ByMoviepilot Staff, writer at Creators.co
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Moviepilot Staff

For the Annual Review we look back at the biggest conversations of 2015 through the lens of entertainment. For our Top 7 list, we profile a group of new, young celebrities who aren’t afraid to speak out on the biggest issues of today and will shape the way we think about these topics in the future.

As so many adults relentlessly remind their children: times, they are a­changin’. One surprising phenomenon where that old adage holds true is in the generation gap between millennials and the so­called Generation Z, a new powerful social group born after December 2000. Society is quick to write off “kids these days,” lumping together these two groups that are actually quite distinct. With their smartphones, selfie culture, and social media savvy, this new generation of teens get pigeonholed as apathetic and narcissistic but research shows that they’ve learned from millennials’ habits and are emerging determined to make a different impact on the world.

Compared to their twenty­something counterparts (not to mention everyone older than that), Gen Z­ers are more pragmatic and independent. Comfortable with going against the grain and shaking things up, they helped drive some of the most pivotal and complicated conversations of 2015. Gen Z has yet to be fully shaped; here we profile the new class of celebrities who are holding the chisels.

As issues of sex and gender move from the periphery into the mainstream, it’s largely Gen Z that’s pushing the conversation forward. Model Lily Rose Depp exemplified this openness in questioning sexuality when she participated in the Self Evident Truths Project. In addition to posing for the campaign against discrimination, she came out as “somewhere on the [LGBTQ] spectrum” and “sexually fluid.” Dad Johnny Depp couldn’t have been more supportive:

“She’s got thousands of followers on social media, and they were all taken completely by surprise. But not me. I already knew because she tells me everything – she’s not afraid to say anything to me.”

This is a substantial shift from the “coming out” narrative of yesteryear, when LGBTQ individuals would often disclose their sexuality to everyone but their parents for fear of disapproval.

Jaden Smith gets a lot of flak for waxing philosophical about everything from quantum physicsto newborn babies, but he deserves some credit for casually disrupting persistent gender norms. After wearing a sleek skirt to his prom (alongside Amandla Stenberg, another tastemaker on our list), Smith set himself apart as a style icon.

This was more than just a fashion statement, this was a characteristic Gen Z proclamation that arbitrary dividing lines between groups (like the idea that only girls should wear dresses) are totally passé. By rejecting the gender binary, Jaden Smith has cemented himself as someone many youth admire, even if many adults continue to scratch their heads.

At this year’s Academy Awards, Zendaya walked the red carpet in a gorgeous champagne dress and her hair styled in faux locs (a temporary hairstyle that resembles dreads). As E!’s Fashion Police discussed her look, Giuliana Rancic commented that she looked like she smelled of “patchouli oil” a.k.a. marijuana. It was immediately clear that this was racially driven, a comment against her locs.

What sets Gen Z­ers apart, though, is their willingness to educate the public and their eloquence when doing so. This was just part of Zendaya’s response, which she posted to Instagram:

“Studies have shown that even though we try to act without prejudice, sometimes it’s just hidden inside us due to our past or surroundings. That hidden prejudice is often influential in our actions. It’s our job to spot these issues within others and ourselves and destroy them before they become hurtful.”

She took a moment that many deemed offensive and ignorant and transformed it into a teaching tool, a promising sign for more discussions on race to come.

With her next film As You Are premiering at Sundance, Amandla Stenberg is well on her way to a fruitful career as an actress. Yet, what got her recognized throughout 2015 weren’t her performance chops, it was her online activism. Stenberg has an astounding ability to take huge, complex, seemingly insurmountable topics (like systemic racism in America) and boil them down so every single one of her social media followers can understand.

Case in point: her breakdown of cultural appropriation, a topic that still baffles people much older than 17­year­old Stenberg. Check out this clear­cut analysis:

“Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in.”

Talk about wise beyond her years.

As the star of Girl Meets World, actress Rowan Blanchard inherited a legacy of nostalgia from die­hard fans of Boy Meets World, but that doesn’t mean she’s content to cling to the past. In fact, at only 14 years old, Blanchard has a cultural awareness and understanding of feminism that eludes people five times her age. She directly confronted the concept of “white feminism,” the tendency for women to leave out people of color in conversations about oppression. Here’s what she wrote on her Tumblr:

“White feminism” forgets all about intersectional feminism. The way a black woman experiences sexism and inequality is different from the way a white woman experiences sexism and inequality. Likewise with trans­women and Hispanic women.”

She went on to cite how wage inequality hurts women of color more than white women and how it’s everyone’s responsibility to be aware of these issues. Blanchard understands ally, something more and more Gen Z­ers find essential.

Though John Boyega may not technically be a member of Generation Z—isn’t it unreal that at 23 years old he’s actually too old for something—he’s about to be a defining figure teaching them to reach for the stars. As one of the new main characters in the most highly anticipated movie of the year Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Boyega received an absurd amount of vitriol for being a black Stormtrooper.

In response, Boyega simply pointed to the future and the fact that space travel (or any opportunity) shouldn’t be reserved for white people.

“I’m in the movie, what are you going to do about it? You either enjoy it or you don’t. I’m not saying get used to the future, but what is already happening.”

Without even knowing it, his words evoke a common Gen Z ideology: progress is happening, and you can either get in the way or help it along.

Gen Z has grown up in a world where YouTube has already disrupted TV, Netflix has permanently altered movies, and Spotify has changed the way we consume music. As a result, some of them have been able to cash in on these cultural and technological shifts, arguably none more successfully than Troye Sivan.

The Australian pop singer gained his following on YouTube, and he’s currently up to a massive three million subscribers. He represents a trend among his generation to not only be a commodity as a singer, but to also be a full­fledged, three­dimensional person. By having direct interaction with his fans, he knows exactly what they want and what keeps them coming back because at one point, the Internet was his reprieve. He came out of the closet in 2013 on his YouTube channel, and since then, his career has exploded.

“I guess it would have been easier if I was from a huge city where [LGBTQ people were] everywhere and I knew there were places to go for people like me. But I ended up turning to the Internet. I was watching videos of Pride parades from across the world. Having that resource made things a lot easier.”

More and more youth are finding their callings online, and Troye Sivan is a testament to just how rewarding that can be.

This article was originally posted in Moviepilot Magazine – Annual Review where we look back at the biggest conversations of 2015 through the lens of entertainment.

Words Tommy DePaoli · Illustrations Fulvio Obregón Fulaleo

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