I first discovered Rachel Zegler (“West Side Story”) when I was 13 years old. She had just posted a YouTube video singing “Apex Predator” from the “Mean Girls” musical, and as an obsessive Broadway nerd, I had to check it out. I knew I had found my new favorite channel, and I constantly checked for updates on her Broadway covers and the occasional Lady Gaga song, completely falling in love with the teenager’s powerhouse of a voice. When I found out in 2019 that this 17-year-old, barely-known YouTuber would be playing Steven Spielberg’s next leading lady in “West Side Story,” I couldn’t wait to see how Zegler’s bright future career progressed.
A few years later, it’s safe to say things aren’t looking as bright for her as they could be. With huge projects behind her (“West Side Story,” “Shazam! Fury of the Gods”) and equally huge ones ahead (“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” “Snow White”), it’s not unemployment affecting Zegler at the moment, but negative public opinion, especially relating to her unjustified backlash for “Snow White.” I’m here to tell you just how ridiculous all of this is.
For those unfamiliar, it all started with a few viral videos of Zegler representing the upcoming live-action “Snow White” at Disney’s D23 convention last year. During a brief interview, Zegler explains Disney’s “modern” take on the classic story, explaining that it isn’t “1937 anymore” and that Snow White won’t be waiting around for a “guy who literally stalks her.” These comments faced incredible backlash from internet users who claim that changing an iconic character to be tougher and less romantic in the name of feminism is an anti-feminist act in itself, citing the live-action “Cinderella’s” mantra “have courage and be kind” as a better example of soft female empowerment.
At their core, these negative comments critiquing Zegler’s statements highlight the importance of female empowerment via individualism and choice; a female character who is outspoken, strong and romantically independent can be just as empowered as a character who has more stereotypically feminine traits and a stronger interest in romantic love, as long as both women have the freedom to make those choices for themselves. The internet felt that Disney’s attempted feminist revamp was working against itself, as it refused Snow White the ability to find strength in her softer qualities and stripped her of the right to be an empowered female character through her kindness and empathy. In terms of ideology, I really do agree with the internet here. But critiquing the movie’s misguided premise quickly became unjustified bullying and villainization of an innocent actress, and that’s something I can’t get behind.
After the D23 clips went viral, a video of Zegler explaining her childhood fear of the original “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” movie and a video began circulating of the actress standing on the SAG picket line discussing why she deserves to be paid for every online screening hour of the film, and the online commentary quickly became more and more cutthroat, criticizing Zegler’s “entitled” and “smug” attitude, and labeling her as “annoying, rude, and disrespectful.”
As one of the largest media conglomerates in the world with a massive reputation to uphold, Disney wouldn’t be caught dead releasing its employees out into the world without media training. Chances are, Zegler was brought into a meeting for this exact purpose. Chances are, she sat with Disney’s executives, lawyers and publicists as they walked her through the exact message they wanted to convey with the film. Chances are, Disney wanted to push the most “feminist” ideology they could in the hopes of appealing to a modern audience and told Zegler exactly what she needed to say to get this point across. Chances are, almost everything that came out of Zegler’s mouth during these interviews was spoon-fed to her by Disney’s higher-ups. By pushing this previously agreed-upon agenda, Zegler has done her job as a Disney employee. But the internet has taken this opportunity to shoot the messenger hundreds of thousands of times.
You have every right to disagree with the movie’s pseudo-feminist ideology. I sure do. But you have a problem with Disney. You have a problem with executives, writers and directors. You have a problem with the people in the suits desperately grasping for money and deflating an iconic story in the name of selling more tickets. You do not have a problem with the 22-year-old scapegoat trying to promote her movie, trying not to seem too unlikeable, to appease her bosses and to say the right things, to look good for the red carpet and to be as perfect as possible, because we all know there’s no forgiveness for women who do or say the “wrong” thing.
One of the few videos on this topic that I have actually agreed with highlighted a contrast to Robert Pattinson’s interviews for the “Twilight” franchise, in which he made it abundantly clear that he found the entire premise of the story ridiculous. And the world found him all the more charming for it. He was funny; he was down-to-earth. But he somehow managed to dodge the nicknames “diva” and “bitch.”
Zegler has never once stated a hatred for “Snow White,” despite what the headlines will tell you. The entire world is breathing down her neck, waiting for her to slip up. Just like Olivia Rodrigo, just like Taylor Swift, just like Millie Bobby Brown — young, impressionable women who could only be liked for so long before the world decided it was time to villainize them for doing nothing wrong.
And with the significance of social media today, a famous person can only be so perfect. If the 1950s were the rise of the celebrity, Zegler became famous at the worst possible time — what seems to be the beginning of the end, as we slowly wrap our heads around the idea that our idols and our heroes are flawed. And when they do the smallest thing that rubs us the wrong way, our worlds are so shattered that we have to let them know how disappointed we are and how much we hate them, and we have the power to do this instantly. Zegler is just one of the latest celebrities to fall victim to this dangerous trend.
Dozens of people from all different sections of Disney likely helped craft the exact phrases that left Zegler’s mouth the day the internet decided she was insufferable. At the end of the day, she’s an employee whose job is to sing, act, dance and promote her art in accordance with her employer’s vision. And whether internet users like it or not, that is exactly what she has done.
My advice to the internet? Next time you start to type some evil comment about someone’s “entitled attitude,” consider whether you’re making an informed decision or just villainizing a woman and making her a scapegoat for your feelings toward a massive media conglomerate. Just a thought.
Daily Arts Writer Olivia Tarling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction 11/15: The year the author found out Zegler would be in “West Side Story” was changed to the correct year.