This week, Grown-ish premiered on Freeform to big fanfare. Everyone is loving it. I’m loving it.
My inner queer squealed when Zoey was completely chill with her bisexual friend Nomi. I was thrilled to see bisexual visibility on the show, and hope there will be more queer visibility overall—not just for jokes or sensational provocation, but to highlight part of the wide human spectrum young people (should) encounter on a college campus.
And then there’s über-adorable Luca, whose #BlackBoyJoy gender-nonconforming style makes me hope that he’s actually Zoey’s future love interest, rather than junior Hotep Aaron. (It doesn’t hurt that I can’t help imagining the writers spending several hours watching Jaden Smith’s “Watch Me” video to get Luca’s styling just right.)
Refreshingly, Zoey’s chill in Grown-ish feels like a great evolution from the one-dimensional mini-millennial she portrayed in early seasons of Black-ish. Back in those initial seasons, Zoey seemed not only extremely self-absorbed but also not the brightest bulb in the box. She’s changed so much that now, when her parents make jokes about being surprised she got into college, it sounds like lazy writing. This Zoey was definitely going to college; she’s the embodiment of #BlackGirlMagic.
The excitement for this new spinoff reminded me of when I was a young closeted lesbian, sitting in front of the TV absorbed with A Different World. When it premiered in September 1987, I was a sophomore in high school (I know, I’m dating myself royally). At the time, I wanted to be Denise Huxtable and attend an HBCU. As the series progressed, all I wanted was for Jaleesa to be my big sister, Freddie to be my homey and Whitley to be my sorority sister, and to eventually fall in love with and wife up Kimberly Reese.
The exploits that happened on the hallowed Hillman campus pushed my friends and me to believe that college was not just a thing we were going to do; it was a thing we had to do. We had to do it for the culture. For us—and in many ways because of the show—we knew that young black people went to college, and they were successful, smart and ambitious. They were everything I (and we) needed them to be at the time. They were mirrors reflecting black excellence. Those of us who grew up in that era sometimes even chose our colleges based on A Different World, and understandably share a nostalgia about the show because it pushed boundaries we hadn’t seen before on television.
So when I heard that actress Yara Shahidi was starring in a Black-ish spinoff, I instinctively hoped that Grown-ish would be A Different World 2.0. And in many ways, Grown-ish is its spiritual successor; it’s a spinoff from a popular black sitcom that focuses on the hip, stylish, too-cool-for-high-school daughter and her foray into college—minus the HBCU (which is not an insignificant detail).
Of course, like any good black Gen Xer, I spent a month or so binging on ADW as a primer for Grown-ish, and I can say with few exceptions, it still holds up. The most poignant episodes, like “No Means No” (addressing date rape), “A World Alike” (about divestment from the South African apartheid state), “If I Should Die Before I Wake” (on HIV/AIDS), “Ms. Understanding” (our first glimpse of Hotep Nation) and “Cat’s In the Cradle” (the infamous racism episode) still feel especially fresh.
The fact is, for a certain demographic of black folks, ADW is canon. I think to pre-emptively compare it to Grown-ish understandably draws ire. In a list of the most influential black shows, it reliably lands in the top 10, if not top 3. And though I agree with the writer of the controversial article in The Undefeated that by today’s standards, ADW feels “safe,” it wasn’t safe in its day. We have to remember—and respect—that ADW was a show that deeply influenced a generation of black Xers (myself included), and that’s just real.
But the bigger reality is that we also can’t hold Grown-ish to the standard ADW set for us as Gen Xers—the first two episodes alone are a wake-up call that times have certainly changed. Honestly, we’d be much better off comparing Grown-ish to the Netflix series Dear White People—another show about millennial black folks in a predominantly white college—than ADW. We don’t even watch television the same way we did in the ’80s and ’90s; undeniably, millennials and their younger sibs, Generation Edge, have been regularly exposed to topics that felt edgy to us when we first experienced them on ADW.
It’s also not fair to compare Zoey Johnson to Denise Huxtable, any more than Black-ish really compares to The Cosby Show (outside of the upwardly mobile black family of seven). Yes, Zoey is beautiful and fashion-forward and witty—all the things we want our black girls to be—but we are also watching her fall for a booty-call text as she pops another Adderall. I think it’s safe to assume that her life won’t be tied up in a neat 26-minute bow. The ADW generation are adults now, and as adults, the way we are watching this show will be different.
Even the way Zoey’s #BlackGirlMagic shows up is much different from our ADW faves. While it’s tempting to compare her and her counterparts to the women on ADW, for me and many of my friends, those women embodied #BlackGirlMagic before we possessed that language.
I loved Jaleesa’s strength and fortitude, Kim’s mind and beauty, Whitley’s confidence and pride and Freddie’s youth and “wokeness.” Everything about those women made me think about what it meant to be a black woman. Even as a young lesbian who didn’t necessarily see herself reflected in the show’s completely heteronormative narrative, I knew that if I had half of what these women had, I could make it.
What I do find myself hoping is that Zoey will give young black women a mirror for what #BlackGirlJoy may look like. Zoey, thanks to her upwardly mobile but racially obsessed father and her sometimes racially confused mother (I personally hated the tragic mulatto flavor of the episode “Being Bow-racial”), has so far spent a life less intensely focused on her blackness—she’s been able to just grow up and live life. She is confident and, in her own way, quirky and naive. Zoey embodies an important quality that we want our young black women to have: an openness to the possibility of wonder.
And though we should be careful about how we frame our admiration for celebrities, Yara Shahidi herself is a young black woman to admire. She speaks regularly on political issues and is invested in her academic career. She also embodies the #BlackGirlJoy we want for our young black women; we encourage them to be politically savvy, emotionally intelligent, and invested in themselves and their people.
A Different World will always resonate for those of us who grew up with it. I think that’s why we hope Grown-ish and its young star Yara Shahidi will do the same for our younger cousins, siblings and children. They deserve to have the same thrill and the same hope we had when we watched our faves struggle, live, argue, pledge and find love at Hillman.