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 Paris–Match: “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.
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).
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.