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The rise of performative activism has reached reality TV – but it’s not all bad | Arwa Mahdawi

The rise of performative activism has reached reality TV – but it’s not all bad | Arwa Mahdawi thumbnail

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All hail the Activist Industrial Complex

Looks like the revolution will be televised after all: a new reality show called The Activist is coming to the US next month. Produced by Global Citizen, it’s essentially a social justice spin on The Apprentice or The Voice: six activists battle it out to promote their causes in front of a panel of celebrity judges. The winning team gets to go to the G20 Summit in Italy where, according to the press release, they’ll try to secure “funding and invaluable awareness for their causes”. According to the CEO of Live Nation Entertainment, the show is an “unprecedented example of how entertainment can change the world”.

Is it really? Because to me it sounds rather more like the latest example of how “changing the world” has morphed into meaningless entertainment. It sounds to me like the inevitable result of the rise of performative activism and the proliferation of celebrity activists. And I’m not exactly the only one who doesn’t feel particularly empowered or inspired by The Activist’s premise. News of the show hasn’t gone down very well with a number of activists, who have questioned just how helpful it is to pit causes against each other.

One of my main issues with the show – an opinion, which, to be fair, is based only on the press release – is the fact that it seems to boil activism down to how viral you can go on social media. Per the press release, “the competing activists’ success is measured via online engagement, social metrics and hosts’ input”. That’s an incredibly unhelpful way to think about how you go about building effective movements. Alicia Garza, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, writes at length about this in her must-read book The Purpose of Power. One of the main messages in Garza’s book is that there isn’t a quick and easy way to build a “movement”. You can’t tweet and TikTok your way to a better world, you’ve got to put in the work. That takes grassroot organising; it takes the sort of work that doesn’t immediately make for a great reality TV show.

Another thing that doesn’t exactly instill me with confidence in the series is the panel of celebrity judges: Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Julianne Hough. What exactly qualifies them to advise activists on what effective campaigning looks like? Chopra Jones, in particular, has been the subject of quite a bit of controversy. In 2019 she was criticized for tweeting support for the Indian armed forces after they conducted airstrikes in Pakistan; at the time she was the Unicef ambassador for peace. The actress also hosted Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, at her lavish wedding in 2018. Modi makes an unusual pal for someone who reckons they’re an authority on activism: his militant Hindu nationalism, for example, has turned India into a very dangerous place to be a Muslim. Modi has also been dismantling democracy in India: this year Sweden’s V-Dem Institute, a research institute that produces an annual Democracy Report, downgraded India’s classification from “world’s largest democracy” to “electoral autocracy.” But all that probably doesn’t bother Chopra Jonas too much. In a 2019 interview she said she considers herself “apolitical as much as I can be. I prefer to be a humanitarian.” If you think that humanitarianism can ever be apolitical then you have no business calling yourself a humanitarian.

Perhaps the worst thing about The Activist, however, is the social justice capitalism it represents. Like feminism, activism has been consumed by the corporate world. It’s been given a glossy sheen; had its revolutionary edges removed. Corporate feminism undermines structural change by focusing on individual empowerment. Social justice capitalism – or “woke-washing” – is similar. It peddles the convenient lie that you can change the world without fundamentally changing your habits. It divorces individual “causes” from the exploitative structures underlying them. It pretends you can be a humanitarian while being apolitical.

Anyway, all that said, I don’t want to knock The Activist too much. Yes, it looks a lot like vapid clicktivism. Yes, it’s fronted by someone who thinks it’s cool to invite an authoritarian to her wedding. But, you know? Icky as it may be, the show is also a sign of progress. While corporate activism is problematic, the fact that social justice has gone mainstream, and activism is aspirational, is ultimately something to celebrate.

Karens unite against name stigma

Speaking of online activism … almost 2,000 Karens who are, quite understandably, fed up of their name being a punchline have joined a private Facebook group called “Karens United.” The first rule of Karen Club? Before they can tell you, they’ll need to speak to your manager.

There are now ‘butler cafes’ in China that let you rent a ‘man who actually listens’

For $60 a session you can be waited on by a handsome man who brings you drinks and listens to your anecdotes. The concept is a big hit, apparently.

Abortion is no longer a crime in Mexico

The supreme court’s decision to deciminalise abortion is a massive deal. But it doesn’t mean it’s suddenly become easy to get one.

Angela Merkel finally calls herself a feminist

The German Chancellor has been asked if she is a feminist for years. Now, during an event with the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she’s finally ‘fessed up. Seems like the fact she’s leaving office imminently means she can admit to such scandalous things!

France to offer free contraception to women under 25

Liberté! Égalité! No imminent maternité! (I know, I know, but I’m afraid it was the best joke I could come up with). You know what’s a real joke though? The fact that in the US, a number of employers can use religious objection to deny women insurance coverage for contraception.

UK mother wins more than $254,000 after employer refuses 5pm finish time

A tribunal has ruled that she suffered indirect sex discrimination.

Australia just held a national summit on women’s safety

While that’s certainly commendable, why is there always so much focus on women’s safety instead of male violence? “I wonder how the discussions would change if instead of a #WomensSafetySummit, we had a #MensViolenceSummit?” the author Jess Hill wondered on Twitter. “Genuine question. How would our perspectives and solutions shift if we put men’s violence in the foreground?”

The week in Petersburgarchy

Reckon the recall election in California is a mess? Boris Vishnevsky, a Russian politician who wants to keep his seat in the St Petersburg legislative assembly, is facing two rivals with exactly the same name and facial hair as him. This isn’t an uncanny coincidence, it’s an attempt to undermine him. Vishnevsky claims the other two Boris Vishnevskys changed their names and altered their appearance so as to confuse voters. It may be corrupt, but they certainly get points for creativity.

Arwa Mahdawi’s new book, Strong Female Lead, is available for pre-order.

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