I finally saw The Greatest Showman on Super Bowl Sunday with my mother because we couldn’t convince the rest of our family to leave the house (we’d been waiting to see the movie as a family) and because we assumed (correctly) that the majority of the rest of the world would be too busy with the football game to go to the movies. As soon as the movie started, I instantly wished I’d bit the bullet and gone to see it by myself. I could tell from the beginning, as tears started gathering in the corners of my eyes, that this was going to be one of those movies that would impact me on a totally personal level. That feeling never left. I can honestly say I cried through most of it. I still can’t believe a film that was clearly just made for me made such an impact on the rest of the world as well. And that was all before I met Zendaya’s character.
I’ve seen Zendaya act in a variety of projects since she made her Disney Channel debut in 2010. She has always been black, but never once have I watched something of hers that so clearly acknowledged it. Now, of course there may be a project or episode of one of her shows that I missed where they did touch on it, but isn’t that the point? Most of her projects kind of shoved aside her race, as if hoping we wouldn’t notice. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love when black people play roles that could just as well be white or any race. That’s not the issue I have. The issue I have is that the color of Zendaya’s skin became this thing that no one was allowed to talk about. At least until Zendaya said it herself. And don’t worry about any of the whispers about her light-skinned black privileged. She’s spoken about that too.
I knew walking into The Greatest Showman that Zendaya and Zac Efron’s characters were love interests. I thought that was the coolest thing from a fan standpoint but as soon as I realized they were allowing Zendaya’s character to be black, I realized Zac falling for her was actually going to be an even bigger deal than I thought. They weren’t going to ignore the fact that a totally hot totally white guy was falling for the totally gorgeous definitely black girl. Watching them together on-screen reminded me of why Zac has always been a celebrity crush of mine. It’s not just those piercing blue eyes, that swoon-worthy smolder, that chiseled jawline or those high cheekbones that could carve diamonds. It’s the fact that the first time I saw him onscreen, he was falling for a brown girl. The next time I saw him onscreen, he was falling for a fat girl and dating that brown girl in real life. I don’t know how intentional it has been on Zac’s part, but seeing the cliche heartthrob falling for someone other than the petite blond girl told young teenage me that I had a chance. That my choices weren’t limited. That there was a chance the Zac Efron’s of the world might just think I was beautiful.
I didn’t think I needed that validation anymore. I’m a grown woman, for crying out loud. But when I sat in the theater, tears streaming down my face during “Rewrite the Stars,” I realized it was a message my heart hadn’t received in a while. It wasn’t the High School Musical effect where we all were told to pretend Gabriella was white (essentially). During The Greatest Showman, we were told that it was okay to acknowledge that Zendaya was black because she was acknowledging it and so was Zac. When they finally got together, it was coupled with the full acknowledgement of the risk they were taking, the way the public would perceive them. It was full of so much truth. Zendaya’s fears and concerns and trepidations resonated with me. The fear of being a fetish or a phase. The deep-seated belief that he may flirt with you but would never make you his girlfriend. The fantasy of seeing yourself with him but always having to bring yourself back to earth by remembering who he is and who you are. The color of your skin, the disparity between economic backgrounds, the fact that he grew up with a silver spoon and you had to fight to be a part of the circus. It hit me with this sucker punch of “I’m not alone and finally people aren’t afraid to talk about it.”
Were the stakes higher because of the time period of the film? Sure. I highly doubt anyone would refer to me as “the help” to my face in 2018 and I would hope my boyfriend’s parents wouldn’t disown him for choosing to hold my hand in public. But that feeling of not being good enough for someone like Zac Efron because of the color of my skin, the way I look, how much money my parents make, is still so real. It’s the reason I still appreciate that Gossip Girl’s Nate Archibald dated Vanessa and Chuck Bass had a serious relationship with Raina Thorpe. It may not make a difference for most of you and some of you amazing women of color may not need interracial relationships represented on-screen to feel that option if valid for you, but for this black woman, I still need a reminder sometimes that the right guy will love me for me… Even if he has Zac Efron level cheekbones and piercing blue eyes.