Cultural Myths: What We Learn From Roland Barthes’s Essays

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Mythologies" by Roland Barthes. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are there hidden messages in the way news is reported? What myths does Hollywood perpetuate?

Many of Roland Barthes’s essays provide concrete examples of how myths are used to reinforce cultural norms and values. Particularly, these essays seek to unmask class, gender, race, beauty, and political constructs.

Read more to see how Roland Barthes’s essays shed light on cultural myths.

Cultural Myths & Roland Barthes’s Essays

The book Mythologies includes 53 of Roland Barthes’s essays that describe examples of cultural myths he collected from French magazines. We’ve identified the most common themes among them—namely, class, race, gender, and beauty constructs—and picked out one of Barthes’s examples to illustrate each theme. We illustrate the same concepts with contemporary examples.

Class Constructs: “The Blue Blood Cruise”

In his essay “The Blue Blood Cruise,” Barthes examines myths that perpetuate class distinctions. He describes a news segment about members of European royalty taking a yacht cruise of the Greek islands in 1954. As part of the media covering this event, Barthes says a king was pictured wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a queen was wearing a print dress, both of which would be unacceptable and unimaginable in any other context. The reports made mention of details such as the participants waking at 6 a.m. and the men shaving as if these daily minutiae were worthy of the public press.

Barthes says the myth here lies in the presentation of royalty pretending to be regular people. But the deeper message conveyed by this spectacle is that they’re, by definition, not regular people. Otherwise, why would short sleeves and shaving be newsworthy? So, Barthes says, this kind of myth creates and reinforces notions of class distinction, and in fact deifies the nobility, presenting them as more than human. He compares the scene with the Biblical story of Noah’s ark, pointing out that these kings and queens might be likened to animals that have been hand-selected by God. So, Barthes concludes, this form of myth serves to uphold the idea of monarchy as divinely decreed and to remind the reader that these distinctions are natural and necessary.

Class Mythology in Spaces of Entertainment

In Barthes’s example here, we see class distinction mythologized by contrasting upper-class expectations with lower-class behaviors and items. The wealthy elites are only further enshrined in their superior status by their adoption of elements and behaviors associated with the “inferior” classes.    

We can see the same myth in contemporary American culture, in the form of spaces designed for upper-middle-class citizens to have an entertaining taste of working-class life for a short period of time. For example, The Trailer Park Lounge & Grill in New York City, which describes itself as a “good-natured parody with questionable taste,” allows affluent residents of Manhattan to have the experience of a working-class atmosphere. Customers are surrounded by a carefully-curated collection of items associated with poor, rural life, such as neon signs, “kitschy” plastic decor, and bowling-alley imagery. Meanwhile, the menu includes $17 hamburgers and $60 margarita pitchers, indicating that the target clientele is clearly not poor rural folk. 

Such spaces convey a subtle sense of mockery of working-class culture, and by diverting themselves in such a space, the privileged classes simultaneously participate in this mockery and remind themselves that they are distinctly not members of this culture.

Gender Constructs: “Novels and Children”

In his essay “Novels and Children,” Barthes explores gender inequality myths as he describes a segment from Elle magazine about women writers. In the article, a number of female writers are featured. For each of them, the magazine reports how many novels she’s written and how many children she has. He points out that the article spends as much time discussing the women’s roles as wives and mothers as it does discussing their careers. 

This myth is layered with meanings, as myths tend to be, Barthes says. There’s the surface-level meaning, which is about celebrating women’s achievements and purportedly showcasing women’s equality. And then there’s the deeper meaning, which according to Barthes, is that a woman is never complete without children. He says that this article conveys the message that women are allowed to indulge themselves with careers only if they’ve also done their primary duty and had children. He says women are essentially told to “compensate for your novels by your children.”

Barthes also points out here that the intended audience for this myth is not just women but men as well. It reinforces to men that, even if their wives have careers, these should be balanced out by also having children. Which, in essence, Barthes argues, really conveys a message of inequality. This myth serves to reinforce and uphold a patriarchal structure in society, and this is done most effectively when men and women buy into it. 

