Disney stars break away from former roles

September 6, 2019 — by Anna Novoselov

Back in the early 2010s, Zendaya danced in colorful, girly outfits along with co-star Bella Thorne on the hit Disney Channel show “Shake it Up.” Now she stars as Rue Bennett, a depressed 17-year-old recovering drug addict, in the new TV show “Euphoria,” which grapples mature themes such as anxiety, addiction and desolation. 

After branching away from Disney Channel, Zendaya, like several other former Disney actors, took up more controversial roles and began to establish her own identity. While many praise the stars for exploring their independence, others criticize them for not maintaining an innocent semblance for younger fans. 

In Zendaya’s case, she took up the lead role in HBO’s “Euphoria” because she wanted to explore a more serious and mature role. After coming home from rehab, Rue intentionally falls back into old habits by seeking out alcohol and hard drugs; also, she frequently undergoes depressive episodes, experiences anxiety and explores her sexuality. 

Before the show premiered, the now 23-year-old Zendaya warned on Instagram that the show is intended for mature audiences.

“It’s a raw and honest portrait of addiction, anxiety and the difficulties of navigating life today,” she wrote in the caption to one of her posts. “There are scenes that are graphic, hard to watch and can be triggering. Please only watch if you feel you can handle it.”

While many people praise the show for its sincerity and exposition of difficult topics, others criticize its explicit and controversial scenes and reprimand Zendaya for portraying content not suitable for younger fans.

Conversely, senior Lillian Wang said that controversial shows are important to watch in order to understand the reality some people experience. Even though “Euphoria” is too intense for Zendaya’s younger fans, these viewers can watch it when they become more mature.

Wang said that while the role of Rue isn’t an admirable role model, Zendaya herself sets a good example by promoting body positivity, feminism and accountability for one’s actions, and should not be criticized so much. 

The actress frequently advocates for African American rights and representation, and  she encourages her fans to stand up for what they believe in, catalyzing individualism and diversity. Despite not having to follow Disney’s guidelines, she remains inspirational and positive while exploring her newfound freedom.

Much like Zendaya, other former Disney stars have also  pursued edgier roles, abandoning the innocence imposed by Disney in order to craft their own identities.

Despite acting in the same show, Zendaya’s former co-star, Bella Thorne took a much different path after leaving Disney. 

The film “Him and Her,” which 21-year-old Thorne directs and stars in, will be released on PornHub this fall. It is X-rated (a rating reserved for very explicit content) and will feature sexually graphic scenes.

According to Digital Spy, Thorne originally planned to produce a Christmas horror movie, but turned to porn when her idea failed. 

Now, many people condemn Thorne for being “trashy” and for posting skimpy photos while praising Zendaya for remaining authentic and real. Wang said that Thorne is using her freedom to create the wrong kind of impact.

“Some [former Disney actors] will try to do good things and use their celeb platform to create change,” Wang said, “while some other Disney channel stars will take the other path and rebel and go against everything Disney believes in.”

Actor and singer Miley Cyrus’s days of dancing around in sparkly outfits and a blonde wig on the hit Disney show “Hannah Montana” are also long behind her. Two years after leaving the show, she shot a music video featuring herself swinging around on a wrecking ball and licking a sledgehammer for her song “Wrecking Ball,” appalling countless people. She further solidified her new image through suggestive lyrics, skimpy clothing and provocative dancing.  

“I’m not a Disney mascot. I’m a person," Cyrus said in a 2019 interview with Elle, in which she discusses the challenges she faced while discovering her identity.

Two other former Disney stars — Selena Gomez, who starred in “Wizards of Waverly Place” and “Princess Protection Program,”  and Vanessa Hudgens, who played Gabriella Montez in “High School Musical” — received widespread criticism due to their roles in “Spring Breakers.” The R-rated film was released in 2012 and features violence, nudity, drugs and sexual content. 

Parents may scorn the former Disney Stars for failing to remain the innocent role models they had previously been, but perhaps the real culprit is Disney itself. To protect its image and satisfy its fanbase, the studio forces strict rules onto its stars and threatens to fire them if they disobey.

According to Screenrant, actors working for Disney have to refrain from any activities that may tarnish their reputation in order to remain “perfect” role models for children. They are told how to talk, how to respond to tricky interview questions and what to wear. The stars even have to take classes that teach how to deal with scandals and maintain respectable images.

Senior Nicole Wong said that while it’s necessary for Disney to maintain its positive reputation, the overbearing restrictions it imposes can be damaging to the actors’ careers and mental health.

“I don’t think Disney should have a say in what their actors do,” she said, “but at the same time, it is their brand.” 

Former “Sonny with a Chance” and “Camp Rock” star Demi Lovato even cited Disney as being partly responsible for her mental health issues including depression, drug abuse and bulimia. She said the studio bullied her to control her weight and appear ideal — unneeded pressure that, along with the harsh reality of the spotlight, broke her completely.

Lovato came clean about her addiction and her struggles with her image in “Simply Complicated,” a documentary she co-produced. In it, she discusses how the expectations thrust on her forced her to hide her unstable mental condition while trying to project a perfect image to the press.

"All of a sudden she had to be this role model, and I don't think she was ready for that," said Lovato’s manager Phil McIntyre. "She was living two lives.”

Being forced to project a spotless image while dealing with the challenges of adolescence can explain the trend of Disney actors exploring their identities after breaking away from the confines of their old roles. The former Disney stars are young adults seeking to discover themselves and grow as artists, not puppets that can be controlled to satisfy audiences. 

“They’re not a part of Disney anymore,” Wong said. They’re growing up. They should be able to do what they want and portray what they want.”