Gym culture holds a prominent place in contemporary society. Studies1 focused on the physical dimensions of self-concept document the significance placed on physical appearance in evaluations of self-worth. The inconsistency between the real and ideal self is an important trigger within gym culture and this relationship is comprehensively and covertly exploited through media narratives and advertising images. Roland Barthes asserts that an “imitated object makes something appear which remained invisible, or if one prefers, unintelligible in the natural object. Structural man takes the real, decomposes it, then recomposes it.”2 Unravelling the means by which texts and images recomposed the original is at the centre of structuralist analysis.
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Concepts of semiology developed by Ferdinand de Saussure form the basis for structuralist methodology. Saussure rejected the conventional view of the linguistic sign as a name attached to an object in favour of the notion of the linguistic sign as a “two-sided psychological entity.”3 The word “sign” is used to describe the whole created through the combination of the signified (signifie) and the signifier (signifiant). The signifier is the materially perceptible component such as a sound, picture or written mark whilst the signified is the conceptual meaning. The relationship between the two, according to Saussure is arbitrary, founded entirely on social convention. Signs employed in the discourse of gym culture habitually focus on bodies. Figures 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 all contain images of young, slim, and attractive
1 Maguire, J. and L. Mansfield, “No-body’s perfect: women, aerobics, and the body beautiful” Sociology of Sport Journal 5, 2 (1998): 109-137.
2 Critical Terms for Literary Study. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.
3 The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Chris Baldick. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press
bodies. The relationship between the photographic images, the signifier, and the concept of youth, health and attractiveness, the signified, combine to create the sign. Roland Barthes however noted that this model focuses extensively on denotation to the detriment of connotation.
In his initial investigations Barthes distinguishes between two forms of reference: denotation and connotation. Conventionally denotation is referred to as the literal, primary sense or straightforward dictionary meaning, whilst connotation refers to the range of further associations that a word evokes in addition to its denotation. The connotations of a particular word are a formulated sequence of qualities, contexts, and emotional responses commonly associated with that to which it refers. The context in which the word or phrase is used and the individual inclinations of the audience determine which connotations will be initiated. Initially Barthes suggested that analytically connotation can be distinguished from denotation4 in the same way that a photographic image represents the denotation of what is photographed, the connotation is exposed through “how it is photographed”. Barthes however later concluded that: ‘denotation is not the first meaning, but pretends to be so; under this illusion, it is ultimately no more than the last of the connotations (the one which seems both to establish and close the reading), the superior myth by which the text pretends to return to the nature of language, to language as nature’. The two women in Figure 1 and the woman in Figure 3 are all pictured wearing long pants. The same particular item of clothing is denoted in both advertisements, namely pants. However in Figure 1 the
4 Chandler, Daniel: Semiotics for Beginners (1994)
pants are “cargo” pants whilst in Figure 3 the model wears jeans. “Cargo” pants connote youth, hip-hop and dance culture whilst jeans are associated with the everyday down-to-earth, girl-next-door. The style of pants selected reflect a range of connotations, the denoted image is inherently connotative. Barthes perspective exposes denotation as being no more ‘natural’ than connotation but rather as stemming from a process of naturalization. Denotation is thus proved to be a product of ideology. Images prevalent in gym culture discourse documents this well. Note the similarity between the models selected in Figures 4, 5 and 6. They are all slim, tanned and tall with long blond hair and have been selected to portray a specific image of femininity influenced by historical attitudes and social convention, which conforms to contemporary westernized ideology. Similar images are presented to both male and female consumers. Fitness magazine (Figure 5) features an image of American television host Kelly Ripa, with a byline suggesting that the magazine contains the secrets to “how she got this buff”, whilst the cover of Men’s Fitness (Figure 6) has a byline suggesting that the magazine contains the secrets of how to gain “hard abs, strong enough for a night with” the featured Carmen Electra, glamour model and actress. Connotatively men should be fit and muscular to attract their ideal woman, and women should strive to be that ideal- attractive, slim, tanned and blond. The selection of celebrities this physical represented ideal suggests that fame, success and wealth accompany the ideal. These associations formed by groups of signs create a cultural paradigm.
