When Rowan Blanchard came out as queer last week, saying, “In my life-only ever liked boys however I don’t wanna label myself as straight gay or whateva,” I let out an audible squeal of delight.
Here was a 14-year-old Disney star speaking her mind and asserting her identity, unapologetically, in the face of incredible attention and scrutiny. I was in awe of this teen girl taking steps to normalize queer identity and educate those unaware of what being queer even means.
If you’re unfamiliar with Blanchard, she’s best known for playing Riley Matthews, the titular character on “Girl Meets World,” a TV-sequel to “Boy Meets World.” I first became aware of Blanchard through “GMW,” which I watched when it first premiered in 2014 out of a mixture of curiosity and nostalgia. (For what it’s worth, it’s a cute show, carrying on the themes of friendship and self-growth that made the original so charming.)
But I was first really struck by Blanchard when she eloquently answered a fan’s question about intersectional feminism on her Tumblr. “To acknowledge feminism from a one-sided view when the literal definition is the equality of the sexes is not feminism at all,” the then-13-year-old Blanchard wrote, deftly breaking down why it’s so important for the feminist movement to recognize women who aren’t white and cisgender.
That post is just one in a long string of impressive moments from the actress. In the last year she has questioned sexist red carpet interviews, pointed out the problematic nature of “squad goals,” championed Planned Parenthood, and explained why it’s not OK to tell women to “smile.”
A brief perusal of Blanchard’s Instagram comments will turn up dozens of Rowan-obsessed fangirls who discovered her when she first came to prominence on “GMW,” and don’t necessarily understand her more radical side. Amidst comments like “You’re so perfect,” and “You’re my hero,” under Blanchard’s photos, you see some variation of “Do you ever smile?” and “Why don’t you smile anymore? You’d be so much prettier if you smiled.”
It’s hard enough being a teenage girl. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to be a teenage girl with so many eyes on you, especially when you’re affiliated with a brand that’s known for being almost unrealistically wholesome.
But Blanchard, despite the pressure, despite both the overwhelming positive and negative attention, has remained poised, brave, and unapologetic about existing as she is.
Blanchard’s fearless embrace of her identity and the platform she has to create social change is indicative of a new crop of young women in Hollywood who are refusing to be defined, controlled, or silenced. This includes girls like Willow Smith, Amandla Stenberg, and Tavi Gevinson, who are all outspoken about identity, race, and gender equality in a way that feels pretty unprecedented.
A few days ago, Rowan Blanchard liked a tweet of mine, and my phone blew up with text messages from friends. “Oh my God,” one friend, said, “I’m freaking out. I know I’m 27 but I basically look up to her.” And I get that. I often wonder what my teenagedom would have looked like had girls like Smith, Stenberg, and Blanchard existed in the public eye as I was coming to terms with who I was as a woman, and as a black woman.
What would seeing Stenberg rocking a fro on the cover of Teen Vogue had meant to be as a 17-year-old black girl not yet ready to embrace my natural hair? How would seeing a young white girl like Blanchard publicly acknowledge her own white privilege and speak out against police brutality have impacted the way I approached speaking about race with my white friends? Would owning my identity have been easier if I had seen that (oft painful, raw) transformation modeled honestly by more more famous peers?
There were many women I had to look up to as a teenager: I admired Brandy, and The Spice Girls and Lauryn Hill. But there weren’t necessarily preteen and teen stars who were speaking so openly and frankly about feminism and race in a way that resonated with me. As much as us ’90s kids feel deeply nostalgic for the past, there’s something to be said for the way the current generation has been able to share and spread ideas that help them better understand themselves, as well as the world they live in. We may have had Tamagotchis, but they have Tumblr.
As adults, we always cling to the hope that we might have something to teach those who come after us, but the truth if they also have a whole lot to teach us.
Just as you master (or at least escape) adolescence, being a grown woman presents its own unique set of challenges. But there’s something we can all learn from this new crop of outspoken teen girls: it’s OK to be yourself, it’s OK to make mistakes, and you’re never too old or too young to learn.
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