"Abuse of power comes as no surprise," the Jenny Holzer slogan, might not be the first quote you'd expect a 14-year-old to pick when asked to DIY a graphic tee. That is, unless you're talking about Rowan Blanchard. An actress since the age of 5, she's the lead on Girl Meets World (the Disney channel's sort of sequel to '90s phenomenon Boy Meets World); she's an activist for human rights, gender equality, diversity, and gun violence, utilizing social media to relate to young girls who may be feeling the same way (as opposed to pushing an agenda on others); she's also an outspoken feminist, having penned essays on the subject and even addressed the United Nations Women and U.S. National Committee about it. And that’s where Jenny Holzer comes in.
"I picked that slogan because I feel like we often act surprised that cops are killing Black people at abnormal rates; we act like it’s so shocking," Blanchard explains. "When people have privilege and they aren't recognizing it, and they aren’t seeing it, and they aren't choosing to use it to help other people, it doesn't really come as a surprise that people are literally abusing their power. That's actually the second T-shirt I own with that quote on it."
It's that level of openness, honesty, and awareness that the world, or at least, the internet, has come to expect from Blanchard; the type of self-expression and frankness associated with youth, when one hasn't yet been jaded by life experience. But, even at just 14, she's been exposed to plenty — more than most adults can say they have. Because of that, she can carry the weight of mature conversations while also prepping for the start of 10th grade (where she's admittedly "behind in French"). It may be a strange dichotomy for those who aren't members of Generation Z, but for those of her age group, this balancing act that involves homework and social justice, cultivating an image and maintaining authenticity, is just an average day in the life. And like her Holzer top (our modern-day version of the protest tee), Blanchard's views are a reflection of how so many are reclaiming fashion — how what we wear holds meaning and serves as a reflection of the social, political, and economic climates in which we live.
For so many, though, the relationship between feminism and fashion is a complicated one. "There’s a whole wave of feminists, I feel like it's mostly second-wave feminists, who write that if you cater to some kind of male gaze then you are the reason why women are being oppressed," she says, when I ask how she's able to convince people it's possible for the two to coincide, when they're so often pitted against each other. "And that literally doesn’t make sense. First of all, you can't blame the victim; you cannot blame a woman for doing what she's been taught to do — which is cater to a male gaze — for how many years? I think it’s awesome when women are super-interested fashion, because you are almost taking back what was being used against you in so many ways."
The notion that an interest in fashion can be considered anti-feminist, because it caters to the stereotype that women need to look and dress a certain way for men, is not new. But people like Blanchard remind us that for so long, clothing was used as a means for women to break through society's preconceived gender norms; that's why she's seen here exploring trends our foremothers wore as armor, pieces like the pussy-bow blouse, the suit, the miniskirt, the bra, and, of course, the protest tee. They're items with history rooted deep in feminism and the fight for women's equality, something that, of course, Blanchard has associated herself with early on.
"I feel like the reason I choose to consciously speak about these things is because, while I do feel like an actress first and foremost, career-wise, before that, I’m a girl and I’m a human," she says. "Remember the hashtag #FirstTimeIWasCatcalled? I was 11 or 12, and whenever I would go out with my girlfriends and they got catcalled, it was just another thing that happened in their day. Nobody thought twice about it...I think part of the reason I started speaking up was because I was looking for some type of sisterhood, somebody to talk to, an older sister to be like, ‘Yeah, this has happened to me, too.’ Finding feminism was such a moment of, Oh here’s my tribe. They have all been through what I’ve been through. It's a common thing we all share; it’s obviously not the best thing to share, but we all share it."
One of the most obvious ways today's young feminists, women like Blanchard and her friends Amandla Stenberg and Yara Shahidi, express this commonality is by presenting themselves in a way that says, "I care about style, I care about the world and my place in it — and these things are not mutually exclusive. I feel like feminists my age totally realize that and they’re like, 'You can do makeup tutorials on YouTube and also be a feminist,'" she adds. "Whereas, I feel like a lot of feminists who are older are more like, ‘You have to reject everything that's remotely male.’ I just hate when I see that. It’s so exhausting."
That receptiveness has, unsurprisingly, made Blanchard one of the fashion industry's modern muses. I asked if she ever finds her self thinking, Wow, I'm 14 and I'm working with some of the most prestigious legacy designers in the world. "I still feel like a bit of an outsider in the fashion world, in the sense where I’m able to look at something, and it doesn't feel like I’m super-close to it, which is the opposite of how it feels in the acting world. I still feel like a geek at a party — and I kind of like feeling that way."
