Rowan Blanchard: Raised Online
Film & TV

Rowan Blanchard: Raised Online

At only 16, the Disney alumna is making a name as the voice of her generation. But whatever you do, don't call her a radical.
Reading time 11 minutes

Photography by Daria Kobayashi Ritch

Fashion by Chris Horan

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“I got my first Tumblr account when I was nine years old,” Rowan Blanchard says, casually, as she explains to me how difficult it is for her to imagine a world without social media. Now 16, the actress and Disney Channel alumna has grown up with the Internet feeling like part of the furniture, today posting to an audience of 5.2 million followers on Instagram.

When I consider the media’s portrayal of, sigh, ‘young people’ and their relationship with the Internet, I immediately think of the negatives; cyberbullying, unrealistic body image, shortened attention spans…all floating in a sea of Snapchat-filtered dog-face selfies. But as justified as the concerns about the digital age we live in are, Rowan represents a generation who cite their relationship with the Internet as something immeasurably positive; their community online is an infinite resource that inspires and informs the issues they’re most passionate about.

“When I first started using the Internet I was seeing and re-blogging all these artists I’d never seen or heard of before. It’s been a really educational platform for me; I definitely wasn’t learning about feminism or intersectionality from adults around me or school—I learned it from other teenagers online.”

Calling Rowan precocious feels like an understatement, though I’m reluctant to dwell too much on her age, or the notion she’s ‘wise beyond her years.’Doing so almost negates the fact she’s wise full stop, which is absolutely the case, however remarkably well-formed her ideas may be.

She herself has only recently begun to understand the constant media focus on her age in relation to the issues she’s been known to discuss—to her, blogging about intersectional feminism at age 13 was just a natural extension of the conversations she and her friends were already having at that time. We share an eye roll as we discuss the trend of older journalists, constantly labeling her generation’s ideas as ‘radical’—“I know!” she says.

“I get told that I’m a radical thinker all the time. I’m not radical. People are just consistently shocked that teenagers are on the front lines of things, and speaking about certain issues, or forming movements, but historically that’s always been the case! Young people have always been responsible for those conversations. I guess we do wear sincerity in a different way, just because we’re experiencing lots for the very first time. Rage is rage. Sadness is sadness. There’s something about that genuine lack of a filter that creates the perfect starter pack for rebellion.”

For years now, Blanchard has been recognized not only for her work as an actress—having starred as a regular in Disney’s Girl Meets World for several years, before landing a role in the feature A Wrinkle In Time earlier this year—but for elevating issues close to her heart to a wider audience.

She’s been vocal about her views on women’s rights, gay rights, and gun violence to name a few, but even after having delivered a speech on gender inequality at the UN Women’s conference (again, aged 13. I know) she’s uncomfortable being labeled an activist.

“I guess what’s irritating about the context of the word ‘activist’is that so many of my friends whose identities are more fragile and more destructed by this [Trump’s] administration are forced to have the word activist attached to them just because they’re trying to survive and be who they are. So, like, yeah, they might be trans because that’s who they are, but if they speak about that they’re automatically a trans activist and so on. That’s what makes me feel weird about the term—who gets to decide to be an activist, and who just has to be one because they’re forced to fight?”

Hearing Rowan discuss the fight she and her generation face in Trump’s America is deeply upsetting, not least because of the fact that she’s still too young to vote. There’s a tangible tension in her voice as she speaks about the anxiety and dread she feels when she considers the political landscape, but she always keeps in mind her privilege, and how differently this presidency affects certain groups over others. “What’s happening isn’t good for women. I’m really scared about things like birth control being taken away. That’s something that could affect me soon. I’m queer, all of my friends are queer—in that way the administration is very personal for me, but in other ways it’s not. I grew up in L.A., I make my own money…I’ve had so many advantages that others haven’t. Honestly it’s just so frustrating to me that older people haven’t bothered to learn the true history of their country; families being separated at borders and put into detention centers isn’t a new thing, yet people are so shocked by it. There’s definitely moments where I’m like, Fuck, there’s literally nothing I can do.”

