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How Oakland's Zendaya Became the Most Woke Disney Star Ever

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Photo by Frazer Harrison/ Getty Images

Sunday's Teen Choice Awards were, for the most part, a technicolor explosion of frivolity, inhabited by flawless-looking people and way, way too many surfboards. (When, oh when, will they let that stupid tradition go?) Amidst the beautiful inanity of it all, one voice felt stronger and louder than any other: Zendaya's.

Accepting the award for Choice Summer Movie Actress, the Oakland native pointedly acknowledged the horror of the weekend's events in Charlottesville, using them as a launching pad to encourage young people watching to be more aware and politically active.

“With all the injustice and the hatred and everything that is happening not only in the world, but in our country right now," Zendaya said, "I need all you young people, I need all you guys to be educated, I need you to listen, I need you to pay attention.

“And I need you to go ahead and understand that you have a voice and it is okay to use it when you see something bad happening," the Disney star continued. "You are the leaders, you’re the future leaders of the world, you’re the future presidents, the future senators, and you guys are the ones who are gonna make this world better.”


It's the latest in the relatively short history (well, she is only 20) of Zendaya refusing to suffer fools silently. Her pleas for young people to educate themselves started back in August 2015, when trolls called the singer's parents "ugly." She refused to sit back and take it, as other teenagers might, posting on Twitter:

Just two months later, the actress demonstrated that her outspokenness was not a one-off, after being on the receiving end of some entirely unnecessary Photoshop. Zendaya offered up a side-by-side on Instagram of the before and after pictures, with some stern words about mainstream beauty standards and what they do to women's self esteem.

Four months later, after E!'s Giuliana Rancic made comments about Zendaya's hair on Fashion Police—saying that her dreadlocks "probably smell[ed] like patchouli oil" or "weed"—Zendaya was quick to clap back, via Instagram again:

"To say that an 18-year-old woman with locs must smell of patchouli oil or 'weed' is not only a large stereotype but outrageously offensive," Zendaya wrote. "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."

Rancic was forced to issue an apology.

During the 2016 election, while a lot of pop stars offered up endorsements (Katy Perry, for example, went all out for Hillary Clinton), Zendaya wasn't afraid to openly call BS when she saw it. After Melania Trump gave a speech at the 2016 Republican Convention that was glaringly similar to one Michelle Obama had given eight years before, Zendaya posted:

Zendaya's self-awareness and desire to be a positive female role model for her peers has, in fact, imbued even her Disney roles. On her still-running sitcom, K.C. Undercover, Zendaya plays an assertive math genius who has super spies for parents. The show has tackled sexism on more than one occasion.

Earlier this year, Zendaya revealed that the show was originally supposed to be called Super Awesome Katy, and that she not only had a hand in getting the show renamed to something she considered not "wack," she had some very specific ideas for her character, including the name change from Katy to K.C.

“I wanted to make sure that she wasn’t good at singing or acting or dancing," Zendaya told Vogue. "That she wasn’t artistically inclined. I didn’t want them to all of a sudden be like, ‘Oh, yeah, and then she sings this episode!’ No. She can’t dance; she can’t sing. She can’t do that stuff. There are other things that a girl can be… I want her to be martial arts–trained. I want her to be able to do everything that a guy can do. I want her to be just as smart as everybody else. I want her to be a brainiac. I want her to be able to think on her feet.”

In the same interview, she stated: "A lot of people don’t realize their power. I have so many friends who say yes to everything or feel like they can’t stand up for themselves in a situation. No. You have the power.”

In a world where pop stars so frequently refuse to engage in the political (Lady Gaga being an obvious exception), and aren't always sure how to stand up for themselves, Zendaya is consistently fearless. What's more, she's proving herself to be an important example that millennials aren't the self-obsessed, entitled narcissists that older generations so frequently accuse them of being.

With her much-praised role in July's Spiderman: Homecoming, Zendaya's prominence in pop culture is sure to increase. And while, inevitably, her industry of choice means she now lives in Los Angeles, her ties to the East Bay and how it has influenced the way she interacts with issues of social justice remain obvious.

“Everything sprung out of Oakland from a hard place," she stated in that aforementioned Vogue interview, "and it turned beautiful.”

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