If Yara Shahidi Seems Perfect, It’s Because She Has To Be
The actress and activist reflects on the perils of being a poster child for Gen Z and, well, anything
Yara Shahidi is the voice of her generation. That sentence, or sentiments just like it, are repeated in almost every profile of Shahidi in the past few years. It tends to follow young famous women who we deem emblematic of a time and a place. A decade ago, it was Lena Dunham, whose Girls character Hannah Horvath declared it about herself —“I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or, at least, a voice of a generation" — and then neither she, nor Dunham, ever lived it down. Dunham never truly spoke for everyone, but as a polarizing purveyor of millennial stereotypes — spoiled, entitled, lazy — it did, for better or worse, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Shahidi would never declare herself the voice of her generation. It’s a designation she’s not entirely comfortable with, but it’s comforting to me, a Black millennial woman, that the spokesperson of the next generation is a proud half Iranian, half African-American young person with Shahidi’s seeming grace and aptitude. She’s the antidote to Dunham’s brand of brash white feminism. If millennials were supposed to be selfish and disengaged, Gen-Z is supposed to be the opposite. Dunham proved that the “voice of a generation” title comes with immediate pressure and impossible expectations that Shahidi is hesitant to shoulder on her own.
“I am so beyond grateful for the support,” Shahidi tells me over the phone during a break from production. “But what I love so much about the collision between time and space that has happened right now is the fact that I am in no way the face of anything, because when I look at so many of my peers, there are people doing the same work, more work, different work than I am.”
Reluctant or not, weeks after turning 19, Shahidi is the teen we (and maybe Hollywood, too) have been waiting for. She is what we hope Generation Z to be: informed, politically passionate, socially engaged, and actively working on specific issues to better the world, like voter turnout, gun control and immigration policies. She’s also booked and busy: She’s halfway through her freshman year at an Ivy League school, starring in the hit Freeform college comedy, black-ish spinoff Grown-ish (which was just renewed for a third season) and she’s about to headline the spring blockbuster The Sun Is Also A Star, based on the beloved YA novel of the same name. She directed X for Refinery29's Shatterbox, a short film series spotlighting female storytellers, that premieres on International Women's Day on TNT. She’s the new face of Bobbi Brown, and she even has her own Barbie.
It’s hard to know what 19-year-old has the time or attention span for all of this, and it raises questions about whether some of this is a performance; whether her wokeness is more “hashtag activism” than altruism. When I bring up a conventional notion that Gen-Zers are all talk no action to Shahidi, she gets defensive.
“Social media matters. Twitter matters, Instagram matters. Sometimes in fantastic ways, and sometimes in not-so-great ways. When you look at my peers on social media, a lot of them are doing other things outside of it.” Shahidi namechecks Malala Yousafzai, LGBTQ+ rights activist and model Hunter Shafer, and Jaden Smith’s recent efforts to provide water to Flint, MI, as examples of other young people stepping up beyond their online personas.
“Awareness is the first step. I now no longer have to be concerned with just the stories my newspaper is giving me, or CNN. I'm learning about iconic activists not through my school system, but through Twitter, through following this other person that I admire or am inspired by. It means that there's this new exchange of information happening.”
If Shahidi was running for Young Hollywood’s Class of 2019 President, that spiel would have solidified her victory. She is like a politician. She says the right thing — the most impressive thing — all the time. She’s given talks at summits and panels alongside Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama (who wrote her a recommendation for America's most prestigious university). Oprah Winfrey called her one of the “most profound 17-year-olds alive.” She left both Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert in awe of her knowledge of public policy on their respective late-night shows. Shahidi talks like she’s reciting an academic syllabus most of the time, in a professor-in-training prose that is popular among the Gen-Z set. These kids have never had to walk to an actual brick-and-mortar library look up a word in a dictionary, and it shows. They have a vocabulary at their fingertips. Shahidi’s mic-drop moment on The Daily Show came when she talked about whether she’d ever enter politics.
“I describe my future as being policy-adjacent. I would like to be next to Capitol Hill but not on it,” she said in a cadence that felt practiced, as if she was reciting poetry. “The major I’m doing at [college] is called social studies. It’s an interdisciplinary, socio-economic, philosophy and anthropology major, and African-American studies as my second major.” Cue raucous applause.