So what does she do? For Rowan, the consumption of art and literature has been crucial in providing some hope amongst the doom and gloom. Her eyes light up as she tells me how much reading has "saved" her, as she lists titles like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and White Girls by Hilton Als as, "necessary texts for living.”

"I get told that I'm a radical thinker all the time. I'm not radical. People are just consistently shocked that teenagers are on the front lines of things. And speaking about the issues."

Earlier this year, she released her very own book, Still Here, a collection of her own diary entries, poems, and photographs with contributions from her friends, including fellow September LOfficiel cover star Gia Coppola. Formatted like an intimate scrapbook, the opening page reads, poignantly, in a handwritten scrawl, “I AM NOT TOO YOUNG TO KNOW A LIE.”

In this work, Rowan has captured something truly magic and just flicking through the pages of doodles and musings on post-its, I’m hit by a wave of nostalgia—Rowan, of course, is modest to the point of nonchalance in discussing it. In her introductory note to the reader, she perfectly sums up the magic feelings of adolescence, and how desperate she is to harness it and dissect it. When we talk about the experience of curating the book, she explains that the thoughts and ideas that go through her head at this age are so fleeting, that some of the book seems sort of old to her now, despite only having come out this year.

Rowan’s desire, energy, and excitement to move on to the next thing, and look forward, is palpable. Between talking about her experiences of schooling the world on feminism and growing up in America in 2018, I’m heart-warmed when I see the glimmers of the completely unguarded 16-year-old schoolgirl in front of me.

"It literally gives me butterflies thinking about everything ahead of me, but I’m, like, at the cusp of it all. That’s why I’m not in a rush to decide exactly what I’m doing next."

At home, she says, everything’s normal. “When I’m with my family, that’s it. I have two siblings, and my acting is in no way any more important than their interests. It’s just something I do. My brother wants to be an animator, and my sister wants to be a trauma surgeon! Me, I just wanna be on TV. It’s not really that…smart.”

As traditional as her home life may be, I wonder how a globe-trotting 16-year-old who has just fronted a Miu Miu campaign, and today sits in front of me dripping in Tiffany jewelry that comes with its own uniformed guards, manages to stay, so, well…normal.

“Ha! If you were to talk to my mom right now, she’d be like, ‘I have to smack her on this mouth sometimes!’” she jokes. In fact, when I arrived on set at the cover shoot to do the interview, I accidentally overheard an interaction between Rowan and her mother, as they discussed whether or not she was allowed out that evening.

“You went out last night, and when you do these things without asking me its disrespectful!” I lingered in the corridor not knowing if I should cough and make my presence known before I heard Rowan utter, adorably, “Sorry, Mom.” There was something so wonderfully wholesome feeling about that mother-daughter dynamic that was so unaffected by the fact that just moments before, Rowan was serving the ultimate sass on set to a crew fussing over her hair and makeup, posing like a pro in designer clothes and blasting Beyoncéon a portable speaker. Underneath it all, she’s still just a 16-year-old girl.

"Everything’s just happening so…quickly."

Looming on the horizon is her full independence, and she’s giddy with excitement as she talks to me about her college applications and dream of moving to New York City. Hoping to major in Art History and minor in Gender Studies, Rowan flits from speaking in a matter-of-fact manner about SAT prep to literally squealing, “I’m going to be finishing high school soon! What the fuck?!” Her ultimate goal, she tells me, is to write and direct her own films one day—some clues for her references can be found on her side Instagram account, @prunedroses, filled with stills from all her favorite movies. 

Though as thrilled as Rowan clearly is about her future, and the prospect of creating more of her own art, the magic thing about her and her age is the obvious equal desire to soak up and enjoy everything she feels right now. “I mean…It literally gives me butterflies thinking about everything ahead of me, but I’m, like, at the cusp of it all. That’s why I’m not in a rush to decide exactly what I’m doing next. I am really young, and I really am enjoying how much time I’ve got left.”

She pauses and smiles, before adding, “Everything’s just happening so…quickly.” It sure is.

Credits

Jewelry: Tiffany & Co.

Makeup: Amy Strozzy

Hair: Laurie Heaps

Casting: Jen Jalouse

Production: Joshua Glasgow

Photo Assistant: David Lopez

Stylist Assistants: Tyler Cunningham and Alizée Hénot

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