How Grown-ish Is Changing The College Narrative

Photo: Freeform/Andrew Eccles.
The new Freeform original series, grown-ish has already been renewed for a second season, and we’re not even halfway done with the first one. And it’s well-deserved. Yara Shahidi shines bright as the show’s lead, reprising her role as Zoey Johnson from ABC’s black-ish. The show is a testament to new school diversity and is genuinely funny. And while Shahidi is single handedly redefining what it means to be a starlet, the ensemble cast for grown-ish also includes an eclectic blend of young influencers from all facets of entertainment. Luka Sabbat (who basically plays a collegiate version of himself) is a fashion icon who wore a Tom Ford suit, sent personally by the designer, to his prom. As if being tapped as protegés to Queen Bey herself isn't enough, Chloe x Halle aren’t waiting around to prove that they can harmonize as both singers and actors. The diversity — not just along racial lines but based on experience as well — of grown-ish is one of its strong suits. But so is the completely fresh take it has on what it means to be a college student in 2018.
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When people ask me to describe the institution where I started undergrad, I always refer them to National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. I started college at the best public institution in the state of Illinois — a D1, Big 10, predominantly white school frequently found amongst the lists of top party schools. With its traditional buildings and quad, my school was like every white college shown in popular media. A haven for beer drinkers and sex fiends alike, and completely lacking in significant diversity. Alternatives to this narrative that focus on historically Black institutions fall into a similar trap. Flicks like Drumline and School Daze romanticize the history and bureaucracies of those schools, too. And they often focus on the organizations — like bands and Greek organizations — that make up the cultural fabric of their institutions.
However, this has always been part of the problem with depicting college students — Black and otherwise. It’s always been more about the place itself than the people that keep it running. Black-ish is offering something that’s different because it’s so relevant. In the fourth episode, Zoe was applying for a fellowship at Teen Vogue, an editorial publication that she already interned at in high school. But that didn’t stop her from from trading her services as a tutor in exchange for a glowing letter of recommendation. I was barely adjusting to my courseload, let alone thinking about internships, during my first year of college over 10 years ago. But the hustle is strong with younger millennials. Just take a look at our Z-List (which Shahidi and her co-star Sabbat unsurprisingly appear on). Teens today are bossing up while they’re still in high school. As college students with no curfews, they are way ahead of the curve.
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We see this with Zoey — who in addition to a Teen Vogue fellowship has already become a popular baller’s girlfriend, a role that can be parlayed into a career of its own — and also a few of her friends. No, not you Aaron (Trevor Jackson), you’re still a broke boy. Vivek (Jordan Buhat) comes from a middle class family that worked hard to put him through college. He pays them back by buying Yeezys with the money he earns moonlighting as a drug dealer. Jazz and Sky are broke athletes who have started a side hustle selling their free track gear. For these students, college is just as much about the pursuit of success and capital before graduation as it is about sex, drinking, and passing classes you’ll never actually need in the real world.
Zoey’s identity crisis when she first stepped foot on campus is a phenomenon we need to prepare young people for as they move away from home for the first time. The deep dive into the complicated, unfair, and racially biased treatment of college athletes is one I haven’t seen addressed on television for an audience most likely to be impacted by it. I’m sure Kenya Barris, the executive producer who also keeps black-ish so woke, is to thank for this. The show accomplishes all of this while staying true to the role race identity plays in each character. And I’m willing to bet that there is a moment of reckoning coming between Zoey and her roommate Ana (Francia Raisa), who is a proud Republican.
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In the spirit of fun, grown-ish has held tight to some of the college clichés. The miserable and out-of-touch student dean (Chris Parnell) is a necessary staple on grown-ish and fictional campuses everywhere. And so is the “beautiful co-ed.” I would be remiss not to mention how most of Zoey’s adventures thus far have been a direct result of level of mainstream desirability. It’s a post for another day, but female student and traditionally attractive always seem to go hand-in-hand in television and film. I’m still waiting for some body diversity on grown-ish that I’m not sure is coming. But in the meantime, I’ll be enjoying what is still one of my favorite shows, even though my college days are long behind me.
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