Editorial | CBS’s new show “The Activist” is not the right way to go about activism

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

When CBS announced the premier of its new series “The Activist” last week, backlash flooded the internet — one tweet even said “Celebrities will literally create The Hunger Games instead of talk about a billionaire tax.” 

The show will pit six activists, paired with three high-profile public figures, head to head in challenges to promote their respective causes. These causes include health, education and the environment. Their success will be measured through online engagement levels, social metrics and hosts’ input. 

The three teams will work toward the ultimate goal of advancing to the G20 summit in Rome, Italy in hopes of gaining funding and awareness for their causes. The “winner” will be the team that receives the largest commitment at the summit. 

The backlash about this show is for good reason — many people realize that it’s not the right way to go about activism. The series’ very existence trivializes activism, even though a spokesperson for Global Citizen, the non-governmental organization co-producing the show, said it’s not a reality show that will “trivialize activism.” The show is a roundabout way to achieve real good, and it unnecessarily pits issues against each other. 

Usher, Priyanka Chopra and Julianne Hough will host the show, which will air in October. Julianne Hough’s net worth rests around $10 million. Priyanka Chopra’s net worth sits around $50 million. Usher’s net worth is a cool $180 million.  Many wonder, why spend the money to produce the show, and put it on the air, when the hosts could directly donate to the causes at hand?

The issues that real activists advocate for are often pitted against one another in the real world anyways. Despite many issues being intersectional, they are often pressured to compete for the spotlight in the media. But many activists actively avoid this in their work — emphasizing that multiple issues that each deserve our attention can co-exist, and that many of them are interconnected. This show ignores the intersectionality of these issues — health, education and the environment — and pits them against each other. Activism isn’t a competition — it never was. 

Viewers also participate in online engagement “American Idol” style. Michael Rapino, CEO at Live Nation Entertainment, even said it will “spread awareness about society’s most urgent issues” and give viewers the chance to be “part of the solution.” 

Forcing people to choose just one cause out of three of the biggest the globe faces isn’t activism. The tap of a button doesn’t make someone a participant in the hard work that real activists do every day.

“The Activist” is a near perfect example of performative activism, in every sense of the term — something activists desperately try to steer away from in their work. Just as posting a black square in support of Black lives is performative activism, so is tapping a button to vote for your favorite cause or creating a show that profits from it.  

Activism is a fight against all of the biggest issues the world faces. To pit these issues against each other, and to air that on TV for the benefit of already-rich celebrities, isn’t the right way to go about activism. 

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