The Barthean Mythology of Instagram

Instagram can create a new “It Girl” every day. The social media site attracts an audience of users who build their own empires and deal their own fate to gain iconic fame through thousands of followers and millions of likes. Instagram can also act as a vessel for a dialectic of the self, analogous with the curated beauty of icon, Greta Garbo, as well as the natural aesthetic of Hollywood darling Audrey Hepburn. These two women and their different interpretations of the “self” were explored through Roland Barthes’ Mythology. The icon of Hepburn and narrative of Garbo in Barthean Mythology can be equated with contemporary use and understanding of Instagram, similar to these actresss as it creates a dialectic of the self, into the dichotomy of the mask and the spectacle.

Garbo & Hepburn

According to Barthes, Garbo’s beauty was understood through her performance. The images cultivated in her films created  an archetype for essential beauty as a figure in the 1930s. Garbo’s was known to audiences as the “Divine”. Her image helped mask the “essence” of the women behind the actress [1]. Garbo never aged; she was forever encapsulated in one vision of perfection. In contrast, Hepburn was  all encompassing of her expression, malleable to her narrative and “substantial order” of herself through performance [1]. Viewers are able to identify with the actress as a fashion icon of the Golden Age, on and off the screen. Hepburn’s performance fit her lifestyle and exemplified who she was: attainable in a way Garbo could never be. Both Garbo and Hepburn relate to the (professional) Instagram user’s presence created from their content and built on a foundation of an iconic character that users can identify with.

To understand Instagram through Garbo and Hepburn, we must first establish that the followers of certain Instagram profiles regard narrative and performance as “a sort of Platonic idea of the human creature” [1]. This means they often confuse natural and built art. Many “professional” Instagram users curate their posts emphasizing an  aesthetic cohesion that creates an Instagram character. The amount of “likes” for specific posts influence the user’s next image upload and alters the overall narrative of the user. In a way, these images, are curated to feed the user’s need for approval and their audiences’ desire to continue exploring a persona. Soon enough these performances become iconic and the level of feedback or “likes”  begats internet fame for the person behind the profile. The performances, or images, can and have been considered art, but the artistic gestures implied in the composition, color, lighting, and filter of the photo are provided by options within the interface of the Instagram platform.

The user can apply consistent gestures of photo compilation to create a character such as  “The Artist”, or use certain iconography and visuals to reinforce their brand. Much like Audrey Hepburn’s affiliation to fashion and her influence on art, Instagram creates and enforces these iconic users as brands. But the narration and curation of the user’s performance and gestures can also depict the “conceptual order” of Greta Garbo’s “singularity” [1]. Garbo’s aesthetic emphasizes perfection from a distance, while Hepburn’s emotional affectations evoke a connection between performer and audience.

Werthmann pic 1
@barbinox: Instagram profile picture

An example of this idea is Instagram user, @barbienox. @barbienox applies the Garbo-Hepburn dialectic through her style appealing to a large audience. @barbienox has become an icon for “curvy” Latina youths [2]. Portrayed as fashionable, beautiful, trendy, and sexy, @barbienox’s “essence” on social media is justified by her “likes”. As an Instagram icon, @barbienox has gained success outside of the Instagram realm by providing advertisement for designers and brands on her account [2]. Her influence as an Instagram icon is kept through the essence or idea of her narrative, along with the composition of the substance, or expression of the gesture.

@mathuism: Instagram profile picture
@mathuism: Instagram profile picture

@mathuism exemplifies the popular Instagram user, not as an icon, but under the title of  “The Artist”. @mathuism translates his career as a makeup artist to an actual artist through the images on his Instagram [3]. The title of artist is so deeply embedded in his persona, that he has been exhibited in several galleries. His photos represent himself as a makeup artist, and also play with notions of gender identity through self-portraits that create value and meaning for his followers.

The dialectic of the narrative gesture is in many ways embodied in the professional user content of Instagram. The coordination of the mask and the spectacle from Barthean mythology is interpreted through the curation and aesthetic of the users to interact with their followers and build fame or artistic recognition. In theory, Instagram is both the “idea” and the “event” of the user displayed in their content and enabled by followers.

Work Cited

[1] Barthes, Roland. Mythologies, Translated by Richard Howard and Annette Lavers (Hill and Wang, New York) 2012. Selections. Print.

[2]  @mathuism

[3]  @barbienox

Additional Readings

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)”. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. (Monthly Review Press, New York) pp 127-186. 1971. Print.

Bruney, Gabrielle. “Hello, Hunty: Meet Mathu Andersen, Instagram’s Drag Icon”. 2015. Web <>.

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