Zendaya posing for Time Magazine

Zendaya, Social Media and Celebrity Culture


Zendaya is an incredible performer. She is an award-winning actress, starring in the critically acclaimed Euphoria, the Oscar-nominated The Greatest Showman and the science fiction blockbuster Dune. She is also a talented singer with a studio album and several Billboard Chart successes on her résumé.

Widely regarded for her charisma and style, Zendaya tried to launch a clothing line and has featured on the cover of some of the most popular fashion and culture magazines. She is also an ambassador for various high-profile brands, such as the French fashion house Louis Vuitton and the luxury cosmetics and perfumes company Lancôme.

We are going to focus on how this influential celebrity used her social media accounts to build her own brand and reflect the political interests of her young target audience. This analysis will include important aspects of representation and the entertainment industry.

Zendaya and Social Media

Social media is an effective mechanism for celebrities to manage and control their public image. They can choose which photographs and videos to share, and post messages that convey their personal values and interests. It is great way to develop a relationship with fans because the representations will seem authentic and resonate with the audience.

Zendaya posted glimpses into her personal life and shows her commitment to social justice, but most of her content is focused on promoting her film projects and partnerships with other brands. With tens of millions of followers across various social media platforms, Zendaya quickly became a fashion icon.

The Actress

Zendaya shared trailers and teasers for her film work to generate publicity and excitement for the productions. She posted this dramatic production still from Dune to Instagram and racked up over 5 million likes.

production still from Dune
Dune (2021)

Zendaya plays Chani – a strong and independent character who uses her combat skills to survive the harsh desert environment of Arrakis. She soon becomes an important figure in the resistance against the planet’s oppressive rulers. You can see that fearless determination in her facial expression and the fact her hand is gripping her weapon ready to attack. Her direct address communicates she is in control of her narrative.

This representation is typical of the unwavering confidence Zendaya encodes in her social media output. It will also encourage users to watch the epic story in the cinema and see her in action.

The following video was a quick promotional piece for The Greatest Showman:

The YouTube video helps pitch the lavish musical to a younger target audience, but it also celebrates Zendaya’s acting and impressive acrobatic talents. By positioning the audience to admire her hard work and professionalism, Zendaya is boosting her star power and shaping her public identity. It is worth mentioning the single “Rewrite the Stars” went on to become a multi-platinum success in the American and UK markets.

This third example is a tweet Zendaya posted to encourage her followers on Twitter to watch the latest episode of Euphoria which was being broadcast that evening on HBO.

Zendaya in a Twitter Post

Twitter is popular with its users because it spotlights breaking news and trending topics. Zendaya is taking advantage of the real-time updates to make the programme seem like a “live” event her audience cannot afford to miss.

It is clear from the level of engagement with each of these posts that social media is an invaluable marketing strategy to raise the visibility of film and television productions.

The Model

Zendaya is a brilliant entertainer who has a strong reputation for her sense of style and glamour. Importantly, her warmth, openness, and energy appeal to a large audience. The creative director of Valentino, Pierpaolo Piccioli, described her as “a powerful and fierce young woman that uses her talent and her work to express herself, her values and her generation”.

It is no surprise many fashion brands are eager to leverage Zendaya’s compelling narrative and global fanbase to promote their products. For instance, Valentino wanted to “resignify the brand” and use her star power to appeal to a younger demographic asserting their identity through clothing and cool accessories.

Zendaya became the face of Valentino in 2021. She brings more attention to the brand, but her profile, credibility and bank balance are also enhanced by the partnership. They both benefit from the transaction. The company were probably delighted by the 7.5 million likes she received on Instagram for this post in August 2022:

Zendaya posing for a luxury brand campaign
Zendaya and Valentino Collaboration

Launching the “pink” campaign, Piccioli said Zendaya was a “beautiful” soul who was able to use her “voice and talent to unify, integrate, build”. The collaboration works because of their shared values and interests: “awareness, inclusion, empathy and contemporary romanticism”.

She often works with companies that focus on sustainability, social justice, and inclusivity. For instance, her first collection with Tommy Hilfiger was inspired by female empowerment. Or the campaign for Lancôme perfume which was also “a rallying cry to empower women everywhere”.

The film was “a metaphor for the epic, yet intimate journey towards the future every woman lives”. Again, the representation in the television advertisement aligned with Zendaya’s own ideology. She is taking control of her life in the same way she is talking control of the horse. The message is inspirational: be your own idol.

