detergent, toys, steak and chips, striptease, Greta Garbo, and the use of photography in elections (9).

As an example of the difference between what we might call the “common sense” meaning and the ideological meaning, Barthes writes of a trip to the barber’s, where he thumbs through a copy of ParisMatch: “On the cover a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors” (116). The seemingly innocent photograph serves a larger ideological purpose, as visual evidence in support of a particular political point of view. The visible patriotism of the young black man conceals the history of the processes that brought him under the authority of the French state: invasion, war, and colonialism. Ideology works most assiduously, Barthes argues, to replace history with myth, to replace the reality of politics and power with pretty pictures and comforting slogans.

Barthes builds on the theories of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, whose book General Course on Linguistics (published after his death in 1916) introduced the term “semiotics” (the scientific study of “signs”). In Saussure’s formulation, a sign (words are a type of sign) is something that means something to someone. A stop sign is indeed a sign that means something (“Stop!”). Saussure breaks the term sign into two parts, the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the material element of the sign (the sounds we hear when someone pronounces a word; the graphic symbols used in writing; the distinctive shape of a stop sign), and the signified is the concept, the meaning, that becomes attached to the signifier.

Importantly, Saussure argued that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. There is nothing inherently book-like about the word book that makes it an essential signifier for that concept. Otherwise, every human language would use the same material signifier to represent that particular concept (and, not, say, libro, le livre, hon, shu, etc.).

As Barthes realized, it’s that arbitrary relationship between the material of the sign and the concept conveyed by the sign that makes “myth” possible. “Myth” takes an existing language, or an existing statement (such as a photograph), and empties it of its original meaning in order to attach other ideological meanings to that sign. Thus transformed, the (for example) photograph comes to mean something else. In transforming the photograph of the soldier into a sign of patriotism, something is lost or obscured, the real history of French colonialism, the individual story of the individual soldier who exists in the photograph not as himself but as a signifier of patriotism.

For another overview of Saussure and his influence on semiotics (and for a lucid interpretation of hipster beards), see Post-Structuralism Explained Through Hipster Beards.

Below are three “case studies,” each one building on ideas drawn from Mythologies.

Case Study 1: Myth and Moxie

Inspired by Mythologies, I decided to advance my own (somewhat tongue in cheek) investigation: to look more closely at the “myth” of Moxie, to investigate the “message” of Moxie soft drink’s seemingly simple graphic design, and perhaps to find out a little more about the “mystery” (as the advertising copy above calls it) of the “Moxie Boy.” Moxie’s trademark image has remained remarkably consistent, with the exception of a few changes in hairstyle, over the soft drink’s history. To use Barthes’s terms, if we regard the Moxie Boy as a “signifier,” as something roughly equivalent to a unit of speech, what does this boy have to say for himself, about himself, and, more importantly, about why he is an appealing icon for the consumer of Moxie–for that consumer is the intended recipient of the Moxie Boy’s message.

Among the more interesting oddities related to the soft drink Moxie is that its name represents one of the few examples of a proper name changing over to become a noun in the English language. Thus, Moxie is not only a trade name, but it is also a word that means: “1: Energy, Pep 2: Courage, Determination 3: Know-How, Expertise” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary). As a noun rather than a proper name, it is a perfectly legal (and potentially high-scoring) word to use in Scrabble. Thus, although the Moxie Boy is a visual image, he already is associated with a verbal meaning, as he is supposed to be the very embodiment of the qualities Moxie purports to offer. And, if we look more closely into the history of Moxie, we can see quite clearly that one of the selling points of the soft drink is the promise, explicit in its early days, more implicit as time went on, that Moxie has the ability to impart those very qualities of “energy” and “pep” to the consumer who purchases it.

