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Why ‘The Activist’ Shouldn’t Blur The Line Between Activists And Influencers

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Neo-liberalism brought with it the commodification of basic rights. With it, began a struggle to fight against this commodification.

But, what happens when the very fight against the commodification of basic rights is commodified?

The makers of the newly announced reality TV show, “The Activist”, witnessed a backlash from people on social media. There is a collective understanding that activism isn’t a competition… Or a social media trend that individuals try once, and move on from.

Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan (seen in white with his finger raised) is an activist who fights for the rights of Dalit-Bahujan people, primarily. He supported the anti-CAA and NRC movement by participating in a protest at Jama Masjid, Delhi. Representational image. Photo credit: The Print.

In the show, we can imagine that the phrase “performative activism”, a kind of activism that is done by someone to increase their social standing rather than being truly devoted to the cause, will find a literal meaning. 

However, is it really so surprising—the idea of a show like this?

When People Become The Product

Mark Fisher, a cultural theorist, speaks of western consumerism in his book “Capitalist Realism”. Fisher says, “The fantasy is that western consumerism, far from being intrinsically implicated in systemic global inequalities, could itself solve them. All we have to do is buy the right products.”

A bunch of activists will be participating in this show, fighting to win the title of the one “right activist”. The one “right cause” will be picked based on social media metrics and the judges’ opinions. I believe that at the end of the day, it is the pursuit of nothing but the one “right product”.

With the privatisation of public goods comes the privatisation of the “public” itself. People of the country become prey to a plot that intends to profit off the idea of “dissent”.

This is a path many companies have taken throughout the world and in India. Be it via co-opting the idea of sustainability or the pride month of June—they reduce revolutionary movements to marketing campaigns.

The producers of the show decided to aim for a certain section of society, perhaps. Most probably, it is aimed at those who won’t be directly affected by the problems that would be highlighted in the show.

When Struggles Are Seen As Content

Of course, only when the problems don’t directly affect one, can one afford to sit in the comfort of their rooms and watch a television series based on the same.

For countless months, the farmers of the country have been on the streets, protesting against three farm laws. They have been dealing with drastic weather conditions along with state-sponsored violence. On the other hand, a huge part of the country watches television from their sofas as they comment on the fate of the farmers. 

Any reality show on television highlights individuality: the kind where self-interest is given the utmost priority. This is the basis of every game show. Activism, on the other hand, is never about self-interest. When it is portrayed as a game show, it loses its very essence.

Because the show would take social media into account, it would end up making it all about the activist and not about the cause they are representing.

At some point in the future, there is a possibility that the makers of the show might defend their idea by insisting that it is a way for them to promote the causes and give them a platform.

Who Is Eligible To Judge Such A Show?

But, the question to ask here is, what sort of a platform can a series meant for entertainment provide?

Instead of seeing the importance of the causes, the viewers would start seeing the issues in isolation. Issues like income inequality, poverty and climate change don’t exist in isolation from one another. They are all a part of a larger structure. Once isolated, the issues no longer remain to be a part of an interconnected whole.

Furthermore, the show intends to rope in three celebrities to “judge” these causes. This leads me to my next question: who, exactly, is qualified to become a judge of these struggles?

Usher, Priyanka Chopra and Julianne Hough were named as the “co-hosts” of The Activist. Representational image. Photo credit: CBS.

We have social scientists analysing social realities every day. More importantly, we have sections of societies living these realities first hand. What kind of justice is this to reduce these struggles to catchphrases meant to attract views and likes? 

Once activism becomes a private commodity for the businessmen to profit from, what remains of this activist? The activist becomes a puppet of the very cause they are fighting against.

This is reflective of the nature of capitalismit can engage in activities that seem like they are against its own existence and still end up promoting itself.

The Performative Activism Of Celebs

Celebrities often indulge in performative activism. One of the judges, Priyanka Chopra, with her caste and class privilege has always been on top of these hierarchies. What kind of diversity does she represent?

Diversity for the sake of diversity is yet another tool used to manipulate the viewer into thinking real change is taking place.

In real life too, we often find that the space for activism is hijacked by the people who aren’t directly affected by the cause. “Celebrity activists” like Swara Bhasker have been criticised for taking up too much space during protests, where the space belongs to those who are directly impacted by the cause in question.

Is activism of this kind going to bring about any change? The “saviour complex” displayed by those with caste and class privilege is never meant to save anyone.

Shows like these glorify personal liberation at the cost of the larger good. Contestants might explicitly fight for the public on stage but in that very act, they are implicitly promoting private interests.

Although the format of the show has now been changed from being a reality game show to a documentary, the premise made it pretty clear that mass media can take up many forms: from creating an aesthetic out of a shared conflict to switching it up again to appear unproblematic.

A platform like this cannot play a role in social justice for its very goal is to use a cause to promote the show and not the cause in itself.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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