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Zendaya's activism | Photo: Getty Images / Brendon Thorne / Freelancer
Zendaya's activism | Photo: Getty Images / Brendon Thorne / Freelancer
Zendaya's activism | Photo: Getty Images / Brendon Thorne / Freelancer

Talks

Sean Kernan in Mind Cafe

Zendaya’s Activism

read 3 min

It would be almost impossible to imagine a world without Zendaya. She has become a true staple of the industry. Which industry, you might ask? Well, that’s up for debate. She’s the protagonist of one of today’s most popular TV shows, Euphoria. She’s in one of this year’s most anticipated films: Dune. And to top it all off, she was recently crowned the CFDA’s 2021 Fashion Icon. 

Indeed, Zendaya seems to be everywhere at the same time, all the time. And that applies to the realm of activism too. Read on if you want to learn all about Zendaya’s social and political activism. 

Her Beginnings 

Let’s set the scene: the 2015 Oscars. Zendaya had been invited only by chance, for, at the time, her career still revolved around Disney. She wore an off-the-shoulder white dress, nothing too eye-catching but nothing too inconspicuous. 

Then came Fashion Police’s Giuliana Rancic to change the joyful mood. In the fashion commentary show, Rancic expressed that Zendaya’s dreadlocks made her “feel like she smells [ed] like patchouli. Or weed.” And so Zendaya responded with a Tweet, describing  the comment as “ignorant slurs and pure disrespect.” Certainly, Rancic’s remark was embedded in all-too-familiar discourse surrounding black women’s hygiene, as well as their link to drugs. 

Remarkably, the actress standing up to racist microaggressions is precisely what catapulted her into absolute stardom. People admired the way she refused to submit herself to the oppressive hands of Hollywood. Hence she abandoned the Disney box and, in 2017, was invited to the Oscar Ceremony by her own merit. 

What is interesting, however, is that the actress had already been engaging in activism while working with Disney. Back in 2015, she refused to participate in K.C. Undercover if her character did not have a black family. She thus succeeded in expanding black representation in children’s entertainment, which is not only very valuable but also admirable. And she has yet to put a stop to her efforts. 

Honoring, Representing and Supporting 

Big Activism 

One might think of activism as big. Big actions to support big movements. And Zendaya’s actions do fit within that definition. For instance, in 2017, she urged her followers to donate to charity during Christmastime. Her ultimate end? To help end hunger in Los Angeles. Additionally, her fashion line, Daya by Zendaya was all made up of gender-neutral garments. The goal? To send a message to the fashion industry: genderless pieces are profitable. 

Smaller Actions That Create Change 

Nevertheless, one must not forget that, sometimes, local actions can be very significant. And Zendaya excels at that too. She’s known for working with an all-Black team. She even goes out of her way to wear black designers in photoshoots and red carpets. Undoubtedly, it is all an effort to support black businesses, from big to small. This is of extreme importance, especially in an industry that constantly attempts to trump black people’s success. 

The actress is also famous for honoring black personalities in her looks. As an example, she paid homage to Donyale Luna, the first Black supermodel, in her December 2020 shoot for ESSENCE. More recently, she honored Beyoncé in a stunning, purple Versace look. The goal of paying tribute to infamous black people might be to echo their voices and celebrate their fight. 

Calling Out Those Who Deserve It

Other than that, Zendaya isn’t afraid to speak the truth when necessary. In 2015, a magazine photoshopped her body to make it seem thinner. When she found out, the actress did not shy away from sharing the original picture on Instagram. It would be very difficult to assess the tangible impact of her statement. What is undoubtedly, however, is that it opened up a conversation about the harms of digitally retouching images. It showed how big the problem is, especially considering that the singer is known for her slender figure. 

Not An Activist 

This article clearly focuses on Zendaya’s social and political activism. Nonetheless, the actress is not comfortable labelling herself as an activist. After all, activism is a lifestyle. It is dedicating one’s whole life to a certain cause. And Zendaya is an actress, a singer. Activism is not her main occupation, and she knows that. She knows she is contributing, but not as much as actual activists do. 

So, despite all the things she does to work towards a better world, Zendaya is just someone who wants to do the right thing. Hopefully, that describes many of us. Yet what’s really valuable in looking at the actress’ journey is that it provides a model. It’s a model for other celebrities to follow, to understand how they can push for change through their work. And that doesn’t only apply to those immersed in the glitz and glamour. It’s for “normal people” too. We can use whatever small voice we have to fight against what is wrong. Small actions are always a good start. 

Enjoy this article? Check out Kamala Harris’ relationship with fashion diplomacy. 

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