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Generation Z: On Zendaya’s New Kind of Cool

The ‘Euphoria’ and ‘Spider-Man’ star is becoming a different kind of superstar, on her own terms

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In the first scene of the first episode of Zendaya’s Disney Channel series K.C. Undercover, the titular teenage spy and her parents are eating dinner at a prim French restaurant when they notice an enemy agent slip out through a backdoor and into a private lounge. K.C.—disguised in fishnets, black lipstick, and a punky wig—leaps up to trail him. “You can’t go in the lounge,” her father stops her, pointing to a sign by the door that reads ADULTS ONLY. “Not a problem,” says K.C., disappearing behind a wall and throwing off her wig. A moment later, she emerges in what can be described as only adult drag: a one-sleeved evening gown, full makeup, deadly serious expression. Zendaya hams it up, brushing her hair out of her face in an exaggerated pantomime of maturity. Says her father, a beat ahead of the canned laugh track, “My little girl’s grown up so fast!”

Across three seasons and 76 episodes, K.C. Undercover was in some sense an excuse for the stylistically chameleonic Zendaya to dress up in a dizzying array of costumes, from the glamorous to wacky to genuinely absurd. In one episode, she was a kickass, Pam Grier–esque agent known as Bad, Bad Cleo Brown; in another, she went undercover in an all-boys’ military school and was unrecognizable as her male alter ego “Guy Mann.” Perhaps most memorably, she and guest star Raven-Symoné dressed up as elderly male janitors, complete with prosthetics and graying facial hair; yes, this is really Zendaya.

But she had some higher aims with K.C. Undercover, too. In 2013, after the success of her first Disney show Shake It Up, a then 16-year-old Zendaya took a meeting with the heads of the channel, who had presented her with a potential new project, a teen-espionage-based comedy, the working title of which was Super Awesome Katy. Before she’d sign on, Zendaya had a few demands. “I was like, ‘The title is whack. That’s gonna change,’” she recounted in a Vogue cover story several years later. She also wanted to change her character’s name to something a little less girly (“Do I look like a Katy to you?” she asked them). Most crucially, though, she wanted her family on the show to be black. “I didn’t feel like there was any other choice,” she later reflected in a Glamour interview. “I was like, ‘If I’m going to do this, this is how it has to be.’ There needs to be a black family on the Disney Channel. A lot of people who aren’t people of color can’t quite understand what it’s like to grow up and not see yourself in mainstream media.”

The Disney executives agreed to her terms, including one that she become a producer on the series. At 16, she became one of the youngest producers in the Disney Channel’s history—neither the first nor the last time she’d make a mockery of the Adults Only room.

Rue, the character that Zendaya plays on the new HBO show Euphoria, is only one year older than the character she played on her Disney Channel series, though the similarities between the two projects end right there. Far from the family-friendly fodder of her K.C. years, Euphoria has been greeted with a near-unprecedented degree of pearl-clutching and parental distress. “Thirty penises in one episode?” asked a now-infamous Hollywood Reporter piece that ran ahead of the pilot, “Zendaya’s new series, filled with graphic nudity, violence, and drug use among young people, is so extreme that one star quit mid-shoot.” To call the show “Zendaya’s series” in this context is a bit unfair (Euphoria was created by the 34-year-old writer-director Sam Levinson, and partially based on his teenage experience with drug addiction and hard partying), but Rue does serve as Euphoria’s de facto narrator, guiding the viewer through a 21st-century Inferno saturated with casual pill popping, hookup apps, and omnipresent internet porn. In Sunday night’s episode, Zendaya narrated both an installment of smutty One Direction fan fiction and a humorous, eye-popping aside about acceptable dick-pic etiquette. “Some people say eyes are the windows to the soul,” Rue said, imitating a teacher’s drone. “I disagree. I think it’s the dick. And how you fucking photograph it.”

Suffice it to say we’re outside the city limits of the Magic Kingdom.

