Performative Activism Sparks Backlash Of New CBS Series ‘The Activist’

The word “activism brings to mind movements that bring about social and political change for the masses. It’s protesting, it’s organizing, and for many Black activists and activists of color worldwide, it can be treacherous and deadly work. Competition shows, on the other hand, often incite drama, sensationalism, and over-the-top theatrics. Now, whether we want it or not, the two are about to merge. 

CBS just announced a new competition series called The Activist, a five-week reality show that will have six activists literally perform activism in competition with each other to win money for their causes: health, education, and the environment. Produced by the Melbourne-founded NGO Global Citizen and hosted by celebrities Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough, the series will determine winning activists based on “online engagement, social metrics, and the hosts’ input.” The ultimate goal is for the activists to attend the G20 Summit in Italy, presenting their causes to world leaders. Whoever acquires the most funding for their cause wins the competition.

We believe in your climate advocacy and we are very proud of you, but sadly, you are going home tonight. https://t.co/mThzHM5c7n

— j (@sinangag_engels) September 10, 2021

The Twitter backlash to the announcement was immediate, from concerns about the continued commodification of activism by celebrities and corporations to the controversial organization Global Citizen producing the show. 

What if…@CBS & @paramountplus gives activists the money they would have spent on this garbage show? I know that's not how capitalism works but it would be far more effective, help more people doing THE WORK, and less performative, eh? #TheActivist #PhilanthroTea https://t.co/pTvZanZALE

— Alice Wong 王美華 (@SFdirewolf) September 10, 2021

It’s nice to see Twitter united over how despicable the Activist Hunger Games are.

— Cora Harrington (@lingerie_addict) September 9, 2021

The ratio of the original tweet from Deadline was bad enough, with only 350 likes and over 2,000 quote tweets bashing the idea, but the ratio for FilmUpdates’ tweet (they also shared the news) has a whopping 27,000 quote tweets. The jokes, anger, and disgust by the show’s premise are apparent, with people asking whether it’s more ethical and logical for donors to fund solutions to social problems directly instead of forcing activists to perform for a global audience.

Not America’s Next Top Activist 😭😭 https://t.co/YiJY0hGZzw

— Fiona Applebum says #BlockShaunKing 🍎 (@WrittenByHanna) September 9, 2021

Global Citizen has long since been criticized for its past efforts to gamify activism and cater to the comfort of the rich and powerful. The Activist is just the organization’s latest effort. Meanwhile, activism can cost people their lives

As activists are jailed, maimed and killed around the world, this is grotesque. https://t.co/7Sdu9IdLzy

— Yuen Chan (@xinwenxiaojie) September 10, 2021

Blindspotting actor and producer Rafael Casal said as much in a Twitter thread addressed to the show’s hosts, Usher, Priyanka Chopra and Julianne Hough, asking them to reconsider their further involvement and promotion of the show. “There are those who have dedicated their lives and assumed the necessary sacrifices to refer to themselves as activists – artists who court the profits of capitalism are not among them,” Casal tweeted. 

He went on to say that celebrities are not making the sacrifices actual activists are making and are therefore in no position to judge that work “[a]nd most certainly are in no position to profit from it.”

Activism is about communities working together to bring about social change, not competing against each other in a literal Oppression Olympics. Celebritizing activism only aims to platform individuals over issues and detracts from countless grassroots activists doing the work on the ground. 

As with all capitalist endeavors, the bottomline will determine the fate of this show. Will viewers hate-watch when it premieres in October? Time will tell.

Refinery 29 Unbothered reached out to representatives of CBS, Global Citizen, Usher, Priyanka Chopra and Julianne Hough for comment and will update this story should they respond.

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