Even when socially acceptable, the infamous “Freak shows” or the circuses of human curiosities were widely criticized for being exploitative and for capitalizing on human disabilities and deformities. Some of these also involved purchasing of enslaved “exotic” indigenous peoples and putting them on display for family entertainment (Bogdan 1990). While freak shows were ousted for their questionable morals and banned in most of the American states by late 20th century, they do seem to exist even today - just not in the traditional sense. Cut to a decade old, into the 21st century, the media and entertainment industry and the giant cross channel media business organizations have captured the idea of reality by showcasing it through the so-called reality shows. The only factors that are different here are the subject of these shows, happens to be various aspects of the human and social life. On stage is not human deformity, but human reality. Entertainment industry is highly market driven and it is constantly looking for a newer and the most peculiar sources to be presented as products of consumption (Hesmondhalgh 2018: 194).
Show business celebrity Priyanka Chopra along with two more have announced a reality television show which is set to be a competition series featuring six inspiring activists teamed with high profile public figures working to bring meaningful change in the fields like health, education and environment. It has also been reported that the format of the show involves challenges whose results will be decided on the basis of online engagement, social metrics, and hosts’ inputs. Many have taken to social media, including Canadian author and activist, Naomi Klein and American author and columnist John Paul Brammer, to vehemently criticize the forthcoming show for its format.
Beyond the instant reactions of disgust and disbelief, we examine it closely. Activism is something one associates with social justice and the collective of people, civil society, affected groups and social movements which are also the primary actors constantly engaged in the complex network and project of achieving social justice. If we dwell a bit more on the disciplinary inquiries and academic literatures that exist on social movements, we would learn that we are currently living in an era dominated by “new social movements” (NSMs) which do in fact focus on the “movement culture”, are predominantly rights based and involve a diverse array of actors- as opposed to the “old social movements” which had the working class’s struggle as the social base (Pichardo 1997). Various present-day movements like the Animal rights movement, Anti-nuclear movement, Pacifists movement, Occupy Movement, Water Justice movement, LGBTQ+ movements, and Women’s movements amongst others can be named as examples of NSMs. While the NSM are criticized for being highly fragmented, issue based and lacking their radical potential of bringing change, we cannot turn a blind eye to considerable changes in law and policy that were result of some of these movements and to their contribution in social justice. For example, the global water justice movement was one of the reasons behind the successful declaration of right to water as a human right by the United Nations General Assembly in the year 2010 (UNGA 2010). Similarly, right to health campaign led by various action groups led to amendment in the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) regime for allowing compulsory licensing of life saving drugs (WTO 2007). The actors committed to all of these causes have given the world so much. So much so that sometimes they have even paid the cost of standing up for others’ rights with their own lives and liberty.
Unfortunately, the NSM phenomenon in the postindustrial society has also created a room for the capitalists to operate and function rather more easily, following the nexus between NGOs championing human rights and the corporate actors. Given the current neoliberal times, these actors are rapidly capitalizing on social justice and social issues. It is profit-generating and easy for corporates, and celebrities to display their awareness and social responsibility. Corporates are heavy funding agents for some of the dominant NGOs which claim to be committed to social justice. However, their potential of challenging power and structural hegemonies is debatable. Economists like Narcís Serra and Joseph Stiglitz call the surge in NGOs as process resulting from neoliberal globalization (Serra and Stiglitz 2008). With the proliferation of corporate funded NGOs, there is a visible “NGOisation” of social movements. As argued by Balakrishna Rajagopal, the civil society discourse dominated by NGOs and charity promoting private actors is a problematic representation of collective action (Rajagopal 2003). While private players like the corporates are aggressively appropriating social movements, the society is at the risk of getting completely depoliticized. Depoliticization of society would actually prioritize addressing of social issues through NGOs, individual rights discourses etc. and not by questioning the structural inequalities or demanding collective social rights as “people”. A sense of opposition to such situation could be found in Nancy Fraser’s way of reconceptualizing the public spheres inhabited by civil society as “subaltern counter publics” (Fraser 1994). As per this conceptualization, the peoples’ organized actions must be read as predominantly civil society representation and not NGOs.