Zendaya spent the first 13 years of her life in Oakland, the daughter of two teachers. When her father was growing up, Black Panther meetings were sometimes held in the basement of his home, since two of his sisters were active members of the party. Her mother taught public school in an impoverished community and, as a second job, was the house manager of the California Shakespeare Company. (The Company’s productions were Zendaya’s earliest exposure to acting; her favorite Shakespearean character, she told Vogue recently with a breezy familiarity, is Viola from Twelfth Night.)

Intense and introverted, Zendaya attended the private school where her dad taught and where she was one of the only black students. In one interview, she recalled how, the first time she straightened her hair, she got incessant compliments. “That made me feel weird,” she said. Observing the stark contrast between the two schools where her parents taught gave Zendaya an early awareness that the idea of the Universal High School Experience depicted in most TV shows and movies is usually a distortion if not an outright lie, and that all sorts of outside factors and larger systemic forces contribute to how one perceives their “wholesome” teen years.

Shy as she was, Zendaya felt comfortable on stage. She began doing some local acting and modeling and, when she was 13, she was scouted by an L.A. talent agent that lead to Disney offering her a role on Shake It Up alongside costar Bella Thorne. But—this being the 21st century and all—the first time that most people over the age of the average Disney Channel viewer heard the name Zendaya was the result of one viral controversy or another. Maybe it was in 2014, when 17-year-old Zendaya’s name was attached to a rumored Aaliyah biopic; Aaliyah’s family objected to the project, and Zendaya later backed out, saying she felt like “production-wise everything just felt a little rushed.” But Zendaya’s first real brush with mainstream attention, unfortunately, came when Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic sparked outrage by suggesting that the 18-year-old actress’s dreadlocked hair at the 2015 Academy Awards smelled of “patchouli oil” and “weed.”

The next day, Zendaya posted to Instagram a lengthy response that seemed wiser than her 18 years. “There is already harsh criticism of African American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair,” she wrote. “My wearing my hair in locs on an Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough. To me locs are a symbol of strength and beauty, almost like a lion’s mane.”

There’s a Zendaya moment I love in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming—actually, I love every all-too-brief moment she’s on screen in Spider-Man: Homecoming—when, during an academic decathlon meeting, Zendaya’s character MJ notices Peter Parker mysteriously sneaking off somewhere yet again. “What are you hiding, Peter?” she asks melodramatically. Then she laughs and abruptly switches her tone to sardonic irony: “I’m-just-kidding-I-don’t-care-bye.”

The characters Zendaya plays aren’t know-it-alls so much as they are just knowing, and something about that quality feels specific to her generation. A Gen-Z Spider-Man has to operate on a meta level because we’ve all seen this movie before, quite literally; Zendaya herself has already lived through three different Spider-Men and two Mary Janes. To be young and digitally native in 2019 is to experience culture as an endless succession of reboots and easily obtainable knowledge. And so she knows on some instinctual level that this is the part of the story where she suspects something is up with Peter Parker, and so she must encase her lines in the particular kind of humor that makes us know that she knows there are no new stories left under the sun. Zendaya is very good at playing these sorts of characters; she exists with a perpetual air of already-having-Googled-it.

But at the same time, there is actually something new about the characters she embodies, MJ in particular. She’s not the stereotypical superhero movie love interest, or even the standard teen-movie female protagonist. She’s the one that used to be relegated to a supporting character rather than the colead; MJ is much more Ally Sheedy than Molly Ringwald. And as opposed to, say, the steamy Spidey-Kiss of the 2002 movie, it’s not even clear yet after Homecoming whether anything romantic is going to happen between Peter and MJ at all. “She’s not Mary Jane Watson, that’s not who the character is,” Spider-Man producer Kevin Feige said of Zendaya’s character. “Clearly, she says she’s not obsessed with him, she’s just observant. But she’s there.” Zendaya’s take on MJ? “She’s always thinking about something, always reading. I like that. And I also like that I don’t really have to do anything for hair and makeup. I just get to walk in and walk out.”

