Groundbreaking Gen Z BIPOC Actresses

The film industry has required progress since its beginning, especially when it comes to its inclusion– or lack thereof. Even though this milestone of goal is still in the process of being reached, we can thank Rita Moreno, Cicely Tyson, Yalitza Aparicio, and so many other women who have opened the floodgates for BIPOC actresses to showcase their talents on the big screen. Generation Z has been making strides towards continuing to break that glass ceiling – actresses like Sofia Wylie, Madison Reyes, Avantika Vandanapu, Josie Totah, and so many more are proof of that. 

High School Musical, the 2008 film starring Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron, bears major feelings of nostalgia for millenials and Gen Z alike.  Between the dancing, singing, and the wardrobe, High School Musical 2 went on to become the highest watched DCOM with 17.2 million viewers. Since its debut in 2006, Disney+, The Walt Disney Company’s subscription streaming service, has adopted the High School Musical franchise in a series that follows students at the school where the original movies are set.  High School Musical: The Musical: The Series creates a universe in which the HSM franchise exists, and students who attend the school are set to perform High School Musical for their winter showcase. The main cast includes talented Gen Z actress, Sofia Wylie. She plays Gina Porter, a headstrong actress/dancer who will stop at nothing to get her way. Wiley  was recently signed by IMG Models, who are also home to Gigi Hadid and Amanda Gorman. At only 17, she has gone on to star in groundbreaking shows, and she has a huge future ahead of her.

Sofia Wylie was first featured on the Disney Channel in 2017 when she portrayed Buffy Driscoll on Andi Mack, which is about an Asian-American girl who finds out that her “sister” is actually  her mother. Andi Mack has groundbreaking episodes that explore Judaism, Asian culture, and is even home to Disney Channel’s first openly LGBTQ+ character. Since the show’s end in 2019, Sofia Wylie’s career has expanded.

Acting, dancing, and singing have helped her grow as a person, but also as a creative artist. She wrote the song “Side by Side” for an animated Marvel series called Marvel Rising: Her Ghost. While she is a singer, she has also gained momentum from her dancing, even starring in a dancing Disney Channel show called Shook. Sofia has posted numerous Tik Tok videos of her choreography to Gen Z songs. She also displays her dancing capabilities on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Her character Gina is raised by a single mother who works for F.E.M.A., which requires her to move often. She tries to be the best that she can be, often causing her to come off as stand-offish. Throughout the first season, she grows from being very reserved and competitive, to opening up to her peers. Season two is set to come out soon on Disney+. Sofia Wylie returns as Gina, and Gen Z is buzzing with the trailers Disney+ has recently put out.

At 16, Madison Reyes, a Puerto Rican actress/singer, embodies Generation Z through her performance in the hit Netflix series, Julie and The Phantoms. The show centers around a band of ghosts who come back to life, but are only visible through the eyes of Julie Molina, a rising musician who recently lost her mother who supported her singing career. The band encourages Julie to perform again, and they soon realize that they become visible to the public,only when singing with Julie. Madison Reyes plays Julie, who receives help from her best friend, Flynn–played by Jadah Marie–and the resurrected boy band to pursue music. Madison Reyes shows the audience her Spanish heritage, and how proud she is to be who she is. Whether it’s through fashion or singing, Madison makes Julie the star of the show.

While Reyes undoubtedly harbors a phenomenal set of talents, showing off her dazzling vocals and multi-layered acting skills on JATP, her expertise  doesn’t stop there: she’s also extremely well-rounded in the instrument department! In an interview with Collider she stated, “Around the time that I learned about Julie and the Phantoms, I was learning how to play piano. I had played violin before but I only messed around on a keyboard. I had this keyboard for years and I never touched it that much, so I was learning.” Her musician skills are very apparent on the show as well. She even wrote the song, “She Used to be Mine,” as she first heard about the show. 

Avantika Vandanapu is bringing her Indian background to some very big stages. Avantika is a sixteen-year-old actress whose most recognizable role is in the Disney+ Original series, Diary of A Future President. The show is about Elena Cañero-Reed, who dreams of doing big things–, and little does she know, she becomes president in the future. Avantika plays a classmate and girlfriend of Elena’s brother, Monyca. She has also been named the first Indian main character in a Disney Junior animated show. In Mira, The Royal Detective, Avantika voices Mira, a princess detective from India. Avantika  voiced in an Instagram post, “For the first time in history, an animated series is made inspired by the heritage and culture of India.” She often speaks about her heritage and awareness of Indian culture on her Instagram.

