Making her voice heard on showbiz sexism and teen mental health, the switched-on Disney star is showing girls how to reclaim what was once used to undermine them
Taken from the spring 2016 issue of Dazed:
‘Before you know it, it’s 3am and you’re 80 years old and you can’t remember what it was like to have 20-year-old thoughts or a ten-year-old heart.’
At the time of writing, this unattributed aphorism has been reblogged 1,142,427 times, ricocheting off the 20-year-old thoughts and ten-year-old hearts that make up Tumblr’s inclusive girls’ world. I first see the quote on Rowan Blanchard’s page, nestled between the Beyoncé gifs, Margot Tenenbaum illustrations and Black Lives Matter posters. “I spend a lot of time scrolling through Tumblr,” she says. “People have started to build their own feminist communities there, like the Art Hoe Collective – amazing young people who aren’t waiting to become famous, who aren’t just waiting for the ‘right time’. They’re doing it for themselves.”
When I first spoke to Rowan Blanchard, her eloquence left me reeling (“Can’t believe Rowan is 14,” I texted my editor at the time. “She is way more articulate than me. Sob”). Dazed had just invited her to interview Jazz Jennings for this issue’s cover story, and I was to brief her on the story. Blanchard got the gist of it right away, of course, and the resulting conversation reveals two normal teenage girls talking boys, school and favourite films, as well as two old souls with a greater understanding of gender identity and race than many of their adult counterparts. Then again, perhaps it’s precisely this sensitivity that makes them ‘normal’ as part of today’s generation of teenagers.
Rowan Blanchard might be 14 years old, but she has the confident, forthright speaking manner of someone in their 20s. To many, she’s the teen protagonist of Disney’s Girl Meets World, sequel to beloved 90s sitcom Boy Meets World. But she’s also part of a new wave of family-friendly TV show stars who are not afraid to voice their opinions – among them, fellow Disney actress Zendaya, who called out Modeliste magazine for Photoshopping her hips and torso to appear skinnier, and Yara Shahidi, who balances her role on ABC Family’s Black-ish with the full-time mentoring of young women. What’s more, Blanchard is a natural writer: she wants to go to the Columbia School of Journalism, has spoken for the UN on gender inequality among teenagers and, last August, wrote a brief essay about intersectional feminism on her Tumblr page that served to set alight the flickering feminist consciousness of a generation.
“I have made a very big point at making sure my personal feminism includes everyone,” she wrote. “As many issues as feminists have succeeded in adopting, many of us seem to have not accepted the fact that police brutality and race issues are our issues too.” Blowing up just a few months after her friend Amandla Stenberg’s “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows” video – the actress’s incendiary primer on cultural appropriation for Katy Perry and co – Blanchard’s post wasn’t a school assignment. In fact, it wasn’t really planned. “It was funny, because that week I had been reading as much as I could about intersectional feminism and studying people like Kimberlé Crenshaw,” she explains. “That night someone asked a question (about the shortcomings of ‘white feminism’) and I just wrote everything I knew. Wrote it, published it, went to sleep.”
It’s an approach that could seem blase for any adult with Blanchard’s profile. But when you hear her speak, or scroll through the comments on her Tumblr, you realise she’s not operating in the same space that the mainstream media would like her to perform in. For overeager journalists fuelled by clickbait feminism, Blanchard must be made to stand with the Miley Cyruses and Cara Delevingnes of this world – another conveniently packaged, ‘badass’ starlet who’s bound to ‘come out’, ‘throw down’ or, hopefully, say something she regrets. But Blanchard’s world isn’t nearly as cynical as that. Instead, through Tumblr, Instagram and even the bigger stages she mounts – she recently addressed 20,000 people at We Day in Minnesota – she speaks directly to girls her own age. Finding powerful words in library books and translating them in a world where they can travel faster and more easily than ever, Blanchard is an oracle of girls-to-the-front feminism – the point being, she’s not trying to speak to everyone.
