For centuries, young people, especially students, have gotten drunk and done obscene things. In the name of carnival, they rebelled against prevailing societal norms; they pursued their whims. Today, on the surface, it’s very much the same—except people record it. In fact, with the rise of social media, students not only record their crazy debauchery, but also submit those recordings to highly-curated pages with millions of followers. Precisely choosing which few videos deserve to be seen each day, Instagram pages like TotalFratMove and BarstoolSports project images of elite carnival, and subvert the form into a facet of consumer culture which inevitably feeds the capitalist machine. These pages promote the lifestyle of particularly rebellious frat boys, accomplishing the monetization of elite carnival. Students now attempt to outdo each other in the most outlandish, which has paradoxically become the convention. Barstool benefits.
The Barstool Logo
One might wonder what qualifies young people getting drunk as elite carnival. The salient point is that Barstool and the like upload (mostly) videos of students at four-year colleges with the means to throw massive parties in large venues, participate in traditional nonchalance towards cost, and pay the dues associated with all of that. Obviously, only a minority of young people can lay claim to that ability. One user posted on the TotalFratMove website, “If I had a nickel for every time I heard the phrase ‘You’re an asshole’ I wouldn’t be any richer. I’m too frat and too rich to give a sh*t about nickels. TFM” (Shontell).
Barstool and TotalFratMove love to sexualize because it’s an easy way to entertain their followers, most of whom are in the eighteen to twenty-four year-old male range. In “Smokeshow of the Day,” Barstool consistently posts pictures of a tan, (almost always) white, scantily-clad woman, heaping praise upon the college or sorority who lays claim to her. Sexuality is also shown through the hijinks of partiers. In what has become a common occurrence, spontaneous heterosexual touching and lust is filmed. A distinctive feature is that couples almost never know they’re being filmed, and so their interaction can be deemed original. Pictures and videos of this variety not only provide easy content for the curators, but also fuel a desire, especially for males, to get so drunk that they get as caught up in public sexuality as the people in the videos.
For those who want even more physicality, Barstool provides—with fights. Anything from a classic one-on-one stand-down to group violence fits the bill. One caption reads, “This UF [University of Florida] dad came to Parents Weekend to drink some beer and kick some ass” (TotalFratMove). The association seems to be that with alcohol, anything can happen—and that’s okay. In similar videos, students’ rebellious tendencies are accentuated when they become antagonistic with authority figures. Despite the reactions of the authority, the videos all have a care-free air, yet students annoy the cops to the maximum legal extent. Such videos function as highlights of rebellion.
An example of people rebelling against the cops for the sake of the video
The debauchery continues. In one video uploaded to TotalFratMove, a male punches a TV until, to the delight of the audience, he splits the glass open. Cheered on by the crowd, he destroys what seems to be his own property. As Randall Collins asserts, “Material destruction at a wild party…is generally destroying one’s own property” (Collins, 253); in doing so, these students are ”conspicuously flaunting an insouciant disregard for costs, conventions, and serious purposes” (Collins, 255). After destroying the TV, his hand is revealed to the camera with a huge gash overflowing with blood. The young man’s response is to stand around showing his battle wounds to the cameras and screaming “Fuck you!” Quite clearly, TotalFratMove wants followers to disseminate the choice to completely ignore normal conventions in the context of parties. Yet, even the destruction of property—once a carnivalesque refutation of materialism—has become a calculated formulation itself: On Barstool, one of the most common tropes is a guy jumping onto and breaking a table, the more dangerous the jump and more expensive the table, the better.
The destruction of the TV
Before expounding upon the formulaic nature of Barstool’s curation, I would be remiss not to mention how crowds actually get partygoers to do the craziest, most entertaining things. In the 1700s at Oxford, for example, young men performed their wildest deeds in front of an audience with similar status (Collins, 255), comparable to today’s college party which contains people of similar class all going to the same school. The same essay goes on to assert, “it is where there is ongoing situational stratification, the sheer momentary attention-gaining of a noisy display of uninhibited fun, that carousing becomes destructive” (255). Testing that claim against the above video yields similarities. The crowd has gathered around the one man; the center of the crowd is the most important area, while the fringes are simply onlookers. Multiple phone cameras record the young man in anticipation. Not wanting to let them down, he provides entertainment, and the cheers only get louder once his bloody hand is seen.
