Few TV shows in recent memory have been as widely and loudly criticized upon their announcement as The Activist. Initially introduced as a CBS competition series co-produced by Global Citizen, the show planned to feature six activists competing for social-media engagement and resources alongside celebrity co-hosts Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough. Announcing the show’s premiere on September 9, CBS executive vice-president Jack Sussman called The Activist “a ground-breaking series poised to inspire viewers.” But in the hours and days since, everyone from working activists to TV critics to Jameela Jamil voiced concerns with the series: that it takes advantage of an under-resourced field, that it pits activists all working for greater change against each other, that it co-opts and commodifies it all for entertainment, and even that the money spent on producing a TV show would be better off in the pockets of actual activists. Even Hough responded to the criticisms, writing on Instagram that she is “deeply listening with an open heart and mind.” The former Dancing With the Stars judge added, “I do not claim to be an activist and wholeheartedly agree that the judging aspect of the show missed the mark and furthermore, that I am not qualified to act as a judge.”
Less than a week later, on September 15, producers announced they would not be airing the competition series as filmed, and would instead reshoot The Activist as a one-night documentary special, with each of the six activists receiving a cash grant. “It has become apparent the format of the show as announced distracts from the vital work these incredible activists do in their communities every day. The push for global change is not a competition and requires a global effort,” said producing partners CBS, Live Nation, and Global Citizen in a joint statement. In an additional statement, Global Citizen added, “We apologize to the activists, hosts, and the larger activist community — we got it wrong.”
In the wake of the backlash to the show, Clover Hogan tweeted about her experience going through its casting process. Hogan is the 22-year-old founder and executive director of Force of Nature, a group working to empower young people to channel climate anxiety into environmental activism. After receiving an email asking her to apply for the series on April 16, she had a call with a scout who told her the show would bring together activists to collaborate and promote their causes. Yet over the course of a second, hour-long video conversation, that vision unraveled: Another person involved in the series asked her to tell her story until she cried, then informed her the show would set the activists against each other in pursuit of funding. Hogan said she was ultimately offered a spot on the series in mid-June, which she declined. She spoke to Vulture about her experience ahead of the announcement that The Activist would pivot to a documentary series, offering a behind-the-scenes look at the competition the show was initially supposed to document.
How did all of this start?
I received an email to my inbox. We receive a lot of different media and interview requests every single day, but this one stood out because this person said they were representing Global Citizen. I’ve done panels and speaking engagements with them and only ever had positive experiences. They told me they were working on this new show, which was all about platforming activists, and they were interested to learn more about our work. They asked if I would apply.
I was like, This sounds like an amazing opportunity. It was very much positioned as platforming activists with the view of connecting like-minded change-makers and bringing attention to the issues each of us are passionate about.
Then you had a first call with someone where the responses to your questions were “evasive.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
The call started with a very top-level introduction to the show. It was more focused on the logistics, like it probably means taking a few weeks out of your schedule for production. [They said] the purpose is platforming activism, a little bit more about Global Citizen’s mission, the different theme areas they were scouting for activists from.
The thing that really struck me was the evasiveness. I would ask a question like, “What’s the ultimate purpose of the show? What’s the end goal? How do you want to mobilize people out of this?” And they couldn’t really tell me anything. I put that down to two things. For one, I thought, perhaps this person is more of a scout and they just haven’t been briefed with that information, and if I talk to someone else who’s on production, they can provide more background. But also, I’ve not done anything like this before. I do a lot of panels and speaking engagements and workshops, but never TV. I was like, Maybe they just need me to sign more paperwork to disclose it. But that general evasiveness was a thread throughout the entire process. They asked me a lot of questions, but weren’t really willing to respond to any of mine.
When it came to this second interview, what made it different from your other experiences working with the media?
I’ve been in some pretty shitty situations as a young person in these spaces, but this was definitely the worst interview I’ve experienced, if you can even call it that. In my mind, an interview is a two-way exchange, and it’s about knowledge seeking. This was very much, they laid out a story and they were trying to get me to fit into that.
Initially, it seemed pretty straightforward. This guy on the call asked me to share my background; I shared [about] growing up in Australia, what my catalyst was, the years I spent in grassroots activism in Indonesia, how that led to the work I’m doing today. And he just looked increasingly irritated over the course of my response, which is not a usual reaction. As soon as I finished, he very bluntly said, “You sound emotionless and like you’re reading off a script.” He was like, “Go back to this moment of heartbreak” — which was something I talk about a lot, this moment where I first discovered climate change through documentaries. That was a really difficult experience and so emotional, but it really catalyzed all the work I’ve been doing since. He kept asking me to go back to this moment. Repeatedly he’s like, “No, that’s not enough emotion, that’s not evocative enough,” and kept asking me to repeat this story, almost to the point where I was citing a script. He also was giving me storytelling tips, [how to recount] something really shocking or traumatizing or horrifying, and reliving those moments.
I wish I had the self-awareness in that moment to say, “I don’t really understand what your aim is here.” But it reached a point that I literally started crying on-camera. I try to bring vulnerability to my work — it’s so much of what I talk about around mental well-being and sitting in those difficult feelings. In this instance, it felt like something that was being forced out of me. And the moment I burst into tears, he looked really satisfied. A few moments later, he was like, “Yes, that’s perfect. That’s the shot.” I wish I had a copy of this video, because I think people would be quite horrified by the whole exchange.
