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Green Is The New Black

CBS is airing a show called “The Activist”. Real activists aren’t having it.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: As of 16th September, Global Citizen has issued a statement that they are changing the show’s format. However, many of the critiques still apply. 

This is one of those, “tell me we’re in late-stage capitalism, without telling me we’re in late-stage capitalism” moments. CBS’ new show, “The Activist”, is a Hunger Games-esque competition series pitting activists against each other. In a battle measured by online engagement and social metrics. Judged by celebrities Usher, Julianne Hough, and… Priyanka Chopra.


Last week, CBS, an American commercial broadcast television and radio network, announced that they would be launching a show: “The Activist”. Needless to say, actual activists, and a lot of the Internet, took issue with the announcement. From the show’s concept, to its execution, and to the wider problems that the launching of this show speaks to, there’s much to dive into. 


What “The Activist” is all about

In short, “The Activist” is the performative—in many senses of the word—and reality TV, social justice version of The Hunger Games. Activists go “head-to-head” in challenges to “promote their causes”. They have their “passion and commitment tested” for national television. The “winners” are those who top online engagement and social metrics. The end goal? Meeting with world leaders at the G20 Summit. “In the hope of securing funding and awareness for their causes”. 

If you thought this wasn’t theatrical enough, there’s more. The show ends with a finale featuring musical performances “by some of the world’s most passionate artists”. And along the way, the activists are “guided” by three hosts. Usher, Julianne Hough and Priyanka Chopra. And if this all seems a little unsettling to you? You’re not alone. The celebrity hype and entertainment value that the show depends on have made the entire show seem like, especially in these times, us watching the Capitol from the districts of The Hunger Games. 

The CEO at Live Nation Entertainment made quite a bold statement about the show. “The Activist,” he asserted, “will spread awareness about society’s most urgent issues while also giving every viewer the opportunity to be part of the solution—an unprecedented example of how entertainment can change the world. Combining competition and compassion, these essential causes will take centre stage, as the show proves that there are no issues we can’t solve when we work together and demand change.” 

If you feel your blood boiling or your mind-boggling with this disaster of a statement—that is at best a poor reading of the room, and at worst representative of the cruel hand of late-stage capitalism—you’re not the only one feeling that way. 


“The Activist”: dystopian Hunger Games for activists, except this is real life

We spoke to three organisers to unpack everything wrong with “The Activist”. Starting with the premise of the show. “The Activist” is a show that, at its core, pits not just activists, but these causes, against each other, for broadcast television. It transforms activists and their causes into entertainment, for the masses to consume.

Beatrice Tulagan, climate organiser and writer based in the Philippines, explained that “it commodifies injustices, particularly our people’s pain, trauma, hurt, and intersecting struggles all in the name of profitable entertainment. Activists receive threats, and are murdered regularly, especially in the Global South.” Just a few days ago, NGO Global Witness reported that for the eighth straight year, the Philippines was the deadliest country for land and environmental defenders in the Asian continent. 

But this isn’t a violent reality only for the Philippines, nor Asia, alone. The past year saw the highest number of recorded killings of land and environmental defenders globally. Half the attacks took place in the Philippines, Colombia and Mexico. And these numbers only include the murders on the record. The truth is, as has been known by climate activists (those named and unnamed)? That fighting for these “causes” isn’t glamorous and TV-friendly. Often, marginalised bodies and communities are putting themselves on the frontlines, with the knowledge that they are at high risk. And yet, they do so anyway. Because for them, it’s a matter of necessity. 


“The Activist” isn’t representative of activism

“The Activist” is not only being disrespectful of and insensitive to frontline activists and organisers by circumstantial necessity. It also fails to consider the truth of the wider issues these “causes” are representative of. Tori Tsui, climate justice activist and mental health advocate based in the UK, highlighted that “the different causes they’re pitting against each other makes it seem as though these aren’t interlinked, when they are. No one cause is more important than the other. And we can’t reduce the complexity of how these different struggles intersect. Nor can we, as this show does, distract from the systems of oppression that exist.”

The worst part about turning activism into entertainment is not the commodifying. Nor the homogenising and oversimplifying. Rather, as Ayisha Siddiqa, writer and killjoy, as she calls herself, said, it’s that it “perpetuates the idea that capitalism can solve the very problems it creates.” It is the way in which the airing of this show is peak late-stage capitalism. The way in which the show is representative of the capitalist machine creating injustice, and then presenting a solution, which is pumping money, often to end up prolonging struggles, without changing the structures that led to injustice, and in the process feeding it back to us.

