Grown-ish is known in the pop-culture zeitgeist for making leaps and bounds when it comes to inclusivity on-screen.
Since the dawn of television, Black families are typically underrepresented in the primetime landscape. Black-ish, the mothershow from which Grown-ish was born, is a series that brought a Black American family to the forefront of screens inside every home in 2014.
Mixed-ish, Grown-ish’s spin-off sibling, was considered the plotline’s prequel, following matriarch Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) through her journey in 80's America, growing up with a white mother and Black father. Grown-ish itself, starring Yara Shahidi as Ross’ on-screen daughter, doesn’t shy away from topics such as race but also what it’s like to be a young woman in college during the 2020s — navigating adulthood, sexuality, and even gender identity.
At the forefront of that conversation is Warren Egypt Franklin. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Warren stepped into the acting world after graduating from Baldwin Wallace University. He started as an actor in the theatre world, appearing in the Phillip Tour’s rendition of Hamilton as Jefferson and Lafayette, then assuming film and television roles, eventually portraying Des during the most recent season of Grown-ish.
Des made primetime strides as the first genderfluid character on the show, a fellow Cal U student who runs track alongside Chloe Bailey’s character, Jazz, and her on-screen (and off-screen!) sister, Halle Bailey. When it came to determining who Des was, Warren (who identifies personally as gay with he/him pronouns) dove into research, utilizing the LGBTQAI+ community around him.
“I talked with a lot of my friends who identify as non-binary and figured out their mindset and how they live and how they go through the world and work because I wanted to make sure this wasn't a caricature of a queer person. Des was just more genderfluid and pansexual. He doesn’t use they/them pronouns. He uses he/him. That was a great conversation.”
Warren finds through lines between his character and real life. One of the show's main storylines involves Des navigating gender identity while in an athletic environment.
“I was an athlete when I was younger, so I definitely understand the pressures of having to keep up the masculine, ‘macho,’ ‘varsity elite’ image. But I also did theater and also sang and danced. Some of my friends who I play sports with were like, ‘Why do you do that?’ I definitely had to code-switch for my friends when I was younger and try to appease other people.”
(Code-switching is when a person of a minority grouping such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender identity changes the way they act, speak, or present themselves in order to fit into the group they’re addressing.)
The conversation revolving around the gender identity of athletes has never been more prevalent than ever. As one of the track stars of the show, Des’ character navigates being masculine-presenting while still having their own different identity.
“There are so many queer athletes and queer people that you encounter every day. Some people are more feminine and fluid in their movement and how they are and what they express to the world. Some people are more masculine or more hidden, but I don't think you can classify what a queer person is and box them.
I got to really go in and put some layers onto him and see what it means to be an athlete who is masculine-presenting, but who doesn't identify as that.”
“This is the perfect and first TV example of how you can't box or identify a queer person.”
The Grown-ish writers worked closely with GLAAD to ensure they approached Des' characterization with respect.
“I think they realized that this is someone who isn’t just genderfluid. And if we had to box them [in], they are pansexual if anything. They just like people. People can like people. You can still identify as he/him or she/her and love them, he, or her. That doesn't matter. I think with conversations within the writing team, the producers, and GLAAD, they decided that he wasn't non-binary. They had honestly been developing the character for a really, really long time.”
On-screen, Des has a romantic story arc with Chloe Bailey's character, Jazz — a cisgender woman.
“I don't think Jazz is thrown by what Des identifies as sexually. He was a friend from that first episode. It's more so about his fashion choices, and I think that that's so interesting because you have a lot of women who say, ‘I don't care what my guy is, I just want him to be honest. I just want him to be himself and bring himself to the table.’ When you ask that, you then receive, and often the reaction is ‘Not like that, though.’ Is it what society and societal norms have told you that this isn’t what it should be?”
Warren also spoke on how being a Black man and the stereotypes that society unjustly places on them has affected his own personal identity. “When it comes to Black males, we are not a monolith. There are so many different complicated sides of us. It's important for shows like this to show and express the other different sides of Black men.
Des’ personal identity as a Black, genderfluid, queer person on the show differentiates him from the typical portrayals of genderfluid people on television.
“I think that we are getting to a place in media where, thankfully, film and television are realizing that white people aren't the only people. There are also many other Black men other than the ‘Black hypermasculine’ man. There are many other Black women than the ‘angry Black woman.’ Those two Black people have been pushed upon TV mediums the most, especially in a predominantly white cast.”
“It's important to see someone who looks like you. But it's also important to see someone who feels and empathizes like you as well. I'm glad that it's changing, we have so much more work to do, but it is changing."
When it comes to Des’ greater message, Warren says, “It always pays off to just be yourself. Always be yourself. It may seem like you're pleasing everyone and like you're doing the right thing by trying to change yourself for someone else. But, if someone really loves you, they should want you to be 100% authentically yourself. Being yourself will always have you win in the end.”
Grown-ish is returning for its fifth season with a to-be-announced premiere date. Thank you to Warren for speaking with us!
Interview has been edited for length and clarity. Reporting by Nicole Baylock.