Moxie Nerve Food, as it was originally called, was a “tonic,” a medicinal concoction intended as a cure for those who were lacking in such qualities as pep and energy. In the late nineteenth century, when Moxie Nerve Food first went on the market, Americans were worried about a disease (primarily affecting men) called “neurasthenia,” a “nervous disease” no longer recognized as a medical ailment, the symptoms of which might be simply stated as “not being manly enough.” When Moxie dropped the “Nerve Food” from its title and its (rather spurious) claim to medicinal power, it nonetheless kept the concept of “manliness” as part of its marketing (and, thus, the Moxie Boy and not the Moxie Girl).

And the approach worked quite well. Until the 1920s, Moxie was the most popular soft drink in America, although it has receded to being a New England favorite, and the grocery stores here in Maine are well stocked with it.

Of course, it was invented by a Mainer, Dr. Augustin Thompson, who sold it initially as a cure for “loss of manhood, paralysis and softening of the brain.” And here we might pause and look more closely at Moxie Nerve Food’s first marketing campaign, and unpack exactly what “loss of manhood” meant to late nineteenth century consumers. Well, it’s not difficult to guess, but “loss of manhood” was a polite (or coded) way of saying “erectile dysfunction.” In short, Moxie was (or claimed to be) the Viagra of the late-nineteenth century.

Sometimes a pointing finger is just a pointing finger, but it seems to me, anyway, that the imagery of Moxie still contains a hint of its original meaning, presented implicitly through visual imagery rather than explicitly through verbal text. Even the dictionary definition of the word Moxie is suggestive of a gendered meaning. Although we might now regard words such as “energy, pep, courage, determination, know-how, expertise” as gender neutral, coming out of the nineteenth century, those qualities would be primarily associated with masculinity. Moxie is a virtual synonym for “virile” (which is defined as “energetic,” “vigorous”), a word specifically associated with male qualities: “having the nature, properties, or qualities of an adult male; specif: capable of functioning as a male in copulation.” The mythology of Moxie, which we have uncovered here, refers back to its earliest days as a “nerve food,” and although that original meaning of Moxie (as cure for “loss of manhood”) has not been an explicit selling point for over a hundred years, a hint of that original meaning remains in the image of the Moxie Boy and his vigorous finger pointing. Perhaps that’s why the “Moxie Boy” logo, which has gone through many variations over the years (and is currently a Moxie Man rather than Boy), almost always features Moxie Man’s pointing finger (or other prominently featured phallic objects). As Sigmund Freud cautions, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” but Moxie’s history suggests that in this case, the phallic imagery may not be innocent or accidental.

I think I can safely leave it to you, dear reader, to “decode” the phallic imagery here.

For more about Moxie and its history (and more samples of Moxie ads), see http://www.moxie.info/.

Case Study II: Looking Presidential

[The case study below was written in Fall 2008 in the midst of the presidential election (and updated in 2012), using Barthes’s essay “Photography and Electoral Appeal” as a way of analyzing the imagery of that election. Please note that his essay is retitled in the new translation of Mythologies as “Electoral Photogeny”.]

Although Roland Barthes is writing specifically about the French electoral process in “Photography and Electoral Appeal,” his more general observations about the way political campaigns use photographs seem completely applicable to the current American context. As Barthes observes, the use of photographs in campaigns “presupposes that photography has a power to convert,” and despite the importance of video, the single arresting still image remains the trump card in the political deck (or the wild card, as a photograph of a candidate can also have the power to convert potential voters in the other direction) (91).

Photography, Barthes writes, reveals “something deep and irrational co-extensive with politics” (91). Photography constitutes “an anti-intellectual weapon and tends to spirit away ‘politics’ (that is to say a body of problems and solutions) to the advantage of a ‘manner of being,’ a socio-moral status” (91). To put this in the parlance of American politics, the presidential election is about “character” (a “manner of being”), or at least that’s the way it’s presented in the media. Although during elections citizens often say they wish they knew more about a candidate’s stance on the issues, the emphasis in campaign coverage (and in campaigns) tends toward the issue of character (“judgment,” “toughness”) over the nuts and bolts of policy—thus, the inane “which candidate would you rather have a beer with” debates. Photographs serve the function of reinforcing that socio-moral status, and we often see campaigns wrangling to define the meaning of a particular image (do photographs of Barack Obama speaking to crowds in Germany convey “the gravitas of a world leader” or merely reveal the “superficiality of his celebrity status”?).