The Myth of Women as Objects

Gender-reinforcing mythology continues to surround us on a daily basis. Filmmaker and activist Jean Kilbourne’s decades-long project examining harmful gender stereotypes in advertising has resulted in four documentary films on the topic. Killing Us Softly 4, the most recent version, highlights the ways that ads objectify women’s bodies, encouraging unrealistic beauty standards and promoting violence against women. 

For example, Kilbourne shows a collection of television and print advertisements that combine women’s bodies with physical objects (a beer bottle for example), show only disembodied portions of women’s bodies, and depict scenarios in which women are in compromising or threatening-looking positions (see some examples here). 

Like Barthes’s example, these kinds of ads promote a cultural myth that relegates women to a social position in which their major role is in service to men. Kilbourne argues that many of these ads even subtly suggest that women are less than human, which can lead to a culture where violence against them can be justified.

Race Constructs: “Bichon Among the Blacks”

As an example of a myth constructing race ideologies, we’ll look at Barthes’s essay “Bichon Among the Blacks.” In this essay, Barthes describes a story from a French magazine called Match about a young white couple who visited Africa with their toddler son, Bichon, to pursue an artistic inspiration. The featured photo of the article shows the blonde toddler with three dark-skinned African tribespeople. The article, he says, places a heavy emphasis on the “courage” of the family.

To begin with, Barthes notes that, if there were any real danger to Bichon, the parents most certainly wouldn’t have placed their child in this position. So, the implication that this took courage is disingenuous at best. The myth presented here is a narrative about race, with the white couple being presented as heroic in their willingness to be among the “savage” Africans. On the surface, the article tells the heartwarming story of race groups mingling peacefully. But, Barthes argues, it conceals the deeper message of racial difference, promoting an insidious myth of white supremacy.

This is an example of why myth can be so dangerous. With this kind of mythology, the dominant culture promotes a narrative that keeps them dominant by obscuring the problematic power dynamics at play. Barthes contends that the uneducated reader of an article like “Bichon Among the Blacks” wouldn’t have the ability to consciously detect the meaning—a subtle message of white supremacy—but that it would influence their perception of the world nonetheless.

White Saviorism as a Racist Myth

The example Barthes describes here relies on a narrative of white people as “heroic” actors because of their friendliness toward African tribespeople. If we look beneath the surface, we’ll see that only an implication of inferiority and superiority would make such an association even noteworthy, let alone admirable. This is similar to the common “white savior” narrative that appears frequently in Hollywood movies.

The white savior complex refers to a narrative in which a white person (or white people as a group) must “rescue” people of color from their own situations. This narrative rests on the assumption that the white savior knows best what the non-white people need. In films, it usually manifests in white actors being more active and complex characters while actors of color play more passive, supporting roles—even when people of color are a central focus of the story.

The Avatar films, for example, have been accused of employing this plot device, since the Na’vi symbolically represent the minority-oppressed culture that must be saved by the heroic protagonist—a white man. Some other well-known examples include The Help and The Blind Side. On the surface, like Barthes’s example of “Bichon,” these stories appear to be feel-good narratives that portray positive relationships between characters of different racial backgrounds. But lurking beneath the surface is a damaging message—a cultural myth that reinforces notions of racial inequality by presenting people of color as shallow, lacking agency, and as tangential even to their own stories. 

Beauty Constructs: “Garbo’s Face”

Next, we’ll look at an analysis of a myth that reinforces idealized beauty standards. Here Barthes analyzes the depiction of actress Greta Garbo’s face in film and photos. He points to lighting, makeup, and editing techniques meant to make her face appear perfect, without ever revealing a blemish or wrinkle. He says her face represents a cultural ideal of beauty, purity, and youth that is both unattainable and unforgettable. 

Barthes calls Garbo’s face “an idea” in that it conveys a message about what he calls “amour courtois”—the concept of a noble and chivalrous kind of love. The population is meant to perceive her as something of a divine being, having a kind of beauty they should aspire to yet can never attain. He points out that this is true of other celebrities as well and that women so fervently idolized the legendary film star Rudolph Valentino that some were driven to suicide after his death in 1926.

Again, we can see here the notion that the myth is both appealing and dangerous in the way it conceals the ugly truth of reality. In this case, the film industry benefits from creating mythological imagery surrounding their stars and films that draws people into a dreamlike escape from reality. The public becomes intoxicated with the imagery and is drawn to the entertainment produced by the industry. Additionally, constructs of ideal beauty are the foundation of the beauty and cosmetic industry. The promotion of an unattainable ideal is the perfect setup for drawing people into buying cosmetic products and procedures.  