“I definitely owe a lot to the internet and the space it’s created for people my age. It has done a lot in the sense of giving us a voice where we don’t really need to ask for approval” – Rowan Blanchard
“I definitely owe a lot to the internet and the space it’s created for people my age. It has done a lot in the sense of giving us a voice where we don’t really need to ask for approval,” says Blanchard of her prolific use of social media. “Girls are taking things that people use to make fun of them with and reclaiming them. Like make-up, pink, selfies, iPhones – all these things that we use to undermine teenage girls and make them feel embarrassed. Girls are saying, ‘Well, if that’s what you’re going to use against me, then I’m going to use them for me.’” It’s a belief reflected in the accounts she follows so intently, such as Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie magazine, ‘sad girl’ theorist Audrey Wollen, and artist Petra Collins. She cites her discovery of Collins for making her feel truly comfortable in her own skin. “She celebrates girls who are curvy and girls who are skinny – it’s not a competition. I realised that when you’re a teenage girl, you can be sexual without being overly sexualised.”
Blanchard also appeared at the UN Women US National Committee Conference in June last year to speak on gender inequality among the young. There, in a personal take on how she came to be a feminist, she tellingly described how “girls would rather be liked than be leaders”. I can’t help but think that much the same goes for my own, adult-sized peers. “A lot of girls will silence their beliefs and individuality because they want to be with a more popular group,” says Blanchard. “I think that girls can overcome that by learning to pick things that they love about themselves, and then deciding they love those things more than being accepted by other people.” (Post-address, she closed out with a tweet: “AS SOON AS I WAS DONE WITH THE SPEECH I SCREAMED YAY AND STARTED DANCING TO BEYONCÉ”.)
For a generation of young girls, everything @rowanblanchard says is golden, whether she’s opening up the conversation on the exclusivity of #SquadGoals or entertainment industry sexism. But no 14-year-old girl with outspoken opinions and 3.4 million Instagram followers is going to give voice to her views without attracting some sort of backlash. Days before our conversation, Blanchard hits out at the scores of commenters who tell her that she should smile more in her photos. Call it the online equivalent of the men who linger at your local bus stop – the guy who wants to see the “resting bitch face” crack, simply because he asked. “I just literally can’t with these people who are incessantly saying things like, ‘Smile, baby girl,’” she says, scrunching her eyes like an emoji. “People make fun of people’s depression, and put it to one side. But when I don’t smile on Instagram, it’s the end of the world!” Blanchard’s highlighting of the need for empathy in dealing with issues of mental health would later echo in a highly personal Instagram post on New Year’s Day. There, she opened up about her everyday experiences with the ups and downs of depression, reflecting on a year in which she learned to love, not reject, her “teenage feelings (human feelings)”. (Like any good writer, Blanchard knows correctly employed parentheses emphasise the truth).
“People make fun of people’s depression, and put it to one side. But when I don’t smile on Instagram, it’s the end of the world!” – Rowan Blanchard
A few months ago, Blanchard’s mum let her walk around New York by herself (“I didn’t come home when I was supposed to, but it was OK in the end”). She strolled around Central Park in the freezing damp, went to MoMA for the first time, and discovered one of the city’s oldest cathedrals. In a year which has brought unparalleled scrutiny and responsibility for the actress, it’s telling that her favourite memory is one that was completely undocumented. “It’s a really powerful thing,” she muses, “to be able to be by yourself and be totally comfortable with it. Not on Instagram or FaceTiming somebody, but literally by yourself.” I suggest that people find that difficult because it forces them to be more self-reflective and think about their future. With that, she sounds like a normal 14-year-old again. “I don’t know, it’s weird… ‘The future’. It’s a scary thing. Scary, but not scary... Oh, you know what I’m saying.”
Hair Ramsell Martinez at Streeters using Bumble and bumble, make-up Tsipporah Liebman, photographic assistant Robbie Corral, fashion assistants Becky Sweeney, Ioana Ivan
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