He asked a few more questions, and they were very cringey. He’s like, “No, no, no. That’s too complicated. We need the sound bite. You’re talking like too much of smart person. Talk like an American.” At this point, I was getting pissed off. I was like, “I don’t know what agenda you’re going into this with, but I’m clearly just a prop at this point.” It was deeply upsetting. It’s also hard when you are talking about things that are inherently vulnerable, like the fires back home in Australia, and seeing friends lose their homes. Having to turn that into some narrative for someone else’s purpose is difficult.
The final thing I will add to all of this, which sticks out in my mind: He asked a lot about protest activism. I kept saying to him, “I’ve attended protests, but my activism has always been behind the scenes. I’m not a community mobilizer. That’s a very different thing.” But it really felt like he wanted that image of what a climate activist looks like, Greta [Thunberg] 2.0.
And was it at the end of that call when you were told it was a competition?
At the very end, I was like, “I’m just trying to understand what you guys are trying to achieve here. What is the purpose of this?” It was only at that point that they talked about this being a competition show. One of his final questions was, “Why should you win this competition?” I was completely blindsided. I was like, “Wait, hold up. What do you mean, competition?” That was when he was like, “Oh, you have a group of activists vying for the same pot of resources. There has to be a clear winner.” Up until this point, everything they alluded to was a platform for activists. The purpose was to bring attention to the issues. It was about collaboration, bringing passionate people together. I said to him, “I can’t respond to that question, because I had no idea that was the purpose of this. And I wish you had communicated that earlier on, because I wouldn’t have wasted my time with this whole process.”
On Twitter, you compared it to an episode of Black Mirror. That’s how it felt to even read the news of the show.
How did not one person put their hand up and say, “Hey, this is really problematic”? Even in the weeks following, I kept questioning or doubting myself. I was like, Maybe it wasn’t really that bad. Perhaps I just don’t know enough about the entertainment industry, and this is really standard. When all of this came to the surface last week, it was a huge relief to see how horrified people really were.
I’m disappointed to see people going off [on] the contestants themselves, because having been gaslit by this whole process personally, I can absolutely understand why you could be manipulated into saying yes to this type of opportunity. As activists, we’re constantly looking for funding and resources, and it’s amazing if someone was like, “Yes, we can get your message to a really big platform.” One person sent me this contestant’s account, and he had created a GoFundMe to cover his costs while he left to [appear on] this show. The production company hadn’t been willing to cover his costs and remunerate him for his time. Their whole thing about, “We’re giving a platform to activists, and we’re giving them access to resources” — all of that screams disingenuous. I feel for the people who have gone through this process right until the end.
I’m glad you mentioned that. When people talk about activism, a lot of it is about who has power in certain situations. With this show, the power’s in the hands of the studio and the production company who are putting real activists in this situation.
One hundred percent. The hosts that they’ve announced, the PR statements they’ve put out — it’s tokenized at every stage of the production chain. They think it’s a good idea to have Usher and Priyanka as these judges. If you’re actually genuine about assessing an activist — that’s already a gross concept. But get a frigging activist on the show. Get someone with influence in that space.
It’s striking that this was pitched to you as something to promote collaboration, and then it pivots to something that’s pitting people against each other.
Coming from the nonprofit space, we’re often all vying for the same pot of resources. Each of us has chosen this path knowing it’s not going to be easy, and there’s not always going to be a consistent paycheck in the mail. There’s always a lot of struggle, and I’m saying that as the most privileged person in the world: I’ve found a way to make a livelihood out of my activism. I have a team and an organization around me. I live in a country where it’s not illegal to protest, and where activism isn’t a risk to my life, which is the reality for so many activists around the world. It’s already a pretty bleak situation, and where there is hope and growth in this space is through solidarity and collaboration. What we’ve seen in the past few years with the rise of protest movements like the Youth Strikes for Climate and Black Lives Matter is that we can’t separate out any of these issues. We can’t solve climate change without delivering fair and equitable communities, and we won’t achieve fair and equitable communities if we continue to destroy the natural world. We have a much better impact when we work from that place of intersectional environmentalism and togetherness and community.
That was the initial appeal from me when they reached out with this opportunity. Meeting other people from across fields, people who are working in hunger, people who are working in education — that’s really appealing to me. And I was so blindsided when he said, “How would you go about winning this competition?” That could not be further from why any of us do this work, and could not be a greater reflection and epitome of why the world is so fucked up right now — it’s because of that competitive mind-set. We’re in a culture that prioritizes consumption and competition over collaboration and community. The rhetoric around this being an opportunity to make activism mainstream — this could not be more harmful for activism and for the issues. It promotes divisiveness. It promotes privilege. It promotes doing this for all the wrong reasons.
What do you hope comes out of this?
There are going to be examples, time and time again, of corporations or private interests trying to commodify, trying to exploit. It’s great that we experience those heated feelings in response, but we need to learn how to channel them into action. Hold these companies and interests accountable. Call them out. The conversation starts with this, but it shouldn’t end with it. Our final goal shouldn’t just be to cancel a TV show. It should be much bigger commentary around what’s not right with the entertainment industry. Why activism is so under-resourced. I’d love for this to be that catalyst.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.