Grown-ish - Season 1
“Nomi stands out on Grown-ish as one of the most well-rounded bisexual characters on TV to date.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Kenya Barris 👨🏾🇺🇸 and Larry Wilmore 👨🏾🇺🇸
Writers: Kenya Barris 👨🏾🇺🇸 (13 eps), Larry Wilmore 👨🏾🇺🇸 (13 eps), Doug Hall 👨🏾🇺🇸 (8 eps), Jenifer Rice-Genzuk 👩🏽🇺🇸 (3 eps), Hale Rothstein 👨🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), and various (8 ♀ and 8 ♂)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Grown-ish is a socially conscious spin-off from Black-ish, where overlapping character Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) enters college and is forced to steer the tumultuous waters of college parties, "study drugs", female friendships, and young love. Her first-person confessionals to the camera feel wonderfully conspiratorial, engaging audiences with her fashionable and social-media-savvy life.
On the flipside, the episodes vary in quality and lacks the kind of hook that makes you want to binge the show all at once. Perhaps it’s due to the neatly wrapped stories, none of which leave cheap cliffhangers, but for whatever reason Grown-ish was something I casually consumed sans urgency. I only just finished the season finale, two months after it had already aired. In short, it’s a solid show, but nothing to write home about. (And the eBay product placement is REALLY not subtle.)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Women are the stars of Grown-ish, presented through a core group of friends who dominate the screen and much of the narrative focus. I considered dinging the score for just how much their lives revolve around boys—perhaps a side effect of having a majority male writer’s room?—but ultimately, the sheer visual weight of seeing women interact with each other, and with a variety of personalities, was enough to land this show a full category score.
Like Black-ish, which focuses on Zoey’s family of the Johnsons, Grown-ish is centered from a mixed-race black perspective. The racial diversity is strong, with the following characters making up the core group of girls:
- Zoey is a biracial black and white character played by Yara Shahidi, who is mixed-race of black, Choctaw, and Iranian descent.
- Ana is a Cuban character played by Francia Raisa, who is of Mexican and Honduran descent.
- Nomi is played by Emily Arlook, who is white and Jewish like her character.
- Sisters Jazlyn and Skylar are played by Chloe and Halle Bailey, who are black like their characters.
Zoey’s love interests are all men of color—Aaron (Trevor Jackson) and Cash (Da'Vinchi) are black while Luca (Luka Sabbatt) is biracial black and white.
Unfortunately, as much as I want to give this show a 5/5 on Race, two things need improvement. First, the show perpetuates colorism by casting exclusively light-skinned women—an issue already covered in depth by Wanna’s World. Second, Asians are significantly underrepresented. It doesn’t help the show's case when its predecessor suffered from similar issues, indicating a continuing blind spot that has yet to be addressed.
The setting of Zoey's escapades takes place at “Cal U,” which is supposed to be a California state school at least partially inspired by the University of Southern California (USC). Yet Asians are missing—something deeply unrealistic that we'll cover below. I wouldn’t have a problem if the show kept its core cast intact and only showed Asian characters in background shots, because this narrative is the writers’ to tell. But the wholesale deletion of a population from its real-world setting is hardly inclusive.
A quick glance at USC’s student population from Fall 2016 reveals what a real California campus looks like:
Compare this to the actors of Grown-ish (cast list pulled from IMDB):
The three Asian actors are Mona Sishodia and Mueen Jahan Ahmad, who are Indian, and Peter Adrian Sudarso of Indonesian descent. Each character receives just one scene, and I can’t even remember seeing Sudarso's so it may have been fleeting.
To be fair, we do see one significant character who is meant to be Indian American: Vivek. But he is played by Jordan Buhat who is mixed-race of indeterminate ethnicity, and prominent Indian actors have wondered whether or not he was cast authentically. Besides, while Vivek does receive an interesting storyline early on, he’s quickly relegated to a minor role for the rest of the season.
“Yo,” you might say, “Cal U is fictional. Chill.” But in the California State University system, of which Cal U is meant to belong, Asian Americans alone (not even counting international students) made up more than 1 of 10 students in 2015. So where are they?
