America has a performative problem. CBS is only one of many.
Editor’s note: Since the publication of this story, The Activist TV show has been totally reimagined in light of the criticism lobbed at CBS. That said, the author of this piece points out issues that will continue to loom large in society as content creators all vie for more viewers and readers. — Adrienne Samuels Gibbs, Editor-in-Chief, ZORA
Competition shows have evolved as the bedrock of American entertainment. It started with The Amazing Race, America’s Next Top Model, and American Idol. The objective for these shows was to “be the best” and “beat your competitors.” A few weeks ago CBS announced a new show called The Activist. It was to be a televised contest where individuals put their philanthropy to the test — where Julianne Hough, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, or Usher will crown the ultimate humanitarian.
But soon after CBS’s announcement, there was an immediate backlash on Twitter.
One tweet from Jameela Jamil said this: “Couldn’t they just give the money it’s going to take to pay this UNBELIEVABLY expensive talent and make this show, directly to activist causes?”
Another, from journalist Yuen Chan said this: “As activists are jailed, maimed and killed around the world, this is grotesque.”
And sure, it’s a bit of a relief to see people call this show on its bluff. However, it’s a bit disingenuous to act as if The Activist isn’t on-brand with our performative problem.
And this isn’t necessarily a slight at the competitors. One could say they’re competing for their organizations to get recognition and support. Others could say, like Fatima Bhutto, “no actual activists would be caught dead on this show.” There are a few arguments one could make. The point is The Activist would inevitably sensationalize activism — and double down on our issue of counterfeit altruism.
Before the inception of this show, activism had become a competition. Remember the summer of 2020? When big corporations, celebrities, and major brands “out-did” themselves by posting black boxes, relabeling syrup, removing “master bedroom” from their lexicon, taking “lit” selfies at protests, and repenting for American Slavery via Zoom….
Can we please rewind to when activism was done for a reason, instead of something done for a flex?
That’s not to say all charities and foundations today are hungry for attention. No — it’s to say that our digital era continues to (indirectly or not) pin our morals against the next — where we’ll question whether we’re doing-good good enough. But not every person can do the same work, as can be said for the competition on The Activist.
And amongst us regular folks, there’s consistently a callout of people not doing the work. Even the phrase “do the work” has largely been used to reprimand the seemingly insincere.
The problem we need to confront is our necessity to “out-do” one another.
Let’s take a chapter from our past, where activists like the legendary Congressman John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., abolitionist John Brown, journalist Anne McCarty Braden, and revolutionary Fred Hampton sought moral change and not social currency. Hopefully, CBS will reconsider hosting a series incentivizing charitable people to defeat one another.
And America, let’s do the same.