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‘The Activist,’ with Usher, Priyanka Chopra & Julianne Hough, sounds dystopian

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Late last week, the news came out that there was a new show called The Activist, hosted by Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough and run by the group Global Citizen. It was billed as a competition series and sounds like The Voice meets Black Mirror. There are six activists to be paired with the three co-hosts and to compete in challenges. It sounds like some will be eliminated before a finale that takes place at the G20 summit, where the winner will be whoever raises the most money. It’s a five week show that begins airing on October 22 on CBS and Paramount +. Read this and tell it doesn’t sound suspect as hell.

Activists go head-to-head in challenges to promote their causes, with their success measured via online engagement, social metrics, and hosts’ input. The three teams have one ultimate goal: to create impactful movements that amplify their message, drive action, and advance them to the G20 Summit in Rome, Italy. There, they will meet with world leaders in the hope of securing funding and awareness for their causes. The team that receives the largest commitment is celebrated as the overall winner at the finale, which will also feature musical performances by some of the world’s most passionate artists.

“The Activist is a first-of-its-kind competition series that will inspire real change, as the series progresses from the United States to Rome for the Activists’ final challenge at the G20,” said Hugh Evans, CEO and co-founder of Global Citizen. “The audience will see the Activists’ passion and commitment for their causes tested as they petition world leaders to take urgent action to resolve the interconnected crises we face.”

[From Deadline]

The response online was swift and accurate. Many people noted how performative and dystopian this sounded, particularly because these causes could be helped so much more by direct donations instead of a competition show with paid celebrity talent. There are so many other ways to use celebrities to raise awareness of causes, particularly by having them get involved directly and by making a show about that.

A 22 year-old British climate activist, Clover Hogan, described her experience trying out for this show. It just sounds awful. She was asked to do several takes until she cried from frustration. She wasn’t even told that it was a competition show until the end of the interview! Thankfully she decided not to participate. Here’s what Clover wrote about that. I’m condensing her tweets, which you can read in full here:

Earlier this year I was approached to appear on this show #TheActivist. I was contacted by someone “looking for passionate activists who are actively engaged in making an impact in the areas of environment, health, education, and reducing world hunger.” I took a call with them.

They spoke about bringing activists together to solve global challenges. Yet every question I asked received an evasive answer – what’s the purpose? How are they finding activists? Is it about collaboration? How are they platforming folks who have been historically excluded?

I wish I’d taken the evasiveness for the giant red flag it was. But this person kept emphasising what a brilliant opportunity it would be to put eco-anxiety on the agenda, & said my Q’s would be answered on another call. So, I agreed to an interview with a producer from the show.

The “interview” was the worst I’ve ever experienced. When asked about my background, I mentioned growing up in nature, feeling heartbroken when I discovered documentaries, choosing to become an environmentalist at 11, moving to Indonesia, working with grassroots communities…

Afterward, this dude looked irritated. He said I sounded like a robot, talking from a script. He asked me to do it over, this time with more emotion, and gave me pointers of “what the producers want to see.” We repeated this several times; until I burst into tears.

I’d done what he wanted, apparently. I felt humiliated. The only explanation I have for not hanging up then and there is gaslighting. I kept thinking, ‘Perhaps I’m just being dramatic. This is showbiz, right? He’s just trying to help me communicate better. I chose to be here.’

After the tears, he asked me about our work at Force of Nature I lit up at the chance to talk about our research, programmes for youth, the urgency of the mental health crisis. He cut me off toward the end – it was too complicated. I needed to “talk like an American.”

At the end, he revealed that this would be a competition show with activists going against each other for resources. I remember thinking I was in a Black Mirror episode. When the call ended, I cried & called my mum. The whole time, I was made to feel as if I was failing a test.

The weeks following, I tried to block the experience from my mind… only to receive an email that I’d been successful (yay me) w/ an invitation to meet the whole production team. I politely declined. & declined again, when told to reconsider as “this is such a huge opportunity”.

[From Twitter]

Again, they didn’t even tell her the purpose of the show until after making her go through all that! Clover ended by saying that these producers weren’t interested in the issues and “only wanted a story manufactured for Hollywood.” If this is the experience of an activist who tried out for this, I can only imagine how exploitative this show is going to be.

Global Citizen has heard about the criticism and they’re not backing down. This show is probably in the can already anyway. They’ve issued a response and it’s defensive:

“The Activist spotlights individuals who’ve made it their life’s work to change the world for the better, as well as the incredible and often challenging work they do on the ground in their communities This is not a reality show to trivialize activism. On the contrary, our aim is to support activists everywhere, show the ingenuity and dedication they put into their work, and amplify their causes to an even wider audience.”

[From update on Deadline]

This is a competition among activists for “media engagement” and “awareness” and the title implies that only one can win. This is some Hunger Games sh-t and I can’t believe it’s going to air.

— you (@bidetboii) September 9, 2021

— Molly they/them 🦭 (@mollydillon57) September 9, 2021

— Tamanisha J John (@TamanishaJohn) September 11, 2021

— Tamanisha J John (@TamanishaJohn) September 11, 2021

— CHIN🐲 (@chinremoval) September 9, 2021

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