With the recent launch of Freeform’s Grown-ish, the Black-ish spinoff is one of TV’s first attempts to look at college life post-Trump. Gen Z, the youths currently using an app you’ve never heard of and whom millennials will be writing angry thinkpieces about in 10 years, finally head to institutes of higher education this year. If Grown-ish is any indication, they’re being met with some of the progress millennials have had in making campus a more inclusive place, but they’re also dealing with more than a few red caps.
When Grown-ish protagonist Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi, who will be living her own college experience as a freshman at Harvard this year) explains the layout of her new home away from home, she highlights a unisex bathroom (bypassing any exclusive-bathroom-bill nonsense), the “hot spot” where students hang out and dance and the “lame spot” where a handful of students sit at a Build the Wall stand surrounded by American flags.
The next appearance of a campus Republican—a staple of college dramas throughout the years, someone for the overall intensely liberal and passionate student body to argue with—provides another example of how Trump’s election has created upheaval for campus politics. Zoey’s first college friend, Ana Torres (Francia Raisa, of The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Selena Gomez’s kidney-donating bestie), is a devoted Republican with a “secret shame"—a crush on Obama. Even this token GOP teen (who is shown vomiting in a kiddie pool) is pining for the last Dem in office, rather than supporting our current commander in chief.
The show’s strong pilot is framed with the ultimate teen angst throwback: The Breakfast Club. The homage is anything but subtle. Not only does the episode wrap up with Zoey’s voiceover explaining her new group of friends to a school administrator, a la Anthony Michael Hall, the new Grown-ish crew even recreates the film’s iconic poster. But using the ‘80s classic’s structure only highlights how the problems of teens today have evolved (and in some cases, stayed the same).
Rebel Nomi (Emily Arlook) is stressed to come out as bisexual to her parents, not because she fears their flat-out rejection—as a Degrassi character of the mid-2000s might—but because she’s worried how their perception of her would change. This, of course, doesn’t keep her from a clandestine bathroom hookup.
Vivek (Jordan Buhat) is the overachiever trying to live up to his parents’ high expectations. But when he tries to tear down his dad for lacking ambition as a career cab driver, his classmates are having none of it, pointing out all the strength his father needed to raise a family in a new country. Kids these days still think their parents are lame. But kids these days are also aware of the socioeconomic and cultural challenges immigrants face. Also, they like drones, apparently.
Rounding out Zoey’s Breakfast Club is the extremely chilled-out Luca (Luka Sabbat), and Jazlyn and Skyler (Chloe and Halle Bailey), twins hiding their underprivileged roots to become poster girls for collegiate athletics. While youth narratives of the past might have pushed the girls to be true to themselves, Zoey puts their situation into the context of black female athletes who have had all aspects of their personal lives put under an incredibly critical microscope, and instead paints their choice as a savvy one.
The object of Zoey’s affection, Adam, is decked out in so many Black Lives Matter pins, he looks like he could work at a very woke Friday’s. But while cause buttons have, historically, been the number one way to let your fellow students know you care, Adam is actually called out on his fashion activism.
The Breakfast Club ends with the teens rejecting how limiting their labels could be, yet still embracing those identities. Zoey’s letter focuses on the fear she and her classmates have of the new challenges they’ll face, but also fear about the many possibilities still open to them—they don’t yet know who they are or who they could become.
Some of that uncertainty and openness is a result of the form—the end of a movie needs closure, while the end of a pilot needs wide-open spaces for plots to develop. But some of the uncertainty showcases the ability of Gen Z-ers, on their post-Trump campus, to embrace seemingly contradictory identities—to believe you can be a Cuban-American Republican who loves Obama. Or at least, you can if you’re on TV.