Mythologies: The Romans in Films

In his “The Romans in Films” chapter of Mythologies, Ronald Barthes claims that in Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar, “no matter, everyone is reassured, installed in the quiet certainty of a universe without duplicity, where Romans are Romans thanks to the most legible of signs: hair on the forehead” (26). Basically, the viewer of the film is reassured that a Roman is a Roman because he is wearing fringe on his head. “The frontal lock overwhelms one with evidence, no one can doubt that he is in Ancient Rome” (26). This is Barthes’ way of saying that he is critical of the cheesy way of showing one particular aspect of a character in a movie because that’s all it is. There isn’t anything intellectual or deep about it.

“the sign is ambiguous: it remains on the surface, yet does not for all that give up the attempt to pass itself off as depth” (28).

In many young adult movies and TV shows there is a character, often a girl, who is seen as unattractive and/or awkward. That character is classified as a loser by her peers and usually only has a few friends. Many times, the way to spot such a character is that she is wearing glasses. Glasses have become a symbol of unpopularity in such movies and TV shows.  

In the movie The Princess Diaries, Mia Thermopolis, the protagonist, is seen as a nobody with frizzy hair and glasses. After she finds out that she is going to be a princess, she needs to go through a physical transformation. This involves that she wear contacts instead of her glasses. A character even breaks the glasses so that they are unwearable. The transformation goes as such:

When she gets rid of her glasses and brushes her hair, Mia is suddenly viewed as a beautiful young woman fit to be Princess of Genovia. Even though she is still the same person she was before, her physical transformation is what shows the viewer, and the other characters in the story, that she’s ready to rule a country, not her intelligence or personality.

A similar event takes place in the teen show Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide. The character Lisa Zemo has a crush on one of the main characters of the show, but he does not return her affections because she wears glasses and has a bad haircut. However, when she returns to school after a summer vacation, she has gone through a physical transformation and is no longer wearing, you guessed it, glasses. After her glasses are gone, the main character tries everything in his power to win her love, not because she’s changed as a person, but because she is more beautiful now and less uncool.

Even in Superman, when Clark Kent takes off his glasses, he is no longer a nobody who works at The Daily Planet newspaper; he is a superhero who has fantastic powers and saves the city of Metropolis from dangerous super villains. 

Glasses have a similar effect as the Roman fringe. They show the viewer one aspect of a character in a cheesy way, that aspect being their lack of coolness. It does not change their personality or their ability to preform tasks, such as saving a city or being a good princess. All it does is show the viewer that with their glasses on, they are seen as losers, and when the glasses are gone, they become a better looking version of themselves. It lacks depth and literally and figuratively remains on the surface. 

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