Poor Rachel Zegler. The West Side Story actress has found herself as the new face of a nasty tradition among women in celebrity: the culture war punching bag. Despite being a perfectly sweet young woman with a rising career and the talent to back it up, Zegler has been thrown to the wolves by social media losers for the crