Have you ever had a friend whom you loved for reasons other than their politics – which sometimes made you cringe, and at other times left you shaking with anger – but who one day made an about-turn and learned all the hard-hitting jargon, all the sexy causes and all the clever ways of covering their former obnoxiousness? They overcompensated in ways that confused you (especially when the mask slipped), and made you worry if you weren’t offering the space for growth that you claimed to believe in. Discomfiting.
Sometimes, the actor Priyanka Chopra publically behaves exactly this way, trying too hard without trying much at all. Chopra is a judge on an extremely ill-advised reality show called The Activist along with musician Usher and dancer Julianne Hough. I’ll save myself the column inches about the actor’s gaffes in recent years that reveal regressive values – you’re probably well aware, given their frequency. For her co-judges, there’s no immediate recall of their problematicness (although if you seek it, you’ll find something – but this is true for literally everyone, celebrity or not). Chopra, on the other hand, has created a brand image that relies heavily on appearing radical, and being on The Activistmakes it all the more difficult to not notice the hypocrisy. Again.
The Activist’s premise is this: three teams compete for a chance to present at the G20 Summit about their chosen cause. Their efforts will be measured by social media metrics and media stunts. In other words: the cause doesn’t matter, just how cool you can make it look.
Social media is saturated with those who perform this way, gathering clout that quite often translates to real world opportunities. It’s no surprise that someone dreamed up a show that takes this unaltruistic approach to its logical conclusion. I wonder what the consolation prize for the show’s losers are. Probably that word that’s thrown often at people trying to make a living: “exposure”.
But wagging a preachy finger here is meaningless. Vast numbers of people will watch the show because we are like that – we’ve become used to channeling our own ennui into things we know don’t nourish us, keeping a cycle of dissatisfaction going. The cycle serves capitalism. Our outrage, this piece included, gives the show real estate in our minds. That’s just what those who benefit from this want.
Sometimes I wonder if the era for provocative but effective statements has passed, now that provocation is common currency, and that quieter, slow work is all that matters. The Activist could have made sense a couple of decades ago, before it became this fashionable to be progressive. American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been ridiculed for wearing a dress with the words “Tax The Rich” scrawled on it to the Met Gala. The same gesture, had it occurred when she was lower on the rungs of power, would have garnered applause. How is she to keep watch on the fluctuating barometer of social media pressure, while also actually doing the work of public policymaking? That dress is at the dry cleaners now, and we’ve all got our own dirty laundry – and our own work – to do.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 16th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.