The Advocate

Feminist discourse has always addressed the imbalance of power between the traditional gender roles. We have already seen Zendaya’s determination to construct representations through her acting and modelling work which inspire and empower women to take control of their future and have their voices heard. She is very articulate when discussing her views on equality. In an interview with The Female Lead, she said “a feminist is someone who believes in the power of a woman the same way they believe in the power of anyone else”.

The Female Lead is an educational charity which is dedicated to making women’s stories more visible. Although this particular tweet was posted on their channel, they used the hashtag #zendaya to increase its reach and make it easier for her audience to discover the interview. It is worth noting celebrities can use other institutions to help raise their profiles.

Zendaya also positions herself as an intersectional feminist seeking ways to address issues that affect women from all backgrounds regardless of their ethnicity, class, and sexuality. When she was featured as the cover star of Cosmopolitan’s July 2016 issue, she told the publication “It’s hard as a young person of a different ethnicity or background to look at the TV and not see anyone who looks like you. Representation is very important.”

This Facebook post generated over 70,000 reactions in 2019:

Zendaya giving a speech
Facebook Post

Zendaya was attending an event created by the American telecommunications company (AT&T) which was running a program highlighting influential black leaders who were making significant differences in their communities and “inspiring others to reach for greater possibility”.

Many companies are taking affirmative action to demonstrate their commitment to social justice. You might already be aware of Sephora’s Black Beauty is Beauty campaign and their ambition to dedicate “at least 15% of their shelf pace to Black-owned brands”. Your analysis of The Voice Newspaper should focus on its celebration of black entrepreneurs, creators, and political leaders.

You should also explore the other causes Zendaya has championed in recent years, including her links with GLSEN, an organisation promoting a safer experience for LGBTQ students in schools, and her criticism of the unrealistic beauty standards in the entertainment industry. She has been open about her own struggles with body image and has encouraged her fans to embrace their unique qualities and strengths. In a radio interview in 2016, Zendaya said: “Openly loving and accepting ourselves allows others to really see us”.

Authentic Connections

By responding to comments, sharing fan art, or even hosting live Q&A sessions, opinion leaders can show followers that they value and appreciate their support. The interactions create a sense of loyalty among fans and the algorithms behind the social media platforms will display the posts to even more users because they take account of these engagement signals.

Zendaya also satisfies her followers desire to see her authentic side. This Instagram post shows the actress on the set of Spiderman: No Way Home:

Zendaya posing on set
Zendaya on Instagram

There is a wonderful sense of defiance and confidence in the pose. If gender is performative, the 6 million likes and 16,000 comments suggest a lot of young people are learning a new script.

Zendaya’s Website

What is the point of a static website when social media platforms offer users the chance to connect and collaborate with other people in real-time? You can network with people who share your interests and values. You can build effective relationships with others in your industry. And you can stay informed about the world and whatever is trending.

This question is particularly important if you assume Zendaya’s target audience spend their time scrolling through their social media feeds rather than searching for content online. This could explain why her site in early 2023 was limited to one page.

screenshot from Zendaya's official website

Her website was divided into four sections: the striking banner at the top, a list of film and television credits, appearances in the press, and some biographical information. There ws also an opportunity to sign up for news at the bottom of the page.

The page was mobile-friendly with a responsive layout and simplified navigation that worked well on smaller screens. Users could easily scroll down to find what they were looking for and click the external links for more detailed information.

The domain zendaya.com was first registered in 2009 when Zendaya was thirteen years old and getting work as a fashion model. The version of website in the screenshot above was built using Squarespace. You will not be surprised to learn Zendaya partnered with this content management system in 2022. The following commercial was broadcast during the Super Bowl and uploaded to TikTok and YouTube. It is a great advertisement and really worth watching.

Media Industries

David Hesmondhalgh emphasised the importance of social and economic structures on cultural production. Companies involved in the media industry are mostly driven by profit and satisfying shareholders, so we cannot ignore the interplay between money and Zendaya’s social media output.

Think about the number of international brands and non-profit organisations working with her. These companies hope her star power will generate desire for their products and services. Sophisticated marketing teams monitor the level of engagement on the different channels, measuring the success of the campaigns in terms of conversions, sales, and other key performance indicators.

bell hooks argued we need to be “enlightened witnesses” to the representations we see in the media. The next time you look at one Zendaya’s posts or flick through content tagged with #zendaya, evaluate to what extent culture is being commodified. Are you actually looking at an advertisement rather than an authentic glimpse into her life?