In the same way the Zumba advertisement in figure 1 is designed to immediately invoke connotations of a gym culture paradigm. The images are of one male and two female bodies. Little of their faces, apart from smiles suggesting fun and happiness, can be seen reinforcing a focus on moving bodies and physicality. Naked midriffs whilst emphasize muscled, slim bodies also invokes sexual connotations. Through metonymy the graphic representation of a speaker emphasizes the role of music and its associations with parties, social interaction. Strong colours are used and orange, the adverts predominant colour believed to be invigorating as it increases oxygen supply to the brain is used to reflect joy, enthusiasm, creativity, attraction, success and stimulation. It is also used to attract attention as it is high visibility. The line “Ditch the workout, join the party!” aligns working out with having a party. The word “join” is repeated four times reinforcing the idea of belonging, identifying with and being part of a particular group. The language choice is deliberately relaxed and informal, to emphasize fun. The paradigm created is one of youth, music, party, fun, sexual attraction, dancing and fitness, with a focus on belonging.
Figure 2 is an advertisement for a Sony water resistant walk-man. Sony employ an approach common to brand-name product advertising, one whereby their product is aligned with culturally desirable paradigms, in this case fitness and health, thus advancing a connotative association between their product and other values their audience might hold. A young man is pictured, dressed in a vest he appears to have been running. The aim is to establish paradigmatic relationships between exercise and fitness and Sony’s brand. In so doing Sony hope to include their product in a fitness paradigm and through this inclusion their brand comes to connote all that characterizes gym culture.
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Whilst Paradigmatic relations rely on familiar cultural associations to create meaning, syntagmatic relations create meaning through the sequence in which the signs are displayed. In Figure 1 the line “Ditch the workout, join the party!” aligns working out with having a party. In figures 3 and 4 both advertisements rely on an alternative semiotic structure in addition to paradigmatic relations to communicate their message. Both advertisements offer promises of transformation, figure one blatantly telling us “before and after”. A syntagmatic relation can be represented by the connotative narrative, a sequence of associated events: “She joined the gym, exercised regularly, ate the right food, lost weight, and was thereby transformed”. Because this is such a familiar narrative to us, the advertisement can invoke it and all its associations by just showing us a single image, the mirrored but subtly altered image of the women that represents the start and finish of the narrative. Our understanding of figure 4 relies on previously learnt and accepted conventions. Barthes identified these previously learnt and recognised conventions as “cultural codes” which could be utilized in structural analysis of texts. 5
In contrast to the conventional definition of myth as a traditional or customary story Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes shifted the emphasis of myth as a plot to myth as a way of thinking akin to a kind of ideology. Roland Barthes’ 1957 Mythologies brought to light how myths are part of everyday modern life. Barthes demonstrates an idea of myth as a further sign, it’s foundations in language, but to which further implication is added. To make a myth, the sign itself is used as a signifier, and a new meaning is added, which is the signified. This additional meaning is not arbitrarily, even if the reader is not aware of it. Historically determined circumstances are presented as “natural”. Predominantly media driven modern myths are created to disseminate an impression of society that is
5 Leak, Andrew N. Barthes, Mythologies. London: Grant & Cutler, 1994.
compliant with current ideologies. The earlier discussion of the models chosen in figures 4, 5 and 6 is an example of how pervasive myth can be. Barthes characterizes myth as ubiguitous6 – being or seeming to be everywhere at once. The tall, slim, blond woman is unanimously presented to male and female consumers alike as the “ideal” women. In addition myth is axiomatic – “operating as a sort of fusion of fact and value, it is assertive.” Axiological language presenting a theory as a fact is frequently found in advertising narratives. Figure 4 contains a good example: “inside everybody is a better body.” Myths are not just narratives, but narratives mixed with other signs: Figure 3 suggests, through a combination of images, graphic representation and narrative, that joining their gym will make you younger.
Gym culture serves as a good example of how myth permeates consumer driven society. According to Barthes uncovering of the “Ideological abuse” hidden “in the display of what goes without saying” lies at the centre of structuralist analysis and serves to warn that since “the theft of language perpetrated by myth is so subtle that nothing appears to have been taken”8 consumers are affected by it without even recognising its existence.
6 Leak, Andrew N. Barthes, Mythologies. London: Grant & Cutler, 1994.
8 Ibid., p57
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