The Pageantry of Insincere Activism

Annette Ungermann, Opinion Editor

To be an activist, for many in this generation, is a notable achievement. Yet if simply voicing vague support of a relevant social justice cause merits a pat on the back, the label of “activism” is losing its significance.

I found this exemplified a couple of weeks ago when absentmindedly browsing television channels while attempting to do homework. On May 21, Fox aired its 67th annual Miss USA pageant– an inherently vapid and reductionist competition that strays miles away from any concept of activism. Case in point: the pageant was owned by none other than current president Donald Trump from 1996 until 2015, who used to walk through contestant dressing rooms according to many former competitors. Hardly the platform for genuine activism, to say the least.

And so I settled on the program, expecting to watch just a few minutes to confirm my judgment, and lose a few brain cells in the process. Instead, I stayed for the duration of the program, to my own surprise. The pageant’s attempt to revamp its image to that of female empowerment struck me, but not because I found it particularly novel or brave. More than anything, it just made me deeply uncomfortable.

The program utilized activism for its benefit in such a way that any attempt to elevate the conversation or reverse the perception of pageantry felt trite. Weaving in the “Me Too” movement, which serves to erase the stigma that comes with talking about sexual assault, appeared to capitalize on a grave issue in the name of preserving the program’s own image. A brief segment that featured poet Maya Angelou’s work “Empowered Women,” spoken aloud in a montage by various contestants similarly attempted to spin a feminist message. Ultimately, this attempt to rebrand brought to light a glaring flaw in media’s promotion of glossed-over and dressed-up “activism.”

Mostly, I was struck by the fact that this rebranded version of female empowerment was a pageant within itself–wholly surface-level and superficial. It was immediately apparent that any attempt for a unified activist message was unattainable because clinging to this (perhaps genuine) attempt to elevate an antiquated tradition that has for decades objectified women showed a seismic inconsistency. True activism and true feminism cannot be simply sprinkled into a program that so heavily relies on the message that female beauty is the ultimate winning trait for any young woman. Outer, exceptional, and conventional beauty is a necessary prerequisite.

The pageant’s attempt to find a balance between new and old threw it completely off-kilter, causing any genuine message that urged change to seem tone-deaf and self-indulgent.

This is also true on a broader scale. While the increased political awareness of our generation is commendable, the problem is that it doesn’t necessarily translate to political action. What importance are one’s intentions and beliefs if they aren’t translated into one’s daily life? Slapping the words “empowered” or “activist” onto something is no longer special if most people are already in agreement with the idea. Tangible change or defiance in the face of the status quo must be demonstrated. Yet this is not how we often measure our activism.

Modern-day activism is often simply spreading awareness. In other words, sharing your good deed or positive thoughts with a larger audience confirms the validity of your activism. In declaring oneself progressive, feminist, “woke”–you’ve conveniently completed your goal. This brand of activism is validated by others in such a way that any user of a social media platform who voices their politically tolerant views has essentially completed their political duties and can feel self-satisfied in how they’ve helped to fight the power.

And so a pageant declaring its new, empowered stance without changing the structure of the show or unspoken rules concerning a contestant’s size or beauty is nevertheless empowering. Why? Because they said so.

This is a convenient goal. And it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of superficial (and often social media-based) activism; because of its inherently aesthetic purpose, it does feel fulfilling to pat oneself on the back for being brave enough to voice even the most general of political beliefs to an audience. Yet this cheap and trendy social consciousness doesn’t confront the fact that it rarely goes past the surface. And ultimately, it lacks sincerity.

If we cannot move beyond the naive idea that heavily sanitized activism is special, or even virtuous, we get lost in the pageantry rather than confront our societal reality. Inability to confront root causes of sexism, political unrest, oppression, and the like keeps us in the same fantasy loop. When we publicize this same brand of activism for our own small audience via social media profiles, we contribute to this same problem and prove to ourselves that we are incapable of delving past the surface level of important issues. Facing the uncomfortable truth that our thoughts may be incongruous to our actions is necessary to facilitate real, genuine activism.