Barthes goes on to note that the “conventions of photography . . . are themselves replete with signs” (92). That is, in addition to the actual content of a particular photograph (candidate stands with chest decorated with military medals, signifying patriotism, courage, valor), the conventions of portraiture itself convey meaning. Here I want to share a long quotation from Barthes on how and what particular photographic conventions signify:

A full-face photograph underlines the realistic outlook of the candidate. . . . Everything there expresses penetration, gravity, frankness: the future deputy is looking squarely at the enemy, the obstacle, the ‘problem.’ A three-quarter face photograph, which is more common, suggests the tyranny of an ideal: the gaze is lost nobly in the future, it does not confront, it soars, and fertilizes some other domain, which is chastely left undefined. Almost all three-quarter face photos are ascensional, the face is lifted towards a supernatural light which draws it up and elevates it to the realm of higher humanity; the candidate reaches the Olympus of elevated feelings, where all political contradictions are solved. (92-93).



The 3/4 profile, head slightly turned, face lifted, eyes gazing upward toward the noble future.

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This image of Ronald Reagan falls somewhere between the full-face photo and the 3/4 pose. The head is turned slightly, the gaze is also off to the side (if not quite up to the heavens). The image suggests a candidate who combines the qualities of a visionary with the frankness of a realist. The cowboy hat reinforces that practical can-do persona.

This image of Jimmy Carter is perhaps a better example of the full-face photo.


Note that he wears a tie but no jacket. He is not as casually dressed as Reagan, but the lack of a jacket (and the addition of the famous Carter smile) perhaps adds a bit of friendliness to the seriousness of the straight-on gaze.

Interestingly, Barthes does not discuss photographs that emphasize the profile. Perhaps they do not exist in political photography? A profile might suggest that something is being hidden?

As the Reagan image suggests, American politics does have it’s own rhetoric quite distinctive from French politics, and I’m not quite sure what Barthes would make of this photograph of Sarah Palin, but it draws on the same branch of political imagery as does the Reagan photo.

The image of politician as successful hunter has a long history in American politics. For example, note this drawing of Theodore Roosevelt, from the frontispiece of his 1885 book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. Roosevelt had just finished 3 terms in the New York State Legislature and was preparing to run for mayor of New York City (a race he lost, although he would eventually become Governor of New York, and eventually Vice President and then President of the US).

Roosevelt’s book about his western adventures was all part of his reinvention of his image, using the imagery of the frontiersman to add some pioneer spirit to his actual background—member of a wealthy New York family. Other drawings in the book depict the various animals he shot during his hunting trips in the Dakotas.

In Roosevelt’s book, this drawing was titled “Head of Bull Elk,” and had a caption that read, “Shot Sept. 12, 1884.”

The photographs of Palin demonstrating her hunting skills (which were disseminated by the Alaska Office of the Governor) belong to this well-established branch of American political imagery, one that has perhaps developed its own set of conventions and symbolic meanings.

Some more political photographs to think about:







It’s odd to see that a lot of Romney photos use these type of poses–which combines the two types of political photograph that Barthes describes. One image is straight on, but Romney’s gaze is askance, indirect. The other is the 3/4 type, but Romney’s gaze is again to the side, and not the iconographic “ascensional” gaze toward (and upward) the noble future. In looking back at photos from the campaign, it’s really surprising how difficult it is to find photos of Romney looking directly at the camera.

Case Study III: Gender and Advertising

Diane Barthel. “A Gentleman and a Consumer.” Signs of Life in the USA. Ed. Jack Solomon. Boston: Bedford, 2003. 171-180.

In her article “A Gentleman and a Consumer,” Diane Barthel looks at the way advertising in the last part of the 20th century tackled the task of selling beauty products to men—by taking what would traditionally be unmanly consumer items (perfumes, I mean, aftershave lotions, shampoos, and other grooming products) and associating those products with conventionally masculine traits. Barthel observes that “different cultural attitudes toward both the social person and the physical body shape the gender roles of men and women” (172). Advertisements directed at either group can provide a kind of snapshot of gender roles in a society at a given moment. In a time when attitudes about gender are in flux, advertisements may also be revealing of new identities in the process of being formulated.

