rowan blanchard on becoming an insta-activist and making disney more diverse
Rowan Blanchard reads Joan Didion, loves Harry Potter and recently addressed a UN Women conference on gender equality. Who is she and where did she come from?
Rowan Blanchard is like a real-life Lisa Simpson. Or Matilda Wormwood. Or Hermione Granger (if you could disentangle all that raging intelligence from the eye roll-inducing bossiness, of which she has none). She is the kind of clued-up, switched-on, self-aware but globally conscious teenager we're told doesn't exist in 2015, when young people are supposed to be locked in their bedrooms monitoring their Instagram likes. Importantly though, at 13, Rowan Blanchard is still figuring out who Rowan Blanchard is.
But she already has a pretty good idea. Some quick facts: Rowan was born in 2001 in Los Angeles and is the eldest of three children. Her parents are both yoga instructors. She has been acting since she was five, and currently stars as Riley Matthews on the hit Disney Channel series Girl Meets World (a gender-flipped, post-millennial spinoff of the seminal 90s coming of age show). She has an Instagram following of 2.6 million (see her as an "Instagirl" in i-D's video "The A-Z of Beauty Together"). She's legitimately super funny — yes, that's a fact). And, last week, she called out a journalist on the red carpet for asking her for dieting tips. She said later: "I'm thirteen! The only 'dieting tip' I have is, like, 'If you don't order fries, you'll probably be mad.'" (Rowan is a vocal supporter of Amy Poehler's #AskHerMore campaign.)
And the standout on any list of her recent accomplishments: this summer Rowan addressed the annual UN Women U.S. National Committee conference in California, giving a moving, intelligent speech about gender equality that miraculously didn't leave you thinking, "Who gave this middle schooler a microphone?"
In August, Rowan published a bite-sized treatise on the importance of intersectional feminism on her Tumblr, and since then the media has heralded her as a poster girl for a new wave of feminism, along with fellow actress and enlightened being Amandla Stenberg. One headline called her "Disney's postmodern feminist." It's an apt description. But it isn't the whole picture. On the one hand, Rowan is also still a teenager who likes to get frozen yogurt with her friends, and on the other, her causes as an activist go far beyond feminism.
When we spoke on the phone this week, it was 5 o'clock LA time and Rowan had just finished rehearsals for the day. On October 14, her birthday, she'll wrap the final episode of season three of Girl Meets World. She is going to celebrate by throwing an intimate Harry Potter-themed party. "Every year I have some kind of Halloween party," she explains. This one, she hopes, will be costumed. "I want everyone to come in robes but I don't know if they'll be that dedicated." Does she know there's going to be a Harry Potter play? "Yes!" she says, a few decibels louder, "I just read an article about that!"
She's also reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and Women of Will, a book about Shakespeare's heroines. And The Catcher in the Rye - for school. Because Rowan still goes to school. And after she graduates she wants to go to Columbia and or Oxford. "My homescreen on my laptop is Columbia and Oxford, so whenever I get irritated with school, I'm reminded of why I'm doing it. I haven't fully decided yet, but I think I want to go to Columbia School of Journalism." Maybe she's actually a real-life Rory Gilmore…
She certainly comes from a family of big dinner table talkers. "I grew up in a household where we were always welcome to speak our own opinions and to figure things out for ourselves," she says. "I truly do not believe I would be where I am today if [my parents] had not let me carve my own path and disagree with certain things. But the truth of it is that a lot of girls are very influenced by what other people think. I mean, everybody is. But there's a lack of representation of girls in the media. And if you only see girls on TV who say 'like' and 'Oh my God!' every nine seconds, it's not truthful. What I'm trying to let girls know is that you don't have to dumb yourself down."
The medium Rowan has chosen to express that message is social media - a medium she's well aware many people think of as vapid. "There was a point maybe two or three years ago when everyone referred to social media as this thing for girls who were obsessed with taking pictures of themselves. It was ridiculed. But people are now realizing that it's an amazing tool for reaching a much broader audience. You can use it in a way that's beautiful to you." This week, she re-posted an image from Petra Collins' account that reads "I stand with Planned Parenthood" in hand-drawn lettering against a pink satin background. It's just one example of how taking a stand on social media can lead to both good and bad kinds of exposure, and requires a certain kind of bravery. Her followers made it clear in the comments that they didn't all find the image as beautiful as Rowan did.
There was a time, she says, when that kind of negativity affected her, but she's getting used to it. Now, she thinks a lot of the trolling is funny. "Someone wrote under one of my photos, 'I bet that girl's uglier than an elephant's butt.' And that really made me laugh." She also got brushed aside in one comment as "that feminist girl Rowan." "I thought, 'Ok, now hopefully I can educate that person.'" But Rowan is adamant too that she never wishes to force her views on her audience. "You never want to tell people what to believe," she says. "Just influence them. It's a fine line." And she's the first to admit those views are a work in progress.
"Right now, I've been trying to really educate myself about representation, in the media and everywhere," she explains, carefully. Earlier this month she attended her first Fashion Week, in London ("it was so exciting!"), and thought a lot about the importance of diversity on the runway. She also brings up fellow Disney actress Zendaya, who is now the model for a new black, dreadlocked Zendaya Barbie doll. "It's such a moment. It's so important. When I was young, so many of the girls I hung out with, we loved Disney princesses. And the fact that there wasn't a black Disney princess until around four years ago, that's so ridiculous. There were girls in kindergarten with me who didn't have a princess that looked like them."
Now, as a force within Disney herself, Rowan wants to help push for those changes. She listens to her followers and talks to her show's producers: "I want to do a story about racism," she says. "And I'm going to ask them about introducing lesbian, gay and trans characters next season. It's so important to make sure everyone is represented." What with planning her 14th birthday party and finishing The Catcher in the Rye, she's going to have a busy few weeks.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Harry Eelman