Self-Image and the Myth of Ideal Beauty

With the development of more sophisticated photo editing technology and the pervasiveness of social media in our lives, the myth of ideal beauty is amplified in modern society. Like Barthes’s example of Greta Garbo, retouched images portray a standard that’s unattainable, and yet we compare ourselves to those unrealistic ideals. The perfect face is flawless and ageless, which also conveys a cultural myth about the idolization of youth.  

Not only do we compare ourselves with an ideal of beauty seen in celebrities, as people did during Barthes’s time, but we now compare ourselves to the photo-edited version of ourselves. Psychological research has shown that this can negatively impact our self-image and self-esteem. A 2018 study showed that when women had to post an unedited “selfie” to social media, they experienced increased anxiety, decreased mood, and lower confidence. 

But, just like in Barthes’s day, the beauty industry profits from our low self-esteem. Demand for cosmetic procedures is at an all-time high—this particular myth is so pervasive in our lives now that over $16 billion was spent on cosmetic surgery in the US in 2020. 

Political Constructs: “Billy Graham at the Vel d’Hiv”

Finally, we’ll look at the way myth can reinforce political agendas through Barthes’s critique of Billy Graham at the Vel d’Hiv. Barthes describes a televised event in which the American evangelist Billy Graham delivered sermons at the Vel d’Hiv stadium in Paris in 1955. He analyzes the way Graham’s performance, as myth, contained theatrical elements and concealed political messages. 

Barthes views Graham as another version of a hypnotist or seance performer and suggests that the crowd is mesmerized by what is essentially a calculated formula for cult-like indoctrination. He says Graham is viewed as a prophetic figure even though he says little to nothing with any intelligence or depth to it. Barthes goes as far as to argue that, “if God is really speaking through Dr. Graham’s mouth, it must be acknowledged that God is quite stupid.” It is, according to Barthes, the performance, not Graham’s message, which sways people. But the subtle message is there, and Barthes says that the message is anti-communist propaganda.

On this issue, Barthes’s analysis is ruthless in his criticism of Graham as well as those who fall prey to such myths. He explains that Graham’s visit to France was clearly motivated by the American fear of atheism and the simplistic association of atheism with communism. He accuses the working-class consumer of this myth of being “mentally fragile” and argues that this intellectual weakness is specifically the reason why charlatans like Graham target this audience. The creation of an oversimplified association of atheism with communism is exactly what this myth is designed to do.

This example most clearly illustrates why Barthes is so strongly motivated to bring awareness to the way myth is used to manipulate people. He says this kind of myth can cause masses of people to think illogically and fall prey to dangerous suggestions, and this can potentially have disastrous sociopolitical consequences. Of course, those consequences that Barthes would consider disastrous are exactly what’s intended by the myth creators—the powerful political elite—since this kind of myth, again, is designed to keep power structures intact. Powerful religious and political forces align here to persuade the masses to fall in line and not question their authority.

The Myth of the Prosperity Gospel

Following in Billy Graham’s footsteps, televangelists in the 1980s, like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, began promoting an ideology now known as the “prosperity gospel.” This manifests most clearly today in “mega-church” pastors like Joel Osteen who tend to be theatrical and charismatic performers.

The message at the heart of this gospel is that God rewards his devout followers for their faith with material prosperity. Some conclusions that follow from this include:

• Prayer and faith are tools for obtaining wealth.
• Poverty indicates a lack of faith and devotion.
• Successful pastors should be very wealthy since God has chosen and blessed them.
• One can increase their own prosperity by demonstrating faith via giving money to the church.

Like the anti-communist message embedded in Graham’s sermons, the message of material prosperity is infused into the doctrine and lifestyles of these religious (largely Evangelical) leaders, intertwining Christianity with a pro-capitalist message. So, in this way, through the performance of these religious leaders, the myth being conveyed is that capitalism is inspired, or at least sanctioned, by God. 
Cultural Myths: What We Learn From Roland Barthes’s Essays

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  • The subtle messages that subconsciously shape the way we view the world
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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