Social justice now has a “market” of its own. To trace a timeline, 2016 onwards there has been a shift in global brand markets. There has been a certain change in the way marketing and brand promotions strategies are being designed ever since (Kotler and Sarkar 2017). “Global artists” like Priyanka Chopra are coming to the forefront of addressing social issues. It’s difficult to pin their revolutionary contributions through art, but we, as of now, are being fed the images of them being the flag bearers of “gender justice”, “anti racism” and “mental health empowerment”. Global icons may have very progressive stance on one issue, while absolutely problematic position on some other cause. That’s perhaps because taking social positions neither invites any accountability issues nor demands a moral responsibility.
Meanwhile, commodification of values, resources and spaces is precisely what many in the society are resisting. For instance, the recent “Fees Must Fall” movement of the South African students in 2018 or the “RollBackManual” movement of Indian University students in 2019 were actions precisely against the unreasonable hike in fees of Public funded institutions. The hiked fee was a development commensurate and aligning with the global move of categorizing education as a “tradeable service” under the WTO regime (Patnaik 2015). Chopra’s show does claim to feature activism in education as one of the agendas, but will they discuss privatization of education- is a moot question.
Lastly, the creation of such reality shows brings us to the issue of fetishization of the social life and over-romanticization of the realities of human condition. “Fetishization” is a term that has been used by various theorists including Klein (Klein 2010: 78). One recalls Karl Marx’s reflections where he defines “commodity fetishism” which perceives economic value as something that arises from and resides within the commodities themselves, and not from the series of interpersonal relations that produce the commodity and evolve its value (Marx 1887). Making activism a talent hunt fetishizes the various aspects of achieving “social justice” as a commodity, unappreciative of the various roles social conflicts, processes and complex work of social movements play. The consumers are being made to consume “human condition” as entertainment commodity. It ridicules and dilutes the actual hard work of people and brave crusaders who have sacrificed so much for changing the world. It makes the fight for an alternative world a mockery as people would watch participants “competing each other” for being called radical. It is no better than the freak shows of the 1950s America but with TRPs at stake. Meanwhile, the forth coming generations need to be prepared for some of the most unprecedented phases that the human society will ever come to know. We cannot afford a crumbling market trying to make best of what is left. We must protect the narratives on revolutions and the revolutionary spirits: because “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”!
Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, (1994), 1869 U.N.T.S. 299, 17.
Bogdan, Robert (1990), Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Fraser, Nancy (1994) “Rethinking the Public Sphere: a Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren (eds.), Between Borders: Pedagogy and the Politics of Cultural Studies (New York and London: Routledge
Hesmondhalgh, David (2019), The Cultural Industries (Samsung Hub: Sage).
Klein, Naomi (2010), No Logo (London: Fourth Estate).
Kotler, Philip and Sarkar, Christain (2017), “Finally, Brand Activism!”, The Marketing Journal, Available on: https://www.marketingjournal.org/finally-brand-activism-philip-kotler-and-christian-sarkar/
Marx, Karl (1887), Capital Volume One, (Moscow: Progress Publishers).
Patnaik, Prabhat (2015), “Education as a Tradable Service”, People’s Democracy, Available on: https://peoplesdemocracy.in/2015/1213_pd/education-tradable-service
Pichardo, Nelson (1997), “New Social Movements: A Critical Review”, Annual Review of Sociology, 23: 411-430
Rajagopal, Balakrishnan (2003), International Law From Below: Development, Social Movements and Third World Resistance, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge).
United Nations General Assembly, The Human Right to Water and Sanitation: Resolution / Adopted by the General Assembly, 3 August 2010, A/RES/64/292.
World Trade Organization, (2007), Amendment of the TRIPS Agreement – Extension of the Period for the Acceptance by Members of the Protocol Amending the Trips Agreement, WT/L/711.
Dr. Radhika Jagtap
Phd in International Law,
Centre for International Legal Studies, JNU.