How Zendaya quietly forced us to take her seriously

The former Disney Channel star made history as the youngest person to win an Emmy for best lead actress in a drama

Zendaya’s win marks an important milestone in her career.
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This September, Zendaya became the youngest person to win the Emmy for best lead actress in a drama for her performance in HBO’s Euphoria. The 24-year-old’s win was a major upset, with many wondering how someone fresh off of Disney Channel managed to beat out the heavily acclaimed actresses she was up against.

Zendaya started her career on Disney Channel when she was just 13 on a show called Shake It Up. Unlike Euphoria, the program wasn’t exactly Emmy-worthy.

When Shake It Up premiered on Disney Channel in 2010, even my 10-year-old self immediately felt the show was too juvenile for my taste. It starred Zendaya Coleman and Bella Thorne as Rocky and CeCe, two young teens who became background dancers on a local TV show. Shake It Up was corny and over-the-top—I made fun of the characters and actors more than I sympathized with them.

After Shake It Up, Zendaya spent her early adult years on another Disney Channel show, K.C. Undercover, as a teen math genius turned undercover spy. The show aired from 2015 to 2018, roping 18-year-old Zendaya into another three years on the channel.

But Zendaya wasn’t about spend those three years letting her career stay stagnant. She was a producer on the show, and even had a hand in writing an episode. While staring in K.C. Undercover, Zendaya made her feature film debut in Spiderman: Homecoming in 2017.

In the same year, she also starred in the hit musical blockbuster The Greatest Showman. When she parted ways with Disney Channel in 2018, it was unclear what her next move would be.

Other former Disney Channel stars have taken ‘scandalous’ paths to distance themselves from their work in children’s television. There are many reasons young women feel the need to go down this route: Miley Cyrus wanted to express a sense of freedom; Selena Gomez felt a need to be seen as an adult. For young women growing up in Hollywood, one wrong move can be catastrophic to a blossoming career. While Shake It Up co-star Bella Thorne has inspired a slew of public and industry backlash since her departure from Disney, Zendaya has managed to come out unscathed.

Of course, there are some things that set Zendaya apart from other child stars. It’s impossible to deny she’s an immensely talented actress. Her Emmy win for Euphoria wasn’t unprecedented—it was thoroughly well-deserved.

Zendaya’s performance as Rue, a teenage drug addict trying to make it through high school, was the glue that held Euphoria’s first season together. In some of her previous projects, Zendaya’s talent was overshadowed by cheesy dialogue and shabby sequences. Euphoria brought that talent to the fore.

Although not all of the storyline involves Rue, she narrates every part of the story, carefully explaining her messed-up teenage world to the audience. The performance put forward by Zendaya feels honest and raw. In a show famous for over-the-top visuals and plots that would make any parent squirm, Rue keeps Euphoria grounded. As Rue suffers through both depressive and manic episodes, no moment feels too mundane or over the top. Zendaya’s incredible performance keeps Rue from feeling like a caricature.

Episode seven of Euphoria, “The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to Pee While Depressed,” differentiates Zendaya’s performance from her previous roles. Throughout the episode, Rue struggles to get from her bed to the toilet after days of holding in her pee due to a depressive episode. Even with barely any interaction between Rue and other characters, her scenes in these moments feel intense. The trip from the bedroom to the bathroom shows us more of an emotional journey than all three seasons of Shake It Up combined. Zendaya’s performance as Rue is miles ahead of anything we’ve seen from her before, and it only makes the audience hungry to see her in more serious and dramatic roles.

The show itself was a risk, for both the network and its star. HBO faced major backlash for Euphoria’s graphic depictions of teenage sex and drug use, and though the show was presented as one for mature audiences, many worried casting a former Disney Channel star in such a provocative role was sending the wrong message.

Zendaya has gone from playing an undercover spy and a teenage superhero love interest to hard drugs and sex, and she could’ve been punished for that move. By taking on the role of Rue, Zendaya separated herself from her past: nobody was going to look at her as K.C. from K.C. Undercover anymore. Fortunately, Euphoria has proved not to be a mistake for the actress, but an important leap in what we can expect to be a long and varied career.

When Zendaya made history with her Emmy win, she was competing against seasoned veterans of the industry like Jennifer Aniston, Sandra Oh, and Olivia Colman. While her beginnings on Shake It Up may seem underwhelming, Zendaya has spent the last 10 years constantly improving and reaching for bigger and better things—she’s officially graduated from “child star” status.

Whether it be dancing, assisting Spiderman, or recovering from drug addiction, Zendaya’s performances have rightfully established her as a respected professional in her industry. Zendaya is a lot more than just a former Disney star, she’s a Hollywood mogul in the making. I, for one, am excited to tune in to wherever she takes us next.

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