Shahidi’s perceived perfection is by design. “I am, quite honestly, a tad bit of a perfectionist,” she whispers this like it’s a secret and not the most obvious thing about her. “I attempt to do things that I'd be proud looking back in four months.” But I suspect it’s more than that. Shahidi knows she doesn’t have the luxury of partying with abandon. Frankly, Black women in Hollywood don’t get the same chances to fail as their white counterparts. Regardless of race, women in Hollywood must tread carefully for the sake of their images — but if you’re Black, there is no safety net. Black women have to deal with fewer jobs, higher expectations, and one shot to get it right. There are a few examples of reformed “bad girl” child stars, but they’re all white. Think Miley Cyrus and Drew Barrymore. But Cosby Show star Lisa Bonet (who also came of age in college onscreen with A Different World) saw her career stall significantly in the '90s after posing nude in Rolling Stone and filming a sex scene opposite Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart. She was labeled a rebel with a bad attitude, and the roles dried up. In a rare interview last year, Bonet blamed “slim pickings.” She may be back in the spotlight because of her husband or her daughter, but the hit to her career back then was undeniable.
With the era of the overshare over, it’s not so hip to be problematic, especially for women of colour. This is the generation that filters its entire life on social media. Of course, Shahidi is curating her own controlled and curated self-image, like all the non-famous Gen-Zers do every day on Instagram.
Are there things you can’t get away with that your white peers can?
There’s a pause on the other end of the line. Then hesitant laughter followed by, “Sure, yeah. A ton. I definitely do believe there's a culture which makes it harder to mess up or get back up once you've messed up.” This is why Shahidi is careful about the settings she puts herself in.
“I am hyper aware of my surroundings at all times,” she says, which is funny, since I’m hyper-aware of the publicist that is listening in on our call. But Shahidi claims her overall precaution comes more from her and less from her team. “I'd be lying if I didn't say I was hyper aware of what other people around me were doing. I'm never going to find myself in positions in which I genuinely regret what I'm doing.” Shahidi calls this a “slightly paranoid” way to live, but she’s gotten pretty good at extricating herself from compromising situations. “My favourite line is, ‘Oh it's past my bedtime now.’ And then I leave.”
While Shahidi was in Paris for Zendaya’s unveiling of her collection with Tommy Hilfiger, Shahidi’s Grown-ish co-star Luka Sabbat invited her out with some friends. “He’s one of the only people I actually would've said yes to. I was like wait, I'm going out past 10 o'clock?” Shahidi said yes. She excitedly tells me about the group chat she’s in with her other Grown-ish co-stars and how she was updating them throughout the rare night out.
“What's so funny was like, during the entire experience, I was just like, "Guys, I'm living Grown-ish!"
Partying aside, Shahidi and her Grownish character appear to be living parallel lives, albeit with different upbringings. Shahidi was born in Minneapolis, MN, but moved to California when she was 4. Raised by an African-American mother, a commercial actress, and Iranian-American father, a director who was also Prince’s personal photographer, Shahidi calls the entertainment industry “a family affair.” Her brother also acts, and her cousin is rapper Nas. Although Shahidi started acting at age 9 (her first role was starring opposite Eddie Murphy in Imagine That), she says that “I wasn’t one of those kids who woke up and said, I want to be an actor.” She says her real interest was in Renaissance art and nerding out over historical figures like novelist James Baldwin over One Direction. “I've always wanted to be a historian. For my tenth birthday party, I dressed up as an historian in a seersucker suit,” she says with a laugh.
After Imagine That, Shahidi worked steadily, but her most memorable pre-Black-ish parts were playing Angelina Jolie’s neighbour in the 2010 action thriller Salt, the daughter of a president on short-lived TV series First Family, and a young Olivia Pope on the third season of Scandal. In 2014, she landed her breakout role: Zoey Johnson on Black-ish. The comedy has been groundbreaking since the day it debuted for its ripped-from-the-headlines storylines that have tackled everything from the use of the N-word to police brutality and post-partum depression (It’s also consistently funny, with crackling chemistry between Shahidi and all of her costars, including TV parents Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson). Black-ish centers on Blackness, without apology, and Zoey, the eldest daughter is in the middle of it all. She’s the most popular girl in school, and generally your average self-absorbed teenager. Zoey is not perfect, which is why she’s so important. Before Zoey on Black-ish arrived in 2014, the last time we'd seen Black teenagers on primetime television was in the Nineties, so it was even more exceptional to see one that could be flawed, funny, and the quintessential pretty, popular high-school student. Shahidi’s lightning-fast comedic timing and It-Girl appeal catapulted her into stardom. Then Black-ish creator Kenya Barris had an idea, based on his own daughter’s college experience and A Different World — initially Bonet’s own Cosby Show spinoff, set at a historically Black college.
