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CBS’s “The Activist” Is Dystopian Oppression Olympics

It almost sounds like 2021 dystopia MadLibs. CBS is launching a new reality competition show, The Activist, hosted by Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough. According to Deadline, the series “features six inspiring activists teamed with three high-profile public figures working together to bring meaningful change to one of three vitally important world causes: health, education, and environment.”

The “activists” will compete through online engagement and social metrics, progressing until they meet with “world leaders” at the G20 summit to ask for funding. Whoever secures the largest amount of funding will be the “winner.” Where to even begin with this?

Let’s start with the premise of what the show defines as “activism”: “raising awareness.” Raising awareness can be part of fighting for a better world, but it doesn’t actually impact the systems and structures that create health and education disparities or environmental crisis. As Teen Vogue contributor Mishma Nixon pointed out in a March piece about performative social media activism, experts find that sharing information on social media can precede or predict political action, but can’t substitute for it.

The show’s framework inherently privileges health, education, and environmental issues as the primary “world causes” that must be changed, which suggests activism must focus on the problems created by capitalism, rather than focusing on capitalism itself. Will the calls for saving the environment be calls for environmental justice, or greenwashing? I can’t imagine CBS will be encouraging its activists to meet with world leaders and tell them to end all their contracts with the fossil fuel industry. 

Even more cynically, the process of securing funding for movement work already feels like auditioning life-and-death issues so the wealthy will hopefully care enough to contribute. As climate reporter Kate Aronoff tweeted, “Yeah it would be terrible to make activists satisfy an arbitrary set of metrics to please a disconnected set of wealthy people who control the funding.”

This attempt to rank struggles reads like some sort of reality TV oppression olympics, a term recently defined by the Central Indiana Community Foundation’s Tashi Copeland as seeing “marginalization [as] a competition of determining the relative weight of overall oppression of individuals or groups.” Parading the act of caring for one another to get attention or earn personal clout is already what activism feels like on social media. These dynamics are essentially counterproductive to the real work of organizing, which depends on ever-growing solidarity and building community to effect change.

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