Rowan Blanchard is making a world of her own
From Instagram activist to real-life role model, Rowan isn’t content just to meet the world. She’s making it her own.
At just 14 years old, Rowan Blanchard is more than just the star of her own hit show, Girl Meets World. She’s also a writer, a speaker, a prominent activist—and 2015’s Feminist Celebrity of the Year, a title she was awarded by the Ms. Foundation for Women and shares with her good friend Amandla Stenberg. While many are quick to call her wise beyond her years, what’s clear to us is that it’s just the opposite: Rowan, with her unbridled curiosity and major smarts, is proving just how savvy and serious teenagers can be. We talked to her about her journey from actress to activist and her #sorrynotsorry vibes when it comes to putting it all out there. Whether it’s her views on feminism, racism or sexuality, Rowan’s got plenty to say—and we’re all ears.
GL: How do you deal when people say you’re too young to get involved or you don’t know what you’re talking about?
Rowan Blanchard: I’m so tired of the argument that teenagers can’t understand something just because they’re young. Growing up obviously comes with a lot of life experience, but sexism and racism are things that affect everyone. To say I’ve never faced sexism just because I’m 14 is simply wrong. Teens my age do have opinions and we are speaking out, which I think is so cool. By continuing to talk about issues that are important to us, we’re showing we do know what we’re talking about—and we’re willing to foster change.
Definitely. How did you find your voice and start to engage with issues you care about?
I started realizing that a lot of the issues we talk about today, especially sexism, directly affect me—and that I can have more control over certain aspects of my life by becoming an activist. There’s a lot in life that’s not fair, but understanding why we face incidents like body shaming or gender stereotyping and how they’ve become a part of our society can help you deal. Understanding how sexism works helps you realize the problem isn’t you, it’s a larger system we can change if we fight for it.
What steps did you take to become involved in that fight?
I became involved by watching speeches from other activists like Reese Witherspoon, who I saw at the Glamour Women of the Year Awards. Reading articles and hearing what women like Reese had to say about female-driven roles in Hollywood—giving women their own narratives and letting them lead their own stories—was so incredible. When you look around and listen in, you discover a lot of perspectives you never considered and start to understand other people’s experiences. But I’m honestly most influenced by all my friends and women in my everyday life, like my mom.
How do these women inspire you?
My mom always has something to teach me. She’s helped me realize that it doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t like you—if you’re comfortable with yourself, nobody else’s opinion matters. My little sister also inspires me to be better because it’s really important to me to make sure I’m a good big sister to her and to my younger brother. And talking to my friend Regan, whom I’ve known since kindergarten, always helps me work through anything I’ve been thinking about or that concerns me. I’m also so inspired by my really good friend Tavi Gevinson [actress and editor-in-chief of Rookie], who is just an incredible person.
Is it this support system that’s given you the confidence to speak out publicly?
For me it’s not about having the confidence to do it, but the need to talk about issues like gender inequality that I was facing and that other girls face. It’s scary when you speak out because people can be really mean—especially online—but it’s the only way to change anything. I just have to remind myself that someone resorting to insults is just trying to hurt people, whereas I’m trying to help people. And as much as the Internet can be full of that negativity, it can also lead you to a community of like-minded people who support you and want to have those same tough conversations, which is encouraging.
You spoke about feminism at the annual United Nations Women’s Conference and you’re involved in the HeForShe movement. What else is close to your heart?
I think it’s really important to learn about your own privilege. It’s easy to think that movements like Black Lives Matter don’t affect me but, because I’m white, I benefit from the discrimination that others struggle with. I want to use that privilege to help others and start a dialogue. For me, I think that’s what my whole message breaks down to: being aware of how I can help others and how I can empower others to do the same.
Just because you can’t legally vote doesn’t mean you can’t have your say when it comes to politics. What makes you feel like your contribution is being heard?
I think what we can do as kids and teens is just make sure we’re learning and talking about what’s going on in our country. The presidential election is this year, so you can talk about the candidates and their stances on issues like gun control. We have the opportunity to learn from people who can vote, like our parents and teachers, and explain our points of view as well. You can still pick a candidate to support—and help someone who does have that voice use their vote in a meaningful way.
You’ve also started writing, most notably your recent essay “Sorry, Not Sorry” where you talk about your resolution to better accept who you are without feeling like you have to make excuses.
I feel like it’s kind of embedded in a lot of girls and women to apologize for everything. I wanted to talk about learning how to stop doing that. There’s nothing wrong with apologizing for things, but I’m sick of apologizing for things I shouldn’t need to apologize for, like just being myself and expressing that.
You’ve profiled transgender teen activist Jazz Jennings and penned a deeply personal essay about your struggle with depression, too. When did you start writing?
I’ve been writing for a while, probably since second grade, but I only recently started to think of myself as a writer. Since then, I’ve been working really hard to establish that part of my career.
Part of being a writer is being a reader. What books inspire you?
The Invention of Hugo Cabret has always been really important to me. In third grade, I didn’t have a lot of friends so I was always hiding under the slide and reading that. And then recently I read The Catcher in the Rye. That really put things into perspective for me. I’ve never read a book that so understood how I felt. It was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler that really made me want to write, though. That was my dream book. Ever since I read it, all I’ve wanted to do is live inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art!
And you’re a photographer, too.
Yes! I just got a camera for Christmas, so I’ve been taking pictures of my friends. I love photography’s ability to capture a moment and let the viewer take away from it whatever they’re seeing. There aren’t necessarily words or explanations like you get with movies and videos; the viewer gets to make up their own mind.
Similarly, you’ve been encouraging viewers to form their own interpretations of Girl Meets World characters. One conversation even inspired you to discuss your own sexuality and identify as queer. Was that something you thought a lot about sharing?
I’m getting more comfortable with myself as the days go by, and for me it’s important to be able to do that and not have to hide anything. I never wanted to pretend to be somebody else or not be able to express who I am. I kind of wanted to just slip it into a conversation because I didn’t want to have it be a big deal that I’m maybe not 100 percent straight. We assume straight is the default and that people who are different have to come out—but instead we should just let everyone be themselves and whatever they choose to be.
Why is it so important to you to encourage those types of discussions about Girl Meets World?
It’s very important to me that people have a show they feel represents them. I so badly want our show to do that—to show all different kinds of people. When you see people like you on screen, you don’t feel so alienated or isolated. We try to cover so much on the show. We have two female leads, which I think is awesome, and we’ve really tried to address all kinds of healthy friendships, women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math], cyber-bullying. At the same time, we can do more. Riley and Maya are going to high school next year. I think it’s an important time for us to be showing diversity. I’d love to see people of all different races and identities and, judging by what I see on Twitter, the audience does, too.
Speaking of high school, you just started, right?
I did! My goal right now is to try to absorb all that information and not cry when I see geometry. It’s scary taking classes like biology, but I know it’ll pay off in the long run. College is so important to me—I’d love to go to the Columbia School of Journalism or Oxford University one day.
We have no doubt you’ll rock it at whichever school you end up. And in the meantime, we know you’ll just keep schooling everyone else.
Honestly, it’s awesome that people are listening to me. It’s such an amazing feeling to be able to start conversations and not just have someone see what you’re saying, but really take it in and start their own discussions about the world around us.
Class is in session.
This article was originally featured in the April/May 2016 issue of Girls' Life.