Yara Shahidi on getting her own Barbie, inspiring civic engagement and feeling represented in the media (Exclusive)

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Having her own Barbie? Check!

Yara Shahidi has already put together an impressive resumé both on and off the screen, and at 19 years old, the “Grown-ish” star added another moment to her long list of accomplishments when she was included in Barbie’s latest unveiling, a line of dolls representing 20 women across multiple countries, races, ages and shapes, all breaking boundaries across industries.

The line is part of the brand’s 60th anniversary celebration as it continues to celebrate diversity and inclusion, while also making sure to put its money where its mouth is: For every doll sold, Barbie will donate one dollar to its Dream Gap Project Fund, which strives to level the playing field between girls and boys.

Barbie couldn’t have asked for a more deserving and inspiring face to represent its brand: In addition to continuously proving her acting chops weekly on “Black-ish” and “Grown-ish” for years, Shahidi has also become one of the most outspoken and active actresses in the industry when it comes to working on social issues and encouraging her peers to inspire civic engagement.

AOL caught up with Yara Shahidi to talk about getting a Barbie made in her likeness, the importance of representation in toys and the media for young girls, and which issues she feels deserve the spotlight in 2019. Check out our conversation below:

You have your own Barbie now, which definitely would be a bucket list moment for a lot of people. How does it feel? There’s a lot of meaning behind there being Barbies that look like you and the rest of the diverse women that are part of the brand’s 60th anniversary celebration.

What’s really exciting is the ability to contribute to inspiring [others]. The purpose of the doll isn’t to be like, “Oh, my gosh! Look at how excellent I am!” But to make this idea of being whatever you want to be possible. This entire collection is about setting these norms. When you look at the fact that there are 20 women, and they represent a fraction of what we’re doing … it’s a fantastic, beautiful fraction, and each doll represents that this is within the realm of possibility. It has been achieved before and can be achieved again.

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This is the 60th anniversary of Barbie and truly does represent a big step forward in terms of inclusion and diversity. Talk to me about the importance of the idea that girls can begin to see themselves in the toys they play with.

Toys set a subliminal message of who is belonging, who is to be celebrated and so to be able to move into the 60th decade with the idea of inclusion being important, but also more than that to have the other aspects of Mattel really supporting the vision of supporting young girls is very cool. Not only do they have the Barbies, but they also have the research and the funds that they’re investing in helping girls reach their fullest potential and what social barriers prevent us from dreaming as big as we want. That is what makes it doubly impressive: It’s more than just the dolls themselves, but it’s also about the research that they’re doing to make continuous strides.

Going off that, Barbie is donating one dollar from every doll sold to the Dream Gap Project Fund, which is dedicated to leveling the playing field for girls. It’s a mission that feels very much in line with what you stand for as a public figure.

It does. It’s about the idea of being purpose-driven. It’s very important to work in collaboration with corporations who have made that a mission statement, rather than treating it as a trend or something that is cool commercially. This is an investment.

Did you feel the so-called “dream gap” growing up? Or did you always feel as though the sky was the limit?

I had the great good fortune to be surrounded by women who continue to push barriers, so I very much grew up with the idea of, “Of course it’s possible, because I have a family member doing it.” In that way, I’m extremely grateful, because I definitely came with a different base reality than most of my peers, because … I didn’t watch a lot of TV and did a lot of reading, so a lot of what was around me were people who looked like me and people who didn’t look like me all doing extraordinary things. So, it really wasn’t until I hit that elementary, middle school moment where I realized that that wasn’t everyone’s reality.

The amount of career paths that I wanted to have that were genuine considerations… I wanted to be part of the C.I.A. until I realized I told too many people and blew my cover [Laughs]. I wanted to be a historian, and still kind of do. I wanted to be a professional jet ski rider — the person who rides on the back. I continue to want to be a thought leader. Just looking at the couple of careers that I seriously considered just represents the idea that I firmly believe, “Of course I can do that.” A lot of what I try to do, then, philanthropically and in terms of social engagement work, is to try to spread the privilege that I had in my growing up to establish new base realities: How do I give people the same foundation that I was so grateful to have? So many times, not only do you not have that space at home, but there’s this idea that limits on your possibility are reinforced in academic and social environments.

