Theactrivism

“Why are you naked?”

“Because I want people to look at me!!”

“Oh.”

“Just kidding. We’re promoting body acceptance!”

“Oh.”

Just recently I learned that No Shave November has its origins in “Movember”, a month-long period where men grow mustaches for raising awareness of prostate cancer. Having tried the No Shave November thing once and knowing several men who have done it themselves, prostate cancer never came into the equation. We would have done it whether there was cause behind it or not. Ridiculous, appearance-changing gestures like these focus attention to you — at least for a little bit — and attention feels good.

The “behind it” part is really what I’m trying to get at here: there is a surface level of some theatrical, attention-seeking action, and an inner layer of activism. Supposedly, at least. I call this theactrivism because in all instances where someone would have taken off their clothes or made ridiculous changes to their appearance for a good cause, they would have done that anyway whether it was for activism or not; the “good cause” part just gives a surface-level excuse in case anyone takes them to task for it. (This criticism is not new, but the word I just made up for it is.)

Stuff White People Like criticized this mentality under the guise mocking white, liberal, upper middle class culture:

An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness.”  Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it.

This belief allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges.  Because, the only challenge of raising awareness is people not being aware.  In a worst case scenario, if you fail someone doesn’t know about the problem.  End of story.

What makes this even more appealing for white people is that you can raise “awareness” through expensive dinners, parties, marathons, selling t-shirts, fashion shows, concerts, eating at restaurants and bracelets.  In other words, white people just have to keep doing stuff they like, EXCEPT now they can feel better about making a difference.

Replace “white people” with “theactrivists” and the reasoning is the same — you will see significant overlap between people who dress up for a drag show intended to raise LGBT awareness, and people who dress in drag because Rocky Horror Picture Show is that weekend. Rocky Horror is done without an excuse and without any intention of activism. If you see this kind of overlap, chances are the motives are not as simple as they are stated on the box. Or ribbon, as it were.

The wikipedia list of awareness ribbons is unintentionally a caricature of activism theatrics. Causes are treated like fashion labels: ADHD is orange, leukemia is orange, malnutrition is orange, stomach cancer is periwinkle, a whole bunch of things are purple, and borderline personality disorder is gray. You can imagine someone browsing the magnetic ribbon area of whatever-Mart, debating between variable A, “which ribbon goes best on my car”, and variable B, “what cause makes me feel most superior?”

(Interestingly, borderline personality disorder is the only personality disorder to have a ribbon associated with it. Personality disorders are so-named because they are burdens to other people, not the people “suffering” from them. It will be an interesting day when there is a “narcissistic personality disorder awareness month”, or an “antisocial personality disorder awareness month.”)

The colors and causes are so numerous that for all practical purposes it’s impossible to keep track of which ribbon corresponds to which cause. Until you ask, you have no way of knowing which cause a person with a purple bracelet is raising awareness for. I suspect that’s the point: without anyone asking you about what cause your ribbon corresponds to, they have no way of knowing how good of a person you want them to think you are. You might as well have an arbitrary ribbon, the “INSERT CAUSE HERE” ribbon, and select from a list of causes every time anyone asks you about it.

Ribbons are hardly the worst of it, though. The act of buying a ribbon and sticking it on something you own is attention-seeking in the way that buying a shirt with “Armani Exchange” swarming the chest is attention-seeking. Advanced theactrivists will find a way to connect walking around topless, or in a bikini, or in underwear in general to some form of greater cause.

Here is a short list of causes where the “awareness” involves taking off clothes in some way:

  • PETA’s “rather go naked than wear fur” campaign
  • GoVeg’s “Vegetarians Taste Better” campaign
  • many gay pride parades
  • “AIDS cuts kill” protests
  • most protests by Femen
  • virtually anything by Pussy Riot
  • whatever this is in response to “fossil fuel lobbyists” (warning: NSFW)

I don’t need to continue listing these because nakedprotesters.com has done this for me. (Again, NSFW warning in case “naked” is too subtle.) It would seem that the thought process goes like this:

  1. “I want to get naked but don’t have a good reason”
  2. Pick a list of causes from this list of charity causes
  3. Get a dartboard, throw darts at causes
  4. Get naked in support of whatever the dart just landed on

The cringe-causing flashmob “Target Ain’t People” is what happens when someone decides that a public performance is completely unjustified unless they have some underlying good reason to do it. In case the video gets taken down, and it might, here is a rough summation: a stereotypically hippie group of people who probably also are involved in student theater in one way or another walk into target with instruments, umbrellas, and other unnecessary props, performing a choreographed dance in front of checkout lines.

Until it gets taken down though, wheeeeeee:

While I’m not doubting (okay, I kind of am) that the people who take off their clothes or perform musical theater to raise awareness sincerely believe in these causes, it would be a whole hell of a lot more honest if they just did this under the banner of enjoying themselves. I don’t think anyone particularly needs a reason to do something theatrical, nor do I think the act of being theatrical should be vilified. Yet a bunch of people have convinced themselves that the only way they can justifiably parade themselves around is if they have a substantial reason for doing so, as if “I want to” or “it’s fun” is somehow a bad reason.

One of my almae matres, Trinity University, has a Halloween tradition called Calvert Ghosts where residents of the dorm Calvert powder themselves in white and streak around the freshman area. I bring this up because there is no packaging of activism to sell the event — students do it because it’s clearly fun. I feel that if Calvert residents started marketing the event as raising lung cancer awareness, connected by the similarity of powder to ash, it would cheapen the event. No one goes to the event pretending they are being a good person. They go because it’s fun.

“Theactrivism” is a necessary term not because theatrics are bad, and not because activism is bad, but because needing an excuse to do either of those things is bad. It suggests that society would not be tolerant of their actions otherwise, which I find discouraging. If someone wants to parade themselves half-naked in the street, no one should need to justify it under the banner of breast cancer, or LGBT discrimination, or rape awareness, or AIDS, or prostate cancer, or political prisoners, or income inequality, or substance abuse awareness, or animal abuse, or even testicular cancer. Debauchery is debauchery because it’s done for pleasure, and requiring every instance of pleasure-seeking to connect to a greater reason makes it seem like pleasure isn’t a worthwhile end in and of itself.

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