What Did We Do to Deserve a Celebrity ‘Activist’ Competition Show?

·3 min read
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

If one phrase could summarize popular sentiment toward celebrities last year, it might be, “Open your purse.”

Faced with pandemic-induced lockdown and protests against racial injustice, America’s glitterati started acting... weird. Performative gestures abounded (lots of awkward singing and earnest speeches) but they all fell flat, crushed under the weight of all the money celebrities could donate to the cause if they just stopped talking and... well, you know.

And yet it appears the entertainment industry has found a new way to make activism all about itself.

Usher, Priyanka Chopra, and Julianne Hough are set to co-host The Activist this fall. The five-week reality series will find six activists collaborating with three “high-profile public figures,” Deadline reports, as they compete for a spot at the G20 Summit in Rome.

You Don’t Know John Mulaney

Global Citizen, an international nonprofit working to end extreme poverty, is producing the series along with Live Nation. Activists will compete to promote causes under one of three umbrellas: health, education, or environment. Online engagement, social metrics, and the show’s hosts will determine the success of these efforts, and ultimately the winner will be whichever group receives the “largest commitment.”

And because even fundraising needs a little zhuzh, Deadline reports the finale will also include musical performances “by some of the world’s most passionate artists.” Presumably the winner will also receive a hearty round of applause from Chopra.

In a statement, Live Nation Entertainment CEO Michael Rapino vows that “The Activist will spread awareness about society’s most urgent issues while also giving every viewer the opportunity to be part of the solution—an unprecedented example of how entertainment can change the world.”

As optimistic as executives at Live Nation, Global Citizen, and CBS appear to be about this new project, however, The Activist seems likely to resurface the tensions that arose last year between performative “activism” and actual commitment to change.

It started with that treacly “Imagine” video from the beginning of lockdown, in which ultra-wealthy A-listers filmed themselves in their mansions butchering a song written by a millionaire urging people to be less materialistic. (Inspiring!) There was also that baffling “I Take Responsibility” PSA, in which a bevy of white celebrities put on their best Serious Voices (and turtlenecks) to call out racism and urge others to do the same. And let’s not even talk about “Blackout Tuesday.”

The Activist initially raises the same question these efforts did: If the show’s creators are genuinely concerned about world poverty, why not simply donate the funds that would have been used to create and run this series?

One could argue that celebrity advocacy can shape public sentiment and raise awareness around issues that otherwise might not receive such attention. Still, it’s fair to wonder whether the entertainment industry is actually equipped to lend a hand. If executives at CBS or any other network or studio care about poverty, they might start by paying their own support staff a living wage. Then again that would require, as we mentioned before, actually opening their purse.

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