She has shown her culture beautifully, both on-screen and off-screen, by sharing about it on social media. Her most recent project is a new Disney Channel Original Movie called Spin, which stars Kerri Medders and Anna Cathcart. In this, Avantika plays Rhea Kumar, a girl who lives with her multigenerational family. After her mother passes away, she becomes the rock for her father and is mainly focused on her coding club, her family restaurant, and her friends. Soon, she falls for a DJ and learns she has an untapped talent for music production. Spin is set to release in the Summer of 2021.

Saved By The Bell was a teen show that most members of Gen X resonate with. First airing in 1989, the show was a hit. It brought a lot of today’s biggest celebrities to pop culture, such as Tiffani Thiesen, Marc Lopez, and others. Since then, Peacock, a new streaming service from NBC, has created a spinoff using the same name, bringing back a lot of past stars and references while still having a Gen Z flare. Josie Totah is one of the many actresses on the show who bring that Gen Z influence to the table. She plays a cheerleader named Lexi who is full of ambition and a fashionista. Not only is she an actress on the show, but she also serves as a producer on Saved By The Bell.  Josie Totah has worked on many projects such as Jessie, No Good Nick, Spiderman: Homecoming, and many others. She has used her platform at a very young age to spread awareness about the LGBTQ+ community, as she came out as transgender in 2018. She also uses her platform to share her Lebanese and Palestinian heritage.

When talking about the producing aspect of being on Saved By The Bell, Josie mentioned in an interview with Today, “It was an incredible experience and being able to have a seat at the table really allows me to tell the most authentic story possible,” … “People are really going to see the benefits with that.” The reboot is a huge success and is widely viewed by both Gen Z and Gen X. In the wake of so many reboots from the ’80s and ’90s such as Cobra Kai and Fuller House, Saved By The Bell provides a space where multiple generations can connect and relate to one another through past and new references. Josie Totah is just getting started when it comes to her groundbreaking career.

Some honorable mentions of BIPOC Gen Z actresses to look out for are Marsai Martin, who is an actress, and an executive producer. She also set a Guinness World Record for being Hollywood’s youngest executive producer, which was for her film, Little. Trinitee Stokes, who was on K.C. Undercover, is also on the rise. Since her Disney days, she has gone on to star in Mixed-ish, a spinoff of Black-ish that explores Rainbow Johnson’s upbringing. Jenna Ortega who was also a Disney star has since grown to be on Netflix’s captivating mystery series  You, and a Netflix horror movie called The Babysitter: Killer Queen. Her most recent project is a remake of SCREAM. Lana Condor, who stars in all the To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before films is also making headlines; she is set to be an executive producer and star in a new comedy Netflix Series. 

These young women have shown the power and determination that comes with being a BIPOC Gen Z actress. They are making huge moves by becoming models, becoming producers, and starring in Netflix/Disney+ hits. Most importantly, they are bringing their heritage and background to the big screen and are paving the way for the next generation of girls who look like them to go after their dreams. They are teaching the future generations that you have a seat at the big table, only if you’re willing to work for it, and do it whole-heartedly.


Sources:

“Get Ready to Spin with New Disney Channel Original Movie-Plus More in News Briefs.” D23, 25 Aug. 2020, d23.com/get-ready-to-spin-with-new-disney-channel-original-movie-plus-more-in-news-briefs/. 

Sullivan, Corinne. “She Wrote the Song ‘Side by Side’ For Marvel Rising Herself.” POPSUGAR Celebrity, 4 May 2019, http://www.popsugar.com/celebrity/photo-gallery/46069586/embed/46069589/p. 

TodayShow. “How ‘Saved by the Bell’ Star Josie Totah Is Redefining the High School Mean Girl.” TODAY.com, 25 Nov. 2020, www.today.com/popculture/meet-saved-bell-reboot-star-producer-josie-totah-t201027.


Kiana Maria

Kiana Maria is a 16 year old poet and activist who loves to share stories. Kiana is a part of her school’s Slam Poetry club. She has been writing ever since she was seven. Along with writing poetry for Zenerations, she writes for Gen Z Writes. She started a new teen podcast with Imanie Jeter called Teens Meet World. She hopes to become a lawyer to take on injustice within the court system. She is determined to make the world a better place in any way she can.

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