At the end of the day, I’m only nicking this category score a quarter of a point. The fact of having a group of main characters who are primarily non-white goes a long way, especially when their identities are part of the plot instead of being culturally blank, as we see in shows like Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency or much of the CW’s oeuvre which features characters of color but whose ethnicities are seldom (if ever) spoken of.
To truly be a leader on racial diversity, Grown-ish needs to find a way to champion its diverse voices without erasing other swathes of the population. It’s just jarring to watch for anyone with a working knowledge of California campus life.
Nomi stands out on Grown-ish as one of the most well-rounded bisexual characters on TV to date. As Into puts it, “Oh Cool! ‘Grown-ish’ Gave Us a Bisexual Character Who Doesn’t Suck!”
Episode after episode, Nomi touches on LGBTQ issues in a way that feels completely natural to the story and to her character. For example, in “Big Dave” (Season 1, Episode 4), Nomi starts to date a guy who eventually mentions that he is bi. Their story arc reveals the double standard for bisexuality, as Nomi breaks up with him in the following episode, admitting, “I can’t help but feel it’s different for guys and girls.” She comes to a disappointing realization about her own prejudices in a way that still manages to incite sympathy, or at least understanding, from viewers.
This expert handling runs all the way through the season. In “Crew Love” (Season 1, Episode 12), Ana gets drunk at a party and tries to kiss Nomi. Nomi immediately responds, “No no no, I’m not some experiment Ana. This is my life.” While this could have come off sounding like a public service announcement, the context surrounding the incident ensures its resonance. Moreover, the writing never punishes Ana for her clumsy actions, thus allowing her—and by proxy, the audience—the opportunity to learn from her mistake instead of simply being shamed for it.
I do want to mention that Nomi does fall into the stereotype of being a promiscuous bisexual. She is consistently shown with different partners and her personality is hyper-focused on sex, feeding into the stereotype of what TVTropes.com calls the Depraved Bisexual. That said, Nomi is such a complex character that this aspect of her personality is humanized, rather than her only defining trait.
Bonus for Religion: +0.25
Not only is Nomi one of the few candidly bisexual characters on TV, she is also Jewish. While religion never turns into one of her broader storylines, the way it comes up in dialogue feels incredibly realistic. This may be due to the actor’s own Jewish background, as Arlook explains to Alma:
“I grew up pretty Conservative when I was younger...and then after my bat mitzvah, it kind of fell by the wayside, like a lot of people, that tends to happen. But I’m still very, very connected in my culture.”
For example, in “Back & Forth” (Season 1, Episode 13) Ana extols the virtue of being choosy about sexual partners, saying, “You know what they say, under 7 straight to heaven.” Nomi cheekily replies, “Jokes on you, Jews don’t believe in heaven.” These kinds of casual asides crop up naturally, lending an extra layer to Nomi’s character without ever feeling forced.
Deduction for Disability: -0.25
Considering that almost 1 out of 5 Americans have a mental or a physical disability, Grown-ish is noticeably devoid of either, even in minor or background roles. They do cover mental health in “Un-Break My Heart” (Season 1, Episode 7), as Zoey becomes depressed after getting dumped by Cash. But by having her sadness be purely circumstantial, and over a boy to boot, the discussion around mental health is overshadowed by the sense that Zoey is just being a teenager.
This trivializing of disability can be more overtly seen in “Crew Love” (Season 1, Episode 12), when Zoey states, “I need to be more smooth, like Champagne Papi and less like Wheelchair Jimmy,” accompanied by these images onscreen:
While this joke isn’t meant to be mean-spirited, the fact remains that writers seem to be oblivious to the disabled community.
Mediaversity Grade: A 4.75/5
Grown-ish prides itself on inclusion, and rightfully so when it comes to LGBTQ issues where it truly breaks barriers. However, it has a blind spot when it comes to extending that inclusion to other marginalized groups. All told, Grown-ish succeeds in its primary focus: tackling social issues, especially those that pertain to college-age kids. It isn't perfect, but the show fills a gap in the TV landscape by sharing the perspective of a young woman of color.