Everyone’s favourite not-for-profit organisation Global Citizen is back with yet another interesting scheme to bring ‘meaningful change’. No, it is not another Coldplay concert in Mumbai as means to eradicate poverty by 2030. This time, they are bringing The Activist, a documentary special that will feature the work of six activists and each of them will get a cash grant for an organisation of their choice. While this concept might raise some eyebrows, its earlier format as a reality show horrified many.
When the show was first announced, the six aforementioned activists were to compete with each other to win a chance to present their cause at G20 Summit in Italy. What’s worse? The show handpicked these activists from only three areas- environment, health, and education. They even roped in Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Usher, and Julianne Hough to host the show.
A message from Global Citizen on “The Activist.” pic.twitter.com/CSODAwiIdR
— Global Citizen (@GlblCtzn) September 15, 2021
For five weeks, the contestants were to be split into groups of two and go head-to-head with each other in a series of competitions. Their performance was to be based on online engagement, host inputs, and social metrics.
Thankfully, the internet did not take lightly to the show’s premise. Several social media users, journalists, and activists were quick to call them out for commodifying activism and creating a space that was based on competition instead of cooperation. In the light of this situation, the hosts apologised and the producers announced a change in the show’s format.
— PRIYANKA (@priyankachopra) September 16, 2021
“Reality TV is competitive but social sector is fundamentally collaborative…In my mind, there is a mismatch in the ethos of reality TV and what people are looking to achieve in their work in the social sector. The revision of the show to a docu-series format is a reaction to the backlash against this mismatch. While the content may still have performative aspects, at least it is not explicitly competitive anymore,” says development sector professional Yashasvini Rajeshwar.
When the show was first announced, Indian activists and members of the social sector unanimously agreed that its fundamental issue lay in the fact that reality TV and activism are primarily different from each other. And the latter is not a source of entertainment.
“My primary concern was with the idea of reality shows and their transparency. How much of it is showbiz and how much is authentic?” asks social entrepreneur Shivaranjani Ramasubramaniyan.
Pointing out that the United Nation’s 17th Sustainable Development goal is partnership, Sadam Hanjabam, the founder of the NGO Ya_All says, “It should not be made into a competition because everyone is trying to contribute in their own way and the show only negates the UN’s idea of sustainable development.”
Fighting for issues is tough enough without having to dance and sing for a bunch of millionaires while they decide who’s worthy of their crumbs. Who ever thought this was a good idea should take a fucking seat. https://t.co/y5e05uuCb0
— Nabilah Islam (@NabilahforGA07) September 10, 2021
Apart from the show’s hollow take on activism as a concept, the idea of pitting one cause against the other was also deemed problematic. Activists questioned the basis for choosing these sectors and also expressed alarm about its consequences. By picking three equally critical causes, many believed that ideally, the show should have promoted collaboration instead of competition.
Speaking to Silverscreen India, educational activist Lokesh Malti Prakash says, “It shows the superficial approach of the series. All three (issues) are related. This kind of thinking is in line with the neoliberal setup. They propagate a fragmented idea about the world, wherein they show each cause as a separate problem instead of seeing it as a holistic set of problems that we are facing as a human race.”
Another cause of contention for these activists was the idea of judging participants by using online engagement and social metrics. “I think that it gets tricky when they say that the one who gets the most likes wins because not every person who likes a post, subscribes to the cause. It is very difficult to evaluate it that way,” says Shivaranjani.
While there is no denying that social media activism has raised awareness on several issues, for real-time activists, the tool cannot be used as a measurement of success in a competition. Most of them are well aware that access to social media is a luxury and in the real world, it does not make sense to judge if an activist has good enough reach by using online engagement as a yardstick.
“There is a lot of inequality with respect to resources and when we use social influence to determine who the winner is, it can really be demotivating for the others,” says Sadam.
An Indian Edition?
Even though The Activist has changed its format after facing ire, people remain skeptical.
With respect to India, a country that has taken inspiration from the West for its biggest reality shows like Bigg Boss and Kaun Banega Crorepati?, a show like this could only spell disaster if replicated for our audiences.
“A few years ago, Satyamave Jayate came out and it also promoted activists’ cause but it had no impact. In fact, attacks on activism and movements have only increased and these shows are not going to do any good,” says Lokesh Malti Prakash.
However, some activists and social sector members think that the success of a possible Indian version depends on a lot of factors. Acknowledging that reality shows have the ability to reach people, the authenticity and the essence of the content remains a concern.
“I am willing to give the idea the benefit of doubt but it depends on the judges, the contestants, the outreach, and the criteria… if one is intentional about equal representation, it is possible to pull this off. But if they are going to be ‘tokenistic’ and performative, it won’t be right,” says Yashasvini Rajeshwar.
For The Activist, however, this change in its concept has not necessarily brought in the response that it hoped for. While some welcomed the fact that the makers listened to the criticism and recalled the competitive nature of the show, others are still unconvinced about the necessity to air a show of this nature.
Or, hear me out, they could just scrap the whole thing and put the amount of money they spent on this mess toward people and organizations that need help. No need to double down with a documentary, CBS. This was a bad idea to begin with, marketing-wise. https://t.co/S4nkmVBiUp
— Katie Labovitz (@klabovitz) September 16, 2021
— Cynthia Ries, MPA (@sharesed) September 16, 2021
While the old format was all set to release on October 22, the date for the revamped version is yet to be announced and the role of the celebrity judges remains unclear.