There’s deranged, and then there’s this activist gameshow

What better way to make meaningful change than pitting worthy causes against each other and crowning a winner?

by Douglas Greenwood
10 September 2021, 12:28pm


We are officially out of ideas. We’ve thought of them all. No thoughts anymore. Head empty. At least, that’s the only worthy justification as to why American television station CBS has commissioned a show called The Activist, and why Usher, Priyanka Chopra-Jonas and Dancing With the Stars alumni Julianne Hough read the treatment and surely thought, Yeah, fuck it, that sounds like a good idea. 

In CBS’s forthcoming and vaguely threatening sounding gameshow, six young activists will be paired up with one of the three lead judges with the intention of working together to bring change to different causes tied to education, health or the environment. Of course, because it’s a gameshow, this won’t be as simple as lifting every cause up equally: it’s up to the activists to be the best in their field, with winners and losers being chosen each week based upon a number of things. Including, according to Deadline, “online engagement, social metrics, and hosts’ input”. It’s all work that will lead them to the G20 summit, where they’ll be tasked with convincing world leaders that their cause is worth getting behind. The one with the most backing at the end of the competition is crowned the winner.

Every movement needs an instigator; an agitator willing to put their time and reputation on the line to get people talking about a worthy cause. In our modern age, recognisable ‘activists’ tend to rise through social media and become highly-followed celebrities of sorts. Of course, social media is a worthy platform for activism, but also one in which the personality behind the cause being fought for can soak up more of the spotlight than the cause itself. What CBS’s unhinged new show suggests is that the celebrity activist is a worthy commodity, and that collective, grassroots action is less effective.

When news dropped of the show’s commissioning, a tweet from pop culture chroniclers @FilmUpdates went viral. The quote tweets are predictably scathing and iconic. “In order to prevent global warming, you must first seek counsel from wise R&B singer Usher on how to create a killer TikTok that will garner enough online engagement to knock out your chief rival, that bitch who wants to eradicate malaria,” @halalcoholism tweeted. Writer Jenée Desmond-Harris pointed out: “The products of "summer of racial reckoning" brainstorm sessions are still trickling in. And it's not great!” Heck, even Jmeela Jmil made a point!

It feels like the natural conclusion of our capitalist hellscape existence that a show about activism would be helmed by the singer of “Yeah!” whose Wikipedia page describes him, inanely, as “ a supporter of feminism and a fan of art”; a model and actor who was accused of “encouraging nuclear war” with Pakistan (The 37-year-old responded: “war is not something that I’m really fond of, but I am patriotic”, adding “but I think that all of us have a sort of middle ground that we all have to walk”.); and a personality who famously donned blackface one Halloween.

There’s something sinister about the idea of the world’s wealthiest people becoming the gatekeepers for worthy causes, in a competition that seemingly involves no audience participation. As writer and editor Kimberly Drew, aka @museummammy put it on Instagram: “i don’t want to be that person but how, how, did we get here?”. 

While it may be fodder for quote tweet humour at the moment, the very idea of activism as a means of Drag Race-style infotainment surely signals the arrival of our end days.

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