You started Yara’s Club seemingly to combat just that by providing a digital space to allow young people to feel safe. That’s where a lot of young people’s first interactions and community building is happening now. Talk to me about the importance of those spaces for the next generation.

When you think about social media, what I love most about the digital space is that it’s created a sense of globalism engrained in the way we maneuver. Because we can interact with people around the world, you can’t pretend not to care. You’re hearing international stories. We now have methods of receiving information around all the things that we usually don’t hear about. I think that’s inherently made us feel like we believe we have a global community. With that, we get to hear so much more about the incredible stories that shape who we are. We have to begin to care about the layers of identity as they affect us and really think about the fact that identity and equity aren’t linear things and that every person is dealing with their own amalgam of barriers. It’s important to find ways in which we can advocate for everyone and keep in mind the fact that people have different struggles that we can’t account for. A large part of the digital space is allowing people to reclaim their own narrative, rather than being dependent on somebody with a larger platform to share or commodity or alter their story. Their are plenty of people where that’s not the intention who are doing incredible work, but now the idea is that we can amplify the original message and allow people to have control over their own narratives.

Do you remember when you truly felt represented in media? You said that didn’t watch a lot of TV, but maybe there was a book that you latched onto while growing up?

My family collected different versions of Cinderella. So we had the Iranian Cinderella, the African Cinderella, the Korean Cinderella storybooks and a couple other ones. Oh, and the Egyptian Cinderella, so basically I had two African Cinderellas. I remember that making an impact on me, because Cinderella is one of those universal stories, but oftentimes it’s not made with that view in mind. It’s usually more aspirational rather than attainable — and even this idea of what is considered aspirational is really jaded. Having that definitely made a large impact and having those books readily available was incredible.

In ninth grade, it was pivotal when I was introduced to Zora Neale Hurston and Sandra Cisneros. We were at an all-girls Catholic school, and our first issue was on August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” and the second one was on Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Mind you, my entire class had to write about it, which normalized the idea that these stories matter and require our attention. So many times, these fall under special fields of study. It was also where I was introduced to James Baldwin.

What’s something in 2019 that you’re specifically focused on in terms of a social issue or something that you think deserves more of a spotlight?

Looking at Eighteen x 18, it was very focused on voter registration and voter education, and the one thing in going through that process and learning about those topics, I realized how interconnected everything is. It may sound vague, but I feel like we’re moving into an idea this year that there is no off-season, in terms of political engagement. So many times, and rightfully so — I understand why people come to this conclusion — people think that you vote on election day and then that’s it. It stops. Even Election Day is skewed, because it’s not something that everyone can participate in, since it’s not mandatory to get it off [from work]. The idea that’s been really important to me is, how do you make civic engagement an everyday activity? How do you expand what you know and do something small or large on a daily basis? For me, that’s been a fun activity to try to figure out for myself and then figure out messaging for it for my peers. 

What’s a little thing you tell people that they can be doing every day to help fulfill that need?

Just looking at the organizations that are in your neighborhood. There are so many organizations doing incredible work on a local scale. Just go to a meeting or understand your knowledge of something. Many times we don’t understand how we participate in certain systems, because it’s so insidious and you have no awareness of how it’s working against you, because you haven’t been told. Of course there’s no awareness, because that’s intentional. Things like that are really important, as are self-education and mentorship. I wouldn’t be anywhere without women guiding me.

You’ve obviously gotten a reputation of being socially engaged outside of your acting, and I’m curious how that affects your acting and informs what roles you take. Do you ever feel pressure to not take things that are lighter and disconnected from that part of your identity?

First and foremost, I definitely have the privilege of being specific with what I choose. Having that familial support network, there’s never been a moment where I felt, like, “I need that next job!” I just have to recognize that that has definitely made a difference for me. And I think that there are two things: One, not taking things that are socially detrimental that are actively negating a movement, and really looking at the impact of a role. But it’s also important to play roles that aren’t Yara, because that would be redundant. I intentionally do that work that I do as Yara to be able to play characters that are different from me. A real marker for film progress is when every identity group gets their Holden Caulfield from “The Catcher in the Rye,” where we can spend an entire book or movie watching them doing practically nothing, because it makes an investment — I’m interested enough in your wellbeing to watch you basically not do anything.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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