The Ultimate Camp of Reality TV (Harriet Pollard)


In Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp”[1] she explores the concept of Camp, summarising it as the “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” and of “things-being-what-they-are-not.” She also notes that through Camp, “one can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”

This description perfectly fits reality television, in particular the over-the-top, “trashy” shows produced in the early 2000s – whatever the concept was, each show had to have ridiculous contestants and scripted drama under the guise of real events. I would argue a show like America’s Next Top Model, with its ‘high fashion’ concept, falls even more firmly into the category of Camp, sharing its preoccupation with style and image.

ANTM (to use its official abbreviation) would fit more specifically into the category of naïve or “pure” Camp, which is unintentional and therefore “dead serious.” Sontag uses the example of the “melodramatic absurdities” of opera, which are taken completely seriously by the composers. I would argue that most reality TV makes very satisfying use of “melodramatic absurdity,” although in most cases the “absurdity” seems to be ignored or unintentional on the part of the showrunners. This idea is essential to Camp. As Sontag puts it, “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much”.” A lot of time, ANTM is definitely “too much”.

For example, in this clip the models have been tasked with improvising a makeup commercial, and of course, most of them go badly. The seriousness with which the challenges on the show are presented, carried out and then judged is completely at odds with how ridiculous they are in premise. Here, none of the models are actors, and they seem almost set up to fail. Yet, they and the judges commit to the laughable task completely earnestly, and it is this dynamic that provides the show with the “proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve,” which ultimately elevates it to Camp.

Sontag concludes her essay with this, “the ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.” I think this is a perfect summary of reality television and America’s Next Top Model.


[1] Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1966), 275-292.

One comment

  1. I really like the example you have chosen here for camp. I agree that what makes it funny is the fact that we are unable to take it seriously, although that is how the creators wanted us to perceive it. I feel, however, that maybe this does not apply to every single spectator, and that there might be someone out there that watches reality TV with the seriousness with which it was conceived.

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