Social Media and Money

There is no doubt celebrity is an effective line of appeal in marketing. According to the two-step flow theory of communication, opinion leaders are trusted and valued as experts by their opinion followers. That is why companies like to use celebrities to help spread their messages to the consumers in their digital social networks. Put simply, brands want to exploit Zendaya’s ability to connect with Gen Z and millennials.

But how do the social media platforms make money?

The vast majority of their income is generated through advertising. In 2020, Facebook earned over $113 billion from advertising revenues. Instagram’s revenue per user averages around $312, giving the parent company Meta another $39 billion in 2022. Both of these platforms have also integrated e-commerce features that allow users to buy and sell products. They take a commission from each transaction.

Some social media platforms, such as Twitter, offer premium subscription services that provide additional features or benefits to users for a fee. A blue tick will now help increase the visibility of your tweets.

More controversially, Meta collects your data, including demographics and behaviour, to sell to third-party companies who use this information to create more targeted advertising, develop new products and services, or swing election campaigns. That is why many regulators around the world are concerned about privacy and transparency.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube all want more active users so they can collect even more revenue from advertisers. They also want someone like Zendaya on their platforms to encourage yet another generation of users to log in and start scrolling. You can download and install their apps for free because you are the product.

Media Effects and the Audience

Media Effects theories attempt to explain how content can influence the audience and society as a whole. For example, George Gerbner investigated the impact of television on the viewer’s attitudes and beliefs. Known as the cultivation theory, he argued heavy users of television were more likely to view the world as hostile and violent because they saw those representations on the screen. Albert Bandura also showed viewers would imitate behaviour they observed on television through a process he called symbolic modelling.

If Zendaya is a role model, then we need to critically assess her effect on her followers. Can she really influence the way they dress, the products they use, the opinions they express, or the causes they support? She clearly believes social media can be a positive force for change and her commercial partners must have evidence to suggest she is able to raise their profile.

We should also consider to what extent Zendaya’s posts and tweets satisfy the needs of the audience. The uses and gratifications theory suggests we use the media to help construct our personal identity. Perhaps her followers are motivated to engage with her empowering messages because they want to emulate that success and confidence in their own lives. Some users might be inspired by her fashion sense and buy the products.

Audiences will interpret the messages according to their own framework of knowledge. Zendaya wants to inspire the audience, so the preferred reading is linked to personal identity.

How many times a day do you flick through your socials? You might be motivated by surveillance, a desire to stay informed about the world, or you are just looking for a quick diversion from your media studies homework. However, the constant need to check notifications and stay connected can lead to feelings of anxiety and even addiction.

Some critics are also concerned the representations we see online are unrealistic. In an oppositional reading of her output, we might appreciate Zendaya’s desire to empower her followers, but we cannot ignore the fact her messages could be damaging, especially to vulnerable users who are inappropriately comparing their own appearance and achievements to the star’s lifestyle.

End of Audience

In the traditional model of media consumption, audiences simply read the newspapers and watched television programmes produced by the large media outlets. Moving from the broadcast to broadband, social media has enabled audiences to be active participants and engage directly with the content creators. Clay Shirky argued this shift in consumption challenges the old power structures and offers new opportunities for individuals to shape the world.

We have already analysed the different ways Zendaya uses social media platforms to start conversations with her followers. But we have also seen how many of these posts are partnerships with luxury brands and promotional pieces for her acting work. Despite the huge increase in user-generated content and the mass amateurisation of production, the media conglomerates and global enterprises can still exercise their power through these social networks to reach their target audience.

Essay Questions

  1. “Social media posts are semiotic processes.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  2. Media texts often challenge the dominant ideology in which they are created. Explore this idea in relation to Zendaya’s social media output.
  3. Analyse how Zendaya uses the codes and conventions of social media to engage her audience.
  4. Judith Butler described gender as a “stylized repetition of acts”. How useful is this argument in explaining Zendaya’s representation on social media?
  5. To what extent do advertisers attempt to attract a global audience through their collaborations with celebrities?
  6. “Social media sites need to be regulated because they are nothing more than marketing platforms”. Explore this statement in relation to Zendaya’s online presence.
  7. To what extent does Zendaya’s social media presence support the view media representations can help audiences construct their identity?
  8. How useful is Henry Jenkins’ theory of fandom in explaining the audience’s engagement with Zendaya on social media?
  9. The Social Learning Theory argues the media can have a gradual but significant impact on the audience. How valid do you find the claims made by this media effects theory?

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!