Roland Barthes: The man, the myths

Barthes is a thinker, thats for sure. Despite the complexity of his arguments, there lies a unique truth surrounding the myths of popular culture and their creations within specific cultural contexts. Although many of the myths may seem outdated for us in a 21st century American lifestyle, his interrogation of society’s upper echelon (the bourgeois) explains how they attached meaning and value to cultural phenomena.

Rochi weighs in on the section titled ‘Striptease,’ a provocative sectioned defined by a cultural element considered grotesque and demeaning in many circumstances, but explained quite eloquently by Barthes. In this essay, Barthes argues that “…Parisian striptease- is based on a contradiction”. He argues that the exotic layers of clothing and the dancing is a way of creating a gap between the dancer and what the image of a ‘real woman’ should be. As such, Barthes argues that a “Woman is de-sexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked” because the myth created by the dancing and the exotic clothing in a striptease is so far removed from the expectations of what a real woman should be. He then goes on to appreciate the sexual nature of an amateur dancer whose awkwardness and the lack of ‘artistry’ in her performance makes her less mythical and more like a real woman. Barthes also talks about the how the petit-bourgeoisie have adopted the striptease and made it into a vocation, further de-sexualizing it because it is now a sanctioned art form and a normalized part of public life in bourgeoisie society. We believe that this relates back to Barthes’s argument on the figure of identification. He states that “The petit-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other”. The transformation of the striptease into a sanctioned part of bourgeois life is an instance where the petit-bourgeois comes face to face with the Other (a sexualized, less well-behaved image of a woman) and finds a way to ‘reduce it to sameness’.

Réka decided to focus on the “Face of Garbo,” a unique portrait of a woman who characterizes the many faces of female acting. Robert Barthes’ “The Face of Garbo” depicts late actress, Greta Garbo, in elaborate admiration. Garbo’s face, he argues, is the singular most glorious attribute to the actress’ characterization on film; it is with this image that the camera, and thus the audience, fell in love. Barthes argues the face’s archetypal value, and by doing so adheres to his theory of myth. Thus, “Garbo,” and its sounds, represent the sign. The second semiological level, the myth, is constituted through what Garbo symbolizes; according to Barthes, she is a manifestation of an asexual beauty, her eyes representing “a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature” (56). In order to substantiate his claim, the author brings in another iconic figure, actress Audrey Hepburn, and notes her fullness as a character. While Hepburn is an amalgamation of her personality and her multiple “thematics” she embodies, cinema lovers recall Garbo by a single, distinguishing feature: her face.

Note the distinguishing features of the two actresses in the following video clips (namely, the mask-like quality of Garbo’s face vs. the more distinguishing, young, feminine features of Hepburn’s face)

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After considering these two myths, the Wine and Milk section seemed just too appealing to ignore. Wine in French bourgeoisie culture is considered as highly regarded and respected, a form of status, power, or class. Wine is simply a liquid, so how could it possibly come to represent such arbitrary nominations? Well, that is the myth, argues Barthes. Even the fact that the upper class French considered wine to be healthy when alcohol is very clearly an addictive and potentially dangerous substance is proof of the myth’s power of influence. 

Our question remains, how would Barthes view certain myths today? Obviously cultures have changed since his death, but are his ideas still relevant? And if so, what would be the myths of today? Bravo, Barthes, Bravo.

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