A shrugging androgyny, too, is a significant part of Zendaya’s particular cool. She has both Jaden and Willow Smith energy, except a little more ... grounded. “I was lucky to have parents who let me wear what I wanted to wear and let me shop where I wanted to shop,” she told fellow actress Yara Shahidi two years ago in a Glamour interview. “Nine times out of 10 I was shopping in the boys section. I wore cargo shorts and hoodies. That was my uniform.” Euphoria’s Rue has a similar stylistic sensibility, fashioning, say, a boys’ oversize tie-dye alien T-shirt into a knee-grazing dress. “Not only does Zendaya love fashion but she understands that you can play a role when you get dressed,” the designer Michael Kors said admiringly of her two years ago, after dressing her as a glimmering, bowl-cut robot at the previous year’s Met Gala. The onetime star of K.C. Undercover has grown into perhaps the quintessential Gen Z fashion avatar for how fluidly she can slip between butch and femme, old and new, high-fashion and low-top sneakers. She can be the girl in the Bruno Mars video, yes. But—as the world saw when she played him in drag on Lip Sync Battle, strutting her stuff to “24K Magic”—she can just as easily be the Bruno Mars.

“Here’s the fucking thing that pisses me off about the world,” Rue says in the pilot of Euphoria, as some of the show’s male characters flip through leaked naked photos of one of their female classmates. “Everytime someone’s shit gets leaked, whether it’s J-Law, or Leslie Jones, the whole world’s like, if you don’t want it out there, don’t take the nudes in the first place. I’m sorry. I know your generation relied on flowers and father’s permission, but it’s 2019, and unless you’re Amish, nudes are the currency of love. So stop shaming us. Shame the assholes who create password-protected online directories of naked underage girls.”

Although critics of Euphoria have accused the show of trading on shock value and exaggerating the sexualized nature of the digital era, this monologue took on new meaning several days after the episode aired, when leaked photos of Zendaya’s now-21-year-old former Disney costar Bella Thorne surfaced. The old holier-than-thou arguments were trotted out—“If you’re famous, I don’t care how old you are, you don’t take nude photos of yourself,” Whoopi Goldberg said on The View—and Zendaya came to her friend’s defense with a very Rue-like statement of support. “[Zendaya] called me today to make sure I was OK,” Thorne wrote on Instagram, “we talked a lot about this generation, the one before us as well, and how as women we shouldn’t feel bad about ourselves and our bodies. Slut shaming is one of the biggest topics of this generation but yet we still keep going on somehow.”

Much like the endless iterations of Spider-Man, “Disney star’s fall from grace” is a story we’ve heard way too many times before. Zendaya is ready to once again wrestle control from her elders and update that arc. The night Euphoria premiered, she posted another eloquent note to her Instagram account, which now has more than 57 million followers. “Just a reminder before tonight’s premiere that Euphoria is for mature audiences,” she wrote. “There are scenes that are graphic, hard to watch and can be triggering. Please only watch if you feel like you can handle it. Do what’s best for you. I will still love you and feel your support.”

Her tone is comforting, calm, all-seeing. Classic Zendaya. What’s striking is that she’s worried not about the outraged adults gasping “30 penises?!” but the well-being of viewers who are, presumably, around her age. She respects them enough to let them be responsible for their decisions: Do what’s best for you. She knows they’ve been through a lot, because she has too: She’s dealt with ignorant people twice her age, misrepresenting her in front of the entire world. She’s been treated like a grown-up child and an immature adult, whichever stereotype has been more convenient to the media at a given moment. Such is growing up in this accelerated culture. But Zendaya has emerged as an icon for her generation because she gives off this conspiratorial air, as if being young right now meant being admitted into a covert club, complete with its own jokes, memes, tribulations, and secret handshakes. Sure, at any point she could throw on the right disguise to be admitted into the Adults Only room. But what’s the rush? Is anyone really having that much fun in there?