There’s not a whole lot of question that Zendaya is Hollywood’s Next Big Thing. At just 24, she’s made a huge splash already, with her roles in Euphoria, The Greatest Showman, and Spider-man all being well received.
But it appears Zendaya wants more than just a string of Hollywood blockbusters–and the fame and money that come with them. She wants to be someone that people can look up to, and her roles need to reflect that. Or at the very least, they need to have some depth.
Zendaya turned down a lot of roles last year
In an interview recently with GQ, Zendaya talked about how 2020 really was a great year for her career, despite the rest of the world sort of being on fire – especially within the entertainment industry.
Last year, Zendaya was nominated for, and then won, an Emmy. Not just any Emmy, though. She was the youngest ever to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role in Euphoria, and she is only the second Black actress to ever win it. (Viola Davis also won it in 2015 for her role in How to Get Away With Murder.)
She became the face of Valentino because of her “powerful and fierce” attitude. She got the lead role in a big Netflix romance, Malcolm & Marie, starring just her and John David Washington. (Which, by the way, looks fantastic.)
But she’s not taking just any roles. In her interview, she admitted to turned down a lot of parts last year.
“It’s not necessarily that any of (the scripts) were bad …” she shared. “I just felt like a lot of the roles that I was reading, specifically female roles, were just like, I could have played them all as the same person and it wouldn’t have mattered.”
Zendaya wants her female lead roles to have substance, and purpose, and personality. Is that too much to ask?
“The best way to describe it is just like, they’d usually serve the purpose of helping the male character get to where they need to go, do what they need to do. They don’t really have an arc of their own, and they usually feel very one-dimensional in the sense that there’s not a lot of layers to them, meaning they all seem like the same person over and over again.”
“It would have been fine, but I wouldn’t have grown at all.”
Let’s be honest: this is an issue that has been around Hollywood for a long time. Women aren’t meant to be active participants or have their own journeys in the story.
Instead, the woman is just meant to shuffle along next to the man, being a sounding board, a helpful companion, and most often a lover. But no, she can’t actually influence anything. And I’m not just talking about movies from the 40s and 50s.
Mary Jane Watson, in the Tobey Maguire/Kirsten Dunst version of the comic book movie, was very different from from the role that Zendaya would eventually take on opposite Tom Holland. Mary Jane existed solely for Spider-Man to rescue her. She had very little personality or dimension (c’mon, she fell in love with the guy because they kissed upside down, which isn’t even enjoyable), and she has no character development.
Can you tell me why McGuire’s character loves her, except that she’s pretty and lives next door? Yeah, neither can I – because she had no substance.
Zendaya isn’t asking to be the star of every movie, she’s asking to play a real person, with substance and feelings and drive. It’s… not a lot to ask.
But does this really matter?
Talking to my husband about this interview last night, he posed a question I hadn’t considered: Does it really matter? Could Zendaya, and other women like her, change the face of Hollywood simply by refusing to play one-dimensional characters?
Related: Why Does Hollywood Suck at Diversity
The short answer is probably not, no. I know, I know! You wanted me to say yes, stay positive, tell the world how powerful Zendaya is and how impressed I am with her and reassure you that one actor can make a difference.
But I just… don’t believe it.
Until a lot of Hollywood stands up for better roles, there will always be another actress to take the part. If not Zendaya, there are dozens more talented and beautiful women who have no such qualms.
And honestly? I can’t blame them. To make it big in Hollywood is hard, and so many talented actors and actresses go their whole lives without a big break. It’s easy to say stick to your morals and follow what’s right when you’re such a big star, but as a starving artists, it becomes a lot more difficult.
Will we see a shift in the next five years toward stronger, better female roles? Maybe. We’ll certainly see Zendaya taking the charge in leading them. But for every interesting, well-written female lead, there are going to be a dozen Mary Jane Watsons, who exist only to further the plot.
Depressing, maybe. But true.