Grown-ish follows Zoey as she embarks on her first years of college, an experience that parallels Shahidi’s real life (Shahidi says feels like she’s actually a sophomore at school because she already lived a season of Grown-ish). But where Shahidi is a politically-minded perfectionist, Zoey is a passionate kid learning about the world for the first time and making mistakes. Zoey is in some ways her alter-ego: It’s through Zoey that Shahidi gets to explore the things she could never get away with in real life, like getting drunk and cheating on a chemistry exam.
“I appreciate the ability to watch her grow and mess up. And this says nothing about her as a human, it says nothing about her possibilities. It just says something about, like, the fact that she's a 19-year-old young woman growing into this world.”
Even though Zoey is one of the few characters of colour like her on TV, Shahidi doesn’t feel pressure to represent all Black teenagers, a pressure she says she feels more in person because of the stereotypical portrayals of blackness she grew up with.
“We want this spectrum of ourselves portrayed in every physical possible spiritual, mental, emotional way that is so much more than saying I am a brown woman, or I am a black woman on TV, but saying, I am a fraction of my community,” she says. “In no way am I going to encapsulate my entire community. [Through Zoey], we are continuously undoing the works of how media, in particular, has been weaponized against minorities of any kind.”
Shahidi says part of her confidence to speak her mind comes from “a pretty strong matriarch” of Black women in her family, including her mother, Keri, who she still refers to as “Mommy” (she’s @chocolatemommyluv on Instagram). Keri Shahidi is rarely more than a few steps away from her daughter, something many teenagers might resent, but not Yara.
“Mommy and I are genuinely best friends, while she is still very much my parent,” Shahidi says. “It helps that we're the same person in different bodies with just minor deviations.” Shahidi vehemently denies that she and her mother ever fight, because “she is genuinely always right.” I tell her that many young women her age would find that assertion baffling.
“I'm just pretty lucky with where I got dropped,” she laughs.
Shahidi uses words like “lucky” and “grateful” a lot, a subtle way of checking her privilege. Indeed she doesn’t shy away from conversations about privilege and subsequently colourism. Her name is thrown around often with Zendaya and Amandla Stenberg as examples of mixed-race actresses who owe some of their success to Hollywood’s colourism problem; the argument is that they get roles actresses with darker complexions do not. Shahidi says she has “many privileges,” and having lighter skin and 3C hair is one of them. She paraphrases activist Janaya Future Khan to define privilege as “not by what you have to go through, but what you haven't had to go through.”
“So many times in the conversation, [colourism is used] as a straight up denial of blackness,” she says. “We use it as a denial of any sort of experience versus using it as an affirmation that there are things that I haven't had to go through, and the reason that I'm probably not aware of them is that I haven't had to go through them.,” She adds: “Having a mother with the exact same face, but with different skin tones, has always made it a conversation in our family.”
Those family conversations have also informed how Shahidi hopes to use her privilege.
“I realized that when my norms did not fit those of the world around me, it was time to change the world norms.”
There are a few of Shahidi’s norms that don’t seem to fit, like her aversion to dating. Shahidi says she’s just not interested. “It's never been a priority to me… I'm an Aquarius with a Scorpio rising, so my ability to detach is unprecedented,” I have no idea what this means, but a laughing Shahidi expands. “I think so many times with teenage relationships it gets convoluted. I enjoy just having male friends first and foremost.”
Next up, she’ll fall in love with Riverdale’s Charles Melton in The Sun Is Also A Star. It’s a romance, but Shahidi would rather discuss the film’s commentary on immigration. Shahidi plays Natasha, a young woman trying to save her family from deportation to Jamaica. “Being first generation on my father's side, the story of immigration is something that is undoubtedly tied to mine,” she says of her Iranian roots. “There are times in which it's like, well, half of my family is from a country that is on the list of places that cannot come to the US.”
In every role or beauty campaign that Shahidi takes, she’s thinking about how to tie activism in with her art. As she gets ready to wrap up her first year at college, and leave behind the decade that has defined her, she’s still coming to terms with being grown… ish.
“I still haven't processed that 20 is the year that comes after 19. Leaving my teens is very intimidating to me.”
Then she reveals the most Yara Shahidi goal for the final year of her teens.
“I’m just trying to figure out how I can optimize my productivity.”