Barstool carefully decides to show its follower various themes. In many uploads, people smash beer cans against their heads and drink the ensuing explosion. After seeing a few of beer-induced concussions, one can easily surmise their purpose: show viewers that nothing is worth as much as a good time, which is, of course, determined by the crowd’s reaction. Similarly, other videos, celebrations of what’s called “Wu-tanging,” display college kids swallowing the butts of cigarettes with the aid of alcohol. In perhaps the most widespread variation, students make “luges,” ramps into which beer is poured and then drank, with the most obscene possible objects. For “luge” videos, it really runs the gamut, from dead fish to used athletic cups. Returning to the TV-punching video provides some insight into what this repetition actually means. The simple fact that most people in the crowd have their phone’s cameras poised begs a question. Why? Why do they want to record the act? Each person wants to be able to say, ‘I was there. Look here, I have proof on my phone.’ Each student wants to be the one who shows the others what happened. The ultimate goal becomes being the person who made it onto Barstool, not only for the person performing crazy acts, but also for those recording. If one looks to the vast amount of content created in the college party sphere each day, and sees the lengths to which students go to make Barstool or TotalFratMove, it would be impossible to say these media apparatuses have no power.
An example of beer head-smashing
Thus, an interesting paradox appears. There exists a counter-intuitive incentive. Yes, partygoers want to engage in spontaneous carousing—where they can be rebellious and not care about societal norms—but they also want to make it into Barstool, and therefore must reconcile themselves to the successful formulations. Instagram pages can then affect the content of the elite carnival, and actually steer it towards what will make the most money.
The curation of videos to create certain incentives and affect elite carnival allows Barstool to advertise very effectively because, as a demographic, it doesn’t get much better than young, wealthy students. As Kenneth Tucker puts it, “Modern advertising retains the carnival ideas of excess and abundance, alongside the notion that selves can be transformed through the purchasing of goods…These elements are no longer necessarily critical of capitalism, as they are promoted by the entertainment orientation of the mass media and rebellion has become part of the marketing machine.” (Tucker, 108-9). Indeed, advertisers approach Barstool-like pages all the time. On TotalFratMove, there is an ad for going on the spring break of a lifetime, full of the same excess that the rest of the page contains. There are also ads for boxing matches with motto, “Are you man enough?” and other Instagram pages with fratty appeal. Most often, the pages advertise their own clothing, which typically has a rebellious and satirical slant. Embroidery includes “Merry Christmas, Bitch,” “Legalize Cocaine,” and “Ginger Jesus.” The uniting factor is that each ad feeds on the over-the-top theme of the entire page.
A quintessential ad
The profound idea is not that Barstool sells clothing, but that it sells a lifestyle. In the world of TotalFratMove, throwing up due to intoxication is not a bad thing; it’s the price one pays for having a good time. And nothing matters more than having a good time—which the crowd determines, influenced by Barstool. In one chapter of his book, “The End of the American Avant Garde,” Stuart Hobbes argues that the avant garde has become commodified, “reduced to a lifestyle” (Hobbs, 168) by the media, which favors sensationalism over serious ideas and creates pseudo-events, “manufactured occurrences presented in the media for self-serving motives” (Hobbs, 150). Barstool and alike pages, by similar means, are accomplishing something comparable, except they are not only commodifying a lifestyle, but creating that lifestyle in the process. If Barstool were to have its way, all the events of the elite carnival would be formulaic pseudo-events, created for the prescribed purpose of making it onto Barstool. That’s why the only time you’ll see someone in class in one of these videos, they’re either drinking or display their dislike for the lecture.
Some might argue that Barstool and TotalFratMove are simply collections of depravity that young people enjoy watching. Yet, when one considers the highly-curated characteristic of these pages, the themes become especially important. And it is plain to see that the motifs point towards a certain lifestyle that incidentally serves the economic interest of the pages themselves. Clearly, there is a deliberate formulation to control elite carnival. So, the next time you’re drunk at a college party and some person decides to go insane, think about why everyone’s got their phone out—it’s not just to tell their friends.
An earlier draft of this essay was read by Sam Gilman.
I have written this essay in the style of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Collins, Randall. “Violence as Fun and Entertainment.” Violence: a Micro-Sociological Theory, Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 242–281. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/j.ctt4cg9d3.11.pdf.
Hobbs, Stuart D. “Consumer Culture Commodification.” The End of the American Avant Garde, NYU Press, 1997, pp. 139–168. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/j.ctt9qfvp7.11.pdf.
Shontell, Alyson. “Meet The Genius Frat Dudes Who Turned Bro Humor Into A Multimillion-Dollar Media Empire.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 21 Mar. 2014, www.businessinsider.com/how-total-frat-move-and-grandex-were-founded-2014-3.
TotalFratMove. “Dad hits Student.” Instagram, October 8. 2017, www.instagram.com/p/BZ9rJ_PhxtE/?hl=en&taken-by=totalfratmove.
Tucker, Kenneth H. “The World Is a Stage and Life Is a Carnival: The Rise of the Aesthetic Sphere and Popular Culture.” Workers of the World, Enjoy!: Aesthetic Politics from Revolutionary Syndicalism to the Global Justice Movement, Temple University Press, 2012, pp. 91–120. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/j.ctt14btddp.8.pdf.