Recently, activists have garnered significant attention from the world’s most influential political leaders. In February 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to them as andolanjeevi—”parasites who feed off protests”. Former US President Donald Trump too has expressed his disdain for Black Lives Matter activists by terming them as ‘thugs, anarchists, and terrorists‘. As activists and activism become an integral part of news cycles and the internet, you can trust television networks to come through and gamify what they see as a new trend.
As announced by Deadline on September 9th, CBS is launching a new competition series, The Activist. The show is designed as a reality series spanning over five weeks, where “six inspiring activists are teamed with three high-profile public figures (Julianne Hough, Priyanka Chopra, and Usher)“. They work together to bring about “meaningful change to one of the three causes – health, education, and environment“. The success of the contestants and their causes is measured through “online engagement, social metrics, and the hosts’ inputs“. To end it all, the contestants do not compete for an actual prize money that would fund the activists’ efforts. Instead, they compete for a chance to be an attendee at the G20 summit at Rome, where they get to garner the attention of the world’s most powerful decision makers, and secure funding for their causes.
We currently find ourselves in the middle of a global health catastrophe, and a climate crisis threatening the very existence of human civilization. Our social media feeds are interspersed with news updates on the increasing injustices that are being meted out to the oppressed all over the world. Our social media behavior has now given rise to a new phenomenon – doomscrolling. What CBS does with The Activist is exploit and capitalize on the avalanche of the horrors that are splattered across our phone screens. People have become an audience to the crisis loop that the daily news cycle is.
Posting about injustices on social media platforms is not by itself a vehicle to drive political change. When not coupled with rigorous efforts being made at the grassroots levels, posting an Instagram story about the latest distressing news is not activism, but instead slacktivism. By measuring the ‘success’ of causes solely through rubrics such as media stunts and digital campaigns, the show reduces the wave of genuine social activism to a culture of lazy performative activism. Our terrifying reality has now been commodified into a game show that offers a hollow premise and even more hollow solutions. To add to the dystopian nature of the show, viewers are said to be voting on the ‘nobility of activism’, along with the drama and emotional manipulation that are typical to reality television.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, in 2020, the Indian government clamped down on activists and critics working on Jammu and Kashmir, Dalit groups, tribal groups and religious minorities, freedom of expression and privacy, and women’s rights. Between 2016 and 2019, nearly 6,000 people have been arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Many among those arrested are journalists, authors, academics, and activists.
There already is a large section of society that dismisses activists and their work as unimportant and unnecessary. When some of the most powerful leaders of the world refer to them as ‘parasites’ and ‘thugs’, a show such as The Activist acts only as an unhelpful distraction from their genuine efforts, and also trivializes the massive struggles that activists face in their journey to champion their causes. The format of the show is not aimed at bringing about significant change. Instead, it sees activism just individual efforts that are largely centered on virtue signaling on social media platforms. When digital activism campaigns go viral on social media, it can at first seem like doing something significant. However, on closer inspection it becomes clear that without continuous efforts at the grassroots level, these social media campaigns alone have little meaning.
Though digital activism can raise awareness, it by itself is incapable of enacting radical change in the hierarchies and status-quo. Posting a black square with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is much easier than boycotting destructive corporations or rallying on-ground for a change in the laws.
Activism, in its very essence, is a collaborative and cooperation-based movement. By pitting causes against one another, all that The Activist succeeds in doing is making transforming activism into a marketable commodity, that ends up promoting individuals over movements. This act by itself confirms what lies that the very core of our capitalist economic sphere. Each individual has a ‘worth’ labelled to them, that is directly tied to their monetary contributions in society. What CBS does through the show is attach ‘worth’ to causes. This does nothing except create an Oppression Olympics, where causes compete with other causes to win resources, all while the elites sit back and cheer on.
The Activist also is a prime example in what happens when content producers despise the ‘wokeness’ of millennial and Gen-Z viewers, but still continue to pander to it. This category of viewers has routinely been termed as ‘too righteous’. Their demand for politically correct content has led to OTT platforms and TV networks to be much more conscious about the kind of content that they release. For instance, keeping in mind the increasing instances of police brutality in the United States, Brooklyn 99 revised the plotlines for its final two seasons – in order to be more sensitive to the broader political climate of the country.
A thirst for skyrocketing viewership numbers, along with disdain for the viewers’ preferences for politically correct content, creates shows such as The Activist. Streaming sites are constantly under pressure to roll out a large amount of content. Thus, for example, if The Activist can gain a large number of viewers who even hate-watch it, these corporations have been successful in their goal. They will continue to release increasingly ridiculous and provocative content that triggers the audience’s outrage. Outrage leads to publicity, which further leads to hate-watching. TRPs boom, and the goal is satisfied.
While the show presents itself as the epitome of nobility that is alien to reality television, one cannot ignore certain contradictions. Julianne Hough wore blackface as part of her Halloween costume in 2013. Moreover, while Priyanka Chopra has been quite vocal about the Black Lives Matter protests and other international issues, she has maintained silence on political issues closer home—be it the Anti-CAA protests or recently, the Farmers’ Protests as well. Additionally, The Activist is also co-produced by the international NGO Global Citizen. Notably, Global Citizen’s core partners include giant corporations such as Coca-Cola, Verizon, Google, Comcast, P&G, and many such, who often are the organisations that activists largely rally against. Lastly, the show pays handsome salaries to already wealthy celebrities, while the contestants have to compete against one another for an opportunity to secure funding.
Though the producers insist that The Activist “will make you want to get up and change the world“, there is little dispute to the fact that the premise and result of the show is performative at its best, and a grotesque mockery of genuine activism at its worst. It sounds like satire, but The Activist seems to be yet another step in the way of our growingly dystopian reality.
Featured Image Source: Hollywood Reporter