Barthes and the Media- flavored Margarine
by Ma. Rose Ann A. Cellona

Roland Barthes in his short selection entitled “Operation Margarine” presented to us a profound analysis of one of the most common household commodities: margarine. Many have gotten used to using margarine as a substitute for butter and noticeably, despite the fact that margarine still remained as the “substitute” that it is, the tolerance and acceptance given to it by people have reached a level enough to rival butter itself, except that it can never be what butter is. This observation between the dynamics of people’s perceptions on butter and margarine was ingeniously applied by Barthes (as cited in Durnham & Kellner, 2006) in the context of how in the real world, people are in want of “butter”, of the real, of the genuine and the first class. However, for some reason, only the “margarine” which admits of its flaws and “un-butterness” exists and presents itself to them, in all humility. To make the long story short, people eventually learn to accept the “margarine” precisely because of its readily admitted flaws. Ironically though, the people know it is not butter, but they accept it nonetheless; in the same manner that Barthes posited that social institutions operate by showing the people its failings while at the same time appealing to them through those flaws and imperfections. Quoting Barthes: “…take the established value which you want to restore or develop, and first lavishly display its pettiness, the injustices it produces…and plunge it into its natural imperfection; then, at the last moment, save it in spite of, or rather by the heavy curse of its blemishes (Barthes as cited in Durnham & Kellner, 2006).”

This profound analysis is in fact, true to a great extent. As a matter of fact, the media has long been employing such methods, take for example TV personalities who practically thrive by admitting their imperfections to the public, then wryly ending their confessions by highlighting the fact that at least, they do not pretend to be who they are not. Willie Revillame, in his daily dose of public service in his noontime program, Wowowee, would frequently have those stints of self-depreciation, complete with the melancholic music that seemed to be operated on cue as soon as the staff notices that Willie would be giving such “confessions” and “apologies”. Perhaps the best example that places Willie Revillame in this context was his apology to Joey de Leon, wherein he stated that he was truly sorry if ever he hurt Joey and the like. Expectedly, the public immediately warmed up to the notion of someone apologizing and admitting his wrongs in front of national television. The public is completely taken in by this display of weakness, and apparently, it further increases the aura of “public service” in the show, with the host showing that he is as human as any other person in the studio.

Needless to say, majority of those engaged in show business have more or less picked up this “tactic”. Many would treat it as fitting because literally, it is “show business”. However, despite this being the case, many of those who admit their flaws as well as their wrongdoings eventually end up being more endeared to the public, either because people feel better knowing that somebody could be worse-off than them or simply because people are easily fooled to sympathize. Barthes uses the term “inoculation” to show that in the same manner that our bodies are immunized from diseases by being exposed to a “little” of it beforehand, “A little evil saves one from acknowledging a lot of hidden evil (Barthes as cited in Durnham & Kellner, 2006)."

For example, just recently, singer Chris Brown was arrested for allegedly beating up his girlfriend Rihanna and even before any confirmations were made regarding the veracity of the issue, people were automatically sending messages of support to Rihanna and the like. However, Chris Brown’s newly issued public apology were all about admitting how wrong he was and how he needed the help of his family, and even his pastor to “emerge as a better person.” Would the public still take on this “margarine”?

However, this does not necessarily mean that almost everyone who employs this method does so to deliberately fool the public. Looking at it closely, admitting one’s fault and imperfections may simply be humility which is not directed towards the achievement of some other end or perhaps the idea of being accepted despite one’s flaws has become so appealing to many people that they have learned to do it unconsciously. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to note that many are now becoming more critical of what they see on TV or hear on the radio. Despite the fact that majority still remain enamored by people, more specifically, showbiz celebrities, there is a growing movement of awareness in being critical instead of passive in dealing with mass media information. Even the media is becoming critical of itself in various ways. An example of this would be the independent movie “Jay” which goes beyond the conventional by employing a non-linear and a practically novel way of unraveling the story’s plot.

The independent film entitled “Jay” by Francis Xavier Pasion has been earning critical acclaims starting from it reaping the Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Editor Awards in the Cinemalaya Film Festival (2008) until its participation as feature film in the 65th Venice Film Festival last year (, 2008; Lapuz, 2008). In an unconventional manner, the film starts with disturbing shots of a murdered gay school teacher named Jay Mercado ushered in by a narration regarding the scene of the crime. Like a documentary, the profile of the murdered victim was then presented, to be followed by scenes of his grieving colleagues, relatives and ex-boyfriend. Anti-climactically, Baron Geisler who played the role of Jay Santiago, a gay TV producer, is ushered into the story. Slowly, the audience was shown how the “documentary” shown at the start of the movie was “made”, how the relatives of the deceased Jay Mercado “acted-out” their grief and sorrow upon the command of the producer Jay Santiago, who managed to worm his way into their lives by appearing sympathetic and uncannily similar to the deceased.

Perhaps the important insight that could be garnered from this movie is the fact that it actually presented to its audience the media's own “faults”, its own ways of sensationalizing news, of fabricating even the so called true to life coverages. The public even knows as much about reality TV shows, but despite this, they still patronize it anyway. Somehow, this truth about media may seem appalling, however, the movie equally stresses the fact that people accept it, people buy it nonetheless. The fact that the shows that are actually patronized by the public are the ones that are so “unreal” ironically emphasizes why the actions of self-revelation from showbiz personalities are rendered so important by the audience.

At this point, perhaps the more apt conclusion to these accounts of “patronizing margarine” would be acknowledging the reality that this is the world we are immersed in, that we are inevitably enclosed by ideology. We may have gotten so used to be being dazzled, to being given a show, hence the appreciation we provide to even dubious acts of honesty we see on screen is strikingly similar to our acceptance of margarine as a substitute for butter. The point is not for us to immediately render such acts as ingratiating and false, but rather, for us to become more conscious of the very thin line separating reality in the concrete world and reality in the world of mass media. And yes, there is such a line…


ABS-CBN News. (2008). Baron Geisler, Mylene Dizon are Best Actor, Best Actress in Cinemalaya 2008; 'Jay' is Best Film Retrieved from: 2008 Accessed: 17 February 2009.

Lapuz, F., (2008). Jay screens at Venice Film Festival. Retrieved from: Accessed: 17 February 2009.

Durnham, M.G., & Kellner, D. (Eds.). (2006). Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. US: Blackwell Publishing.

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