Re-envisioning Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque through America’s Next Top Model

Curator's Note

This post was co-curated by Tracey Owens Patton, University of Wyoming.

The notion of the carnival and carnivalesque permeates much of today’s reality television. Carnival is an opportunity for using voice in a humorous way to challenge power dynamics without stirring up controversy. The goal of the carnival/carnivalesque is to allow for a temporary inversion of the hegemonic hierarchy.  As seen in the video clip, Bakhtin’s three forms of the carnivalesque; ritual spectacles, comic verbal compositions, and various genres of billingsgate/abusive language are easily identifiable. ANTM is a perfect venue to utilize the carnivalesque to challenge the hegemonic hierarchy through humor, laughter, masks, masquerades, and performance.  Similar to the fashion world, the main players (judges, stylists, coaches) are often openly and recognizably marginalized individuals who serve as primary focal points of the show through their active participation during each episode.

The problem is that ANTM highlights the marginalized individuals, but provides no real depth to them. We are confronted with a crazy or angry Black woman (Tyra), an insane bitch of a White woman (Janice Dickinson), and effeminate and flamboyant gay males (Miss Jay, Jay Manuel, and Nole Marin). In true carnival fashion, they speak to us in sanctioned spaces and through masks showing us the extremes of emotions. The sometimes outrageous or even “normal” behavior would rarely be tolerated outside of television. We laugh at the quirkiness of the judges, but have no true understanding of who they are and what it is like for them when they leave the sanctuary of the fashion world. Essentially, these marginalized characters perform and entertain us.

This mediated carnival has two major problems. First, the viewer is only allowed to watch, not participate, therefore never truly understanding what it is like to be the other. Second, the carnivalesque enacted by the characters presents little challenge to the hegemonic hierarchy. In fact, their behavior often demonstrates power over other marginalized individuals (the Tyra tirade). Unfortunately, this mediated carnivalesque behavior, apparent in ANTM and other reality shows, may reinforce stereotypes of marginalized individuals. Even though ANTM goes the extra step to highlight traditionally marginalized others, the show’s extreme carnival atmosphere unfortunately fails to confront the social issues they so clearly present to us. Because of this, the return to normalcy occurs at end of each episode with the unfortunate result: ANTM off = carnival over.


 I'm so glad you used the carnivalesque to frame your analysis. I have only seen this last season of ANTM, but this was a concept that surfaced again and again as I watched.

What did you make of Tyra's role in the "viral" video episode of this season? 



I very much enjoyed your application of Bakhtin’s work to ANTM. In light of our conversations about Tyra and branding, I'm interested in your thoughts on ANTM beyond the text itself. For instance, Tyra's online efforts may be conceived as ways for users to participate in the carnival. Do you think that these sorts of branded spaces allow for audiences to experience "what it is like to be the other"?

~ Dara

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