Although Barthel does not quote Barthes directly (although she does quote fellow semiotician Jean Baudrillard), her analysis points to one of the influences Barthes has had on cultural studies—as analyses of ads have provided particularly fertile ground for semiotics.

Building on the work of semiotician Jean Baudrillard, Barthel observes that because advertisements directed at women sometimes use male imagery (and vice versa) we might more accurately speak of “two modes” of advertising that “do not result from the differentiated nature of the sexes, but from the logic of the system. The relationship of Masculine and Feminine to real men and women is relatively arbitrary” (172).

Barthel continues:

The feminine model encourages a woman to please herself, to encourage a certain complacency and even narcissistic solicitude. But by pleasing herself, it is understood that she will also please others and that she will be chosen [because of her beauty]. . . Whereas the feminine model is based on passivity, complacency, and narcissism [on making herself into a beautiful object that will be chosen], the masculine model is based on exactingness and choice. . . . The key words are masculine terms: power, performance, precision. [In car ads], the car is not simply other; it is also an extension of the owner. . . . Its power is his power. (172-73).

As a group of traits, or, as what we might call the signified content of advertising, power, performance, and precision appear as selling points for a wide variety of products (shampoo, bath soap, etc.) directed at male consumers. The trick of the ad is to associate a particular signifier (e.g. deodorant) with a particular signified (power). Not only can “powerful odor protection” mask our natural human scent, but the power and prestige associated with the product becomes ours as well. This technique applies to a variety of products.

With vehicle ads in particular, we might note that “toughness” is another valued masculine quality. This ad is from 2001, taken from Men’s Journal.

Like the owner, this truck is “built tough,” able to take a beating and keep on going. The photograph of the truck shows it in action, emphasizing not only toughness but power.

Take a closer look at the copy—what’s with the completely gratuitous France-bashing?

There are real men who drive Ford trucks, and then there are wimps who shave their legs. The wimps are in France.

Compare this ad to another 2-page vehicle ad, this one for a Dodge, which appeared the same year in the magazine Shape.

“Slip into something more comfortable” this ad suggests, and, to make that comfort clear, we have the juxtaposition of the red-tinged photo of the women wearing bunny slippers with the photograph of the red Dodge Stratus. The passivity of this feminine mode ad is indicated by both the stillness of the car (not photographed in motion as in the truck ad) and the comfortable stillness of the model in her bunny slippers. Women in feminine mode ads are often depicted seated (or reclining); masculine mode ads often emphasize action.

Note the way image and text work together in both these ads to reinforce the same concepts.

And speaking of action, check out the advertising copy for Old Spice’s Red Zone “Swagger” body wash:

“The Red Zone is a bleak, maze-like environment where lasers fire in random directions and the sky is always filled with lightning. Odor never dares enter the Red Zone. The Old Spice man, on the other hand, flourishes in the Red Zone, throwing touchdowns, doing recon and saving females from danger, all while smelling great.”

Power and performance indeed!

Ads for Degree deodorant evoke both “power” and “precision” by claiming that their product offers “Advanced strength protection technology.” Degree for men is “engineered” with “recharge technology.” Degree’s ads for women similarly use the masculine mode, asserting that women can “DO: MORE” with Degree.

Spoiler alert: “Secret” may be “strong enough for a man but made for a woman,” but the only substantial difference between men’s and women’s deodorant (other than the marketing) is the aroma of the perfume used to mask body odor. And the perfumes chosen have more to do with our cultural beliefs about what aromas are appropriate for men and women than with any differences between male and female bodies.

Kristen Case Talk on Wednesday


Kristen Case talk: “Walden, the Humanities, and the Classroom as Public Space,” Wednesday, 11:45, Emery Arts Center, at the Univeristy of Maine-Farmington.