The thing is, Blanchard is far from an outsider: She's attended international Fashion Weeks and admires the work of Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte ("The things that they make are so viscerally beautiful and they also feel like older versions of what I would put on and have a tea party in."). Recently, she partnered with Miu Miu for its #GirlsInMiuMiu Instagram campaign. ("It was really cool to even be remotely close to Ms. Prada herself, because she’s obviously such a feminist icon," she says of the experience.) She's starring in a short film for Kenzo alongside Kim Gordon and Natasha Lyonne, directed by Carrie Brownstein, set for release in September during New York Fashion Week. And though her fascination with fashion began when she was young ("I remember in second or third grade I started wearing really strange outfits to school," she says. "One time, I tried to dress as a flower, like physically as a flower. I wore green leggings to be like the stem and I wore brown shoes to be like the dirt."), its allure at the moment stems from its current fight for progress and inclusivity, something the industry has typically struggled with. She cites an Audrey Wollen tweet about fashion being run by men, and how women like Miuccia Prada are rejecting that notion.
"I feel like people are realizing that clothes, too, don't apply to one gender. We have people like Young Thug in the Calvin Klein ad, talking about how he doesn't even believe that gender exists. It's just so awesome to have this person who would be considered masculine, because he’s a rapper and he covers all genres. He’s like, 'I don't even believe in gender. I wear whatever clothes fit me and often sometimes girl clothes or clothes that are in the women's section.’ There are a lot of people almost protesting the [gender] binary by just being like, ‘Hey, I like wearing this and maybe this makes me feel more masculine and I want to feel more masculine.’ I feel like my generation is really good at just being. Gender isn't even a thing when it comes to clothes, it's whatever you want to wear, which I think is awesome."
With all of this attention (and, truthfully, pressure) from fashion, from Hollywood, from social media, though, is it ever possible to feel...normal? "It’s so refreshing [that fashion] can almost be used as an escape method, especially in a time like right now, when the news is so much and everything is so intense," she says, explaining that her relationship with the industry is more fantastical than stressful. "Fashion almost feels like an escape from that, at least in my perspective. But I think there are definitely times where I wish things weren’t so public, and that there was more privacy, and that you got to be more selective with what you wanted to share," she says, sounding almost exactly like a normal teenager for a moment.
"But at the same time, I feel that social media has opened so many doors for artists to share their work and share their thoughts, too, so I feel kind of conflicted about it," she adds. "That’s something I haven’t decided yet, because I can’t decide if social media is the worst thing or the best thing. I’m still trying to figure that one out. It’s great that we can share our beliefs on social media, but it has also created this culture where you have to say your beliefs, even though your beliefs have nothing to do with your career, nothing to do with anything, really. We force celebrities to be like, ‘What is your stance in this and this and this?' It’s like when reporters ask random celebrities, 'Are you a feminist?’ and the celebrity is like, ‘No, I’m a ‘humanist,' and obviously that person is not well-informed. It's not even their fault; they just really shouldn’t be expected to know all of these things."
It's impossible not to find it refreshing listening to Blanchard speak of such taboo topics, especially when it is coming from someone so young who's already facing one of the most lucrative, yet difficult to navigate, careers in the industry: a lead role with the notoriously clean-cut Disney.
"If I told you that I wasn't scared when I first entered Disney, that would be a lie, because there [are so many] people being like, 'Don't end up like Miley Cyrus,' or, 'Don't turn into Lindsay Lohan.' And it’s like, other than the fact that we’re both girl actresses, Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan have nothing to do with me. I remember the only thing that I would hear when I first booked the show was, 'Okay, mom, don't let her do any drugs.’ I was 11 and was like, ‘What are you even talking about? I’m just here to have a fun time. There’s this huge culture of expecting celebrities to know everything, especially child celebrities, which is really gross if you think about it. We don't allow child celebrities to be children.'"
Though the stereotypical teen may not be forward-looking, Blanchard can glimpse into her future — and is bracing for the impending jump from Disney to adulthood. Along with it, she's facing the challenge of maintaining her fan base while also growing a new one. "I knew when I entered Disney that there was a weird transition between when you’re off this channel and you’re trying to garner an adult fan base. I had spoken with people who were on the channel and they were like, 'Try to be yourself, because then you have to go through what I went through, to have the most horrific parts of your life to be public.' I just started not really caring if there were adults who were like, ‘She's not a good role model.’ I was like, first of all, ‘I’m 12. I'm not sure I should be a role model for your daughter when I’m 12. I’m not grown yet. I don't really know everything.’"
But with the help of social media, friendship, and a few Jenny Holzer tweets here and there, it seems she's well on her way.
Fighting for inclusivity, diversity, and gender-neutrality, Generation Z is poised to turn the fashion world on its head. Get to know today's most influential teenagers with #TheZList, our week-long celebration of under-20 visionaries changing how we think about style.