It’s like printing “women support women” on a t-shirt and calling it a day. Except… much worse. 


“The Activist” isn’t about activism…

Siddiqa added: “it implies that whatever amount of money that this show will give these people will actually help fix the problem. If they had this money all along, why didn’t they give it? If they had the capabilities of solving these issues all along, why didn’t they?” Tulagan echoed the same sentiment. She noted that “the show claims to amplify the causes to get a wider audience. If so, why prop up a big production, when they can fund local and grassroots organising directly?”

The answer to these rhetorical questions is, of course, that it’s simply not as profitable. It’s not profitable to just channel money directly towards organising. And if money were to just go to organising efforts, the power that these organising efforts could amount to in dismantling the system and structures that prop up big corporations (read: TV networks and powerful executives that sit on top) likely scares them. Yes, the people in power are scared. Why would corporations want to support, financially or otherwise, what could potentially eat away at them eventually? 

They wouldn’t. So they have to pacify activists and their causes instead.


… it’s about misrepresenting the agenda of activists

It’s even clearer that this is an attempt to water down activism because the show’s end goal is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to “meet” with world leaders at the G20 summit. Yes, there’s a place for policy as a necessary tool to enact much-needed, widespread, and coordinated change. That being said, pinning that as the silver bullet, or framing it as the ultimate goal of activism? It’s a complete offence to the work of activists and organisers on the ground, who know that depending on world leaders has historically failed. 

Tsui explained: “We know that these spaces and people have not committed to hard-nosed policies. And they have not put people and the planet first. They have favoured the desires of the rich, wealthy and privileged in society. Activists have been saying that they don’t want to go down the traditional route of politics. Because time and time again, it’s shown that it does not work. Most activists I know… don’t want to pander to politicians.” 

Back in July this year, the G20’s meeting was a failure for many reasons. Collectively, the supposedly most powerful world leaders failed to agree on climate goals, failed to answer to the COVID crisis and alleviate the vaccine apartheid, and failed to meet the demands of the people of the Global South. If this isn’t enough proof, then we can look at one glaring example. The fact that one of the biggest villains who has fuelled the climate crisis, the fossil fuel industry, continues to receive support from many of these world leaders. That the most recent IPCC report couldn’t even say the words “fossil fuels”—the report, and its wording, is something that world leaders have to sign off on—is just further evidence.


“The Activist” turns activism into an online ego battle

But back to the show. “The Activist” paints a skewed portrait of activism, not just because of the way it sets up the prize. It also does so by measuring the success of the activists in the show with the social media metrics. Activists win challenges by showing that you can get your “cause” to the top… beating the algorithms that be. 

Algorithms, by the way, that, as Tsui pointed out, “are already rooted in privilege and systems of oppression. We’ve seen time and time again how TikTok and Instagram have censored marginalised creators, and people speaking out against the system. We’ve seen how AI has been biased towards white, cis, thin, privileged people.” Organisations on social media doing the most radical work often get censored, and the changing functionalities on these platforms often further oppress rather than liberate. Indeed, the revolution will not ever be televised.

To this, Tulagan added that what using these metrics on “The Activist” does is it “inadvertently suggests that organising is validated by likes and views.” It further “trivialises on-the-ground organising that’s done to build and sustain movements. Which involves a lot of invisible, painstaking labour from people within marginalised groups. The show’s use of capitalist metrics to measure capitalistic success… only solidifies that this is a co-optation of honest advocacy work.”

The greater problem that this contributes to is blurring the line between activism and influencing. Which is already happening, according to Siddiqa. “So many of us constantly face a dilemma of pleasing. Whether it’s pleasing governments, or pleasing people.” This people-pleasing isn’t activism, but the deepening relationship with social media means that it is already becoming a part of activism.


“The Activist” centres the wrong people

This is dangerous because it elevates people (who are in it to boost their ego) into positions of real influence. When these same people wouldn’t do much to fight the status quo. 

Siddiqa explained: “I know that there are people, who are doing the same (or less) work that I am, who have more followers than I do, who have had the opportunities to reach federal, international governments. To speak to masses. To be in powerful teams. They have the opportunity to do so much with their status. But they won’t. Because the second that they are a killjoy, they lose their platform.” 

This logic also explains the deeply problematic choices of hosts. At least it explains the choice of centring Priyanka Chopra, whom Siddiqa emphasised her discomfort with. “You have a warmonger… Someone who supports the international genocide that Modi is committing against Muslims. Someone who supports a government that has thrown more people in jail than in the history of India. A government that has caused intellectuals like Arundhati Roy to go abroad because they don’t feel safe at home… as the host of this show? She is not an activist.” 

That she is an ambassador for the UN goes to show how flawed the entire definition of “activist” is for the producers of “The Activist”, and more broadly the entertainment industry. “We have models, actors—people who are not doing this work for survival—as poster faces for issues they have not ever felt.” This phenomenon is what necessarily follows from the equating of social media influencing, and other similar superficial, performative activism, to actual activism and organising. 


So what is “The Activist” really about?

Ultimately, as Tulagan summarised: “It’s not really about these specific people. It’s about us looking, again, to celebrated, powerful public figures for direction. When the media, funding foundations and celebrity culture are all complicit in perpetuating the issues that we’re trying to address and uproot. Community organisers and longtime activists have held space. They’ve acquired the wisdom and experience over the years to navigate through the challenges of our time. And they’re fighting on the frontlines. It is a disservice and an erasure to swap celebrities in, to make resistance palatable.”

So what is the show really doing? It’s pacifying activists. Watering down activism. Painting a skewed picture of it for mass consumption. And propping up performativity, and more problematically, public figures, that do little to nothing for these “causes”. And it ends up giving credibility and integrity to these public figures, and the producers of the show. Allowing them, then, to take credit for helping to “change the world”. And in the process, too, allowing viewers to also feel good for participating. 


“The Activist” is basically making it seem like powerful people, their connections, and their net worth hold the key to a better world. This is not the case. Grassroots organising, building people power from the ground up, being inclusive of all marginalised identities, and taking guidance from the most vulnerable—this is our vision for the future. The revolution will not be funded by grants, nor shall it be live-streamed.

Activists shouldn’t be made to export organising resistance against powers that maintain the status quo as a product for consumption. It shouldn’t be a matter of which cause has the most compelling narrative that funders can latch on—our struggles are intersecting and they are perpetuated by the same people performing the elite charade of “helping” us out.”

— Beatrice Tulagan 


So now what?

The truth is, we can’t change the world like this. And the truth is, there’s a place for platforming “causes”. But that too, can’t be like this. It can’t be in the hands of the exclusive world of big-shot producers, Hollywood figures, and world leaders. Because that would detract from the radical agenda of activists and organisers and lead to situations like this, that only further prop up the status quo, rather than dismantle the industries, structures and systems, that got us here to begin with. 

As the dust settles from everyone online being up in arms about “The Activist”, there are questions we must ask ourselves. How do we move away from performative activism and the increasing co-optation that “The Activist” is symbolic of, in this current moment? How do we resist the revolution being tamed and pacified, commodified and hence slowed down? There are no easy answers to this. I believe that a key part of it is logging off, and listening to the marginalised communities and frontline activists who are already around us. Yes, the media has a role to play. But that is something that we must negotiate carefully. And again, while listening to those who actually have the lived experiences of these “causes” the industry so desperately wants to televise.

Whatever it is, the answers definitely won’t be found within the same system and logic that got us here in the first place. And we have to have the courage to think beyond it. 


FEATURED IMAGE: Via WordPress | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a blurry still from The Hunger Games, with six competitors jumping off the platforms. The platforms are concrete and/or metal platforms coming out from the ground. The background is a (probably man-made) forest. 


Beatrice Tulagan (she/they) is a writer and climate justice organiser based in the Philippines. Find her on Instagram here. Read and sign up to her weekly newsletter, about believing that we have what it takes to build a better world here.

Tori Tsui (she/they) is a Bristol-based intersectional climate justice activist and organiser, speaker, writer and mental health advocate from Hong Kong and New Zealand. Find her on Instagram here, and check out the open letter she helped to coordinate to the producers of “The Activist” here. 

Ayisha Siddiqa (she/her) is a Pakistani climate justice advocate, writer and killjoy. She is also the co-founder and executive director of international youth-led coalition Polluters Out. Find her on Instagram here

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Tammy (she/her) is an activist-in-progress and digital creator and communicator, based in sunny, tropical Singapore. Her mission is three-fold: (1) to make climate justice activism and theory more accessible; (2) to create digital and physical community and learning spaces towards a more just, regenerative, and loving world within our current one; (3) and to mobilise the best parts of social media in service of all this.