In 2021, reading the news is an extreme sport. In the latest installment of news-that-makes-you-think-we’re-living-in-a-simulation-controlled-by-lizard-people, there will now be a woke version of the Hunger Games where people fighting to end structural inequalities will have the chance to try their hands at reality TV. CBS announced a new five-week reality series called “The Activist” where six inspiring activists will team up with three “high-profile public figures” to bring meaningful change by promoting their “causes.”
As absurd as this already sounds, the show is set to be hosted by Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Julianne Hough. One can only guess what the parameters for choosing these celebrities were. Perhaps it was the fact that Chopra, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, had expressed her patriotism by encouraging war between two rival nuclear-armed nations. Or maybe it was Hough’s 2013 Halloween costume for which she donned blackface.
Naturally, the show has received a barrage of criticism online and rightfully so. Clover Hogan, a 21-year-old-climate activist who was approached by the producers of the show, took to Twitter to talk about the screening process, during which she “burst into tears” and felt “humiliated” by the interviewer who criticized her for sounding like a robot while talking about her activism, and asked her to “talk like an American.”
While the massive backlash and trolling is a sign that perhaps there is still some hope left for us, the fact that people with immense wealth and resources decided to invest in this instead of actually helping vulnerable communities shows that even activism has been subsumed under capitalism’s sway. You have to fight it out, outrun your opponents in the rat race to earmark precious resources for your cause.
There’s a reason Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Julianne Hough and Usher are the “judges” on “The Activist” show. It’s because no real, self respecting activist, organiser or advocate would ever give their valuable time to a show like this. They couldn’t get real activists.
— Gina Martin (@ginamartinuk) September 12, 2021
As per Deadline, the success of the participants in the show will be measured “via online engagement, social metrics, and hosts’ input.” What matters more than the urgency and seriousness of your cause is how well you can sell it to people. The show, with its outrageous and utterly vague format, annihilates intersectionality by disregarding the fact that all structural oppressions are interconnected and constantly acting upon each other. You cannot solve the climate crisis without addressing issues of poverty, racism, education and public health. But in “The Activist,” there is only room for one cause to be the winner.
Social media has undoubtedly helped galvanize a large number of people into action when it comes to the problems that plague the majority on this planet. For marginalized people across the world, it is decidedly a powerful tool to build solidarities, organize protests, raise awareness and demand accountability. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center last year, 45% of Black American social media users said they used the platforms to look for information about rallies and protests, and encourage others to take action on issues that are important to them.
Joe Biden said whoever doesn’t get vaccinated will be forced to watch an episode of the activist with priyanka chopra
— Shroods (@shruti_tuti29) September 11, 2021
However, since much of the ground-work for movements has shifted online, the success of a movement now depends heavily on how well your content pleases the algorithm gods. In an article published in Smashboard, communication scholar Sreemoyee Mukherjee writes, “The dependence of social media activism on virality creates a hierarchy of outrage. In this hierarchy, each cause is given weightage based on its value as a viral commodity.”
As platforms fight for our attention and we move on to the next trend faster than Priyanka Chopra can capitalize on her Brown identity for yet another thing, activists who wish to raise awareness about issues of social justice online must ensure the audience gains their 30 seconds worth of entertainment out of it to please the elusive algorithm. Advocacy efforts are memeified and commodified to fit more perfectly between brunch photos and #OOTDs, while the very essence of social justice movements has diluted into what Vox journalist Terry Nguyen calls “PowerPoint journalism.”
Who is to decide which cause is worthy and which isn’t?
It makes sense then that Hollywood — ever so eager to jump into every money-making bandwagon — would want to try its hand at selling more “activism” to the masses by making activists, who already have to struggle to receive funds and grants, compete in a series of challenges and secure the largest engagement in order to “win.”
The challenges that activists face in real life — the threats to their life and well-being, the apathy of fellow citizens and leaders, the delayed justice — all of these are presented not as structural barriers that further disadvantage vulnerable people but rather as mere obstacles that can be easily overcome if only one is a little more passionate and hardworking. And anyway, who is to decide which cause is worthy and which isn’t? The producers of the show are simply replicating a phenomenon that already exists. Audre Lorde had said that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house; however, the master will produce a television show where you can compete with others to win the master’s attention, and what’s more, there will even be musical performances at the finale!
Views are personal.