Why Priyanka Chopra and Usher’s reality show 'The Activist' is getting called out

The reality show will have Priyanka Chopra, American singer Usher and American choreographer Julianne Hough mentoring the participants who are activists competing against each other.
Collage of Usher, Priyanka and Julianne
Collage of Usher, Priyanka and Julianne

CBS’s new show, The Activist, has been in the news lately but not really in a flattering light. Ever since its announcement on Wednesday, the show has received major pushback online. The Activist, which is being produced by Global Citizen, is a reality show which will have six activists advocating their cause from any of three broad categories – health, education, and climate change – competing against each other to promote it. The show’s announcement states that participants’ success will be measured via “online engagement, social metrics and hosts inputs”. The show has Priyanka Chopra Jonas, American singer Usher and American dancer-choreographer Julianne Hough mentoring the participants.

The winning team will get a chance to attend the G20 summit in Rome where they will meet world leaders to secure funding for their causes. However, many people on social media have pointed out several red flags in the show, including that it attempts to “gamify” activism. For instance, English actor-activist Jameela Jameel took to Twitter to ask why “they (Global Citizen) could not have used the money to produce this show and pay the celebrity judges and participants and channel them directly to activist causes?”. She called out the makers for gamifying activism and giving away a fraction of the money they will make from the show.

Another consistent criticism against the show has been that it is trying to commodify activism. Kavita Krishnan, a CPI(ML) politburo member and secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, tells TNM that the show is part of a larger phenomenon where corporate companies and social media try to promote individuals over movements.

“Here, they are turning activists into a marketable commodity. An activist becomes an individual in competition with others, and every cause is turned into a competitor against other causes. In reality, activists work within larger movements. It is a collective and that’s what the show gets wrong. It is crass,” she explains.

Children’s book writer Sruthi Vijayan told TNM, “The show is receiving such outrage mainly because 'activism' is not a social media game. While social media can help raise funds for your cause, you cannot judge a cause via the social media engagement it gets. Imagine saying that your cause isn’t worthy because it does not receive the required social media traction.” She added that using reducing activism as a concept for reality TV also diminishes “the amount of work that goes into grassroot level organisations and movements and makes it about one individual and the attention he/she gets.”

While the show’s premise itself has been criticised, other social media users have pointed out the problematic politics of its judges, particularly Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

Instagram user Seema Hari asked how Priyanka Chopra was qualified to judge The Activist considering her problematic politics. While Priyanka has actively supported the Black Lives Matter movement back home in India following the death of George Floyd, she has remained mum on several issues including protests against the farm bills, and the Citizenship Amendment Act.

In 2019, Priyanka, a UNICEF ambassador for peace, was even accused of promoting war after she tweeted "Jai Hind #IndianArmedForce" amid escalating tensions between India and Pakistan in February 2019. When questioned by a journalist, Priyanka had responded that she “was not fond of war” but that she was a “patriot”.

Twitter users also pointed out dancer-choreographer Julianne Hough, who is another judge on the show, for doing a black face in 2013, when she had dressed up as Crazy Eyes, a character played by Uzo Aduba in Netflix series, Orange is the New Black.

Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein questioned if the show was a critique of how “competition for money and attention pits activists against each other”, or if it’s just “the end of the world.”

Here’s what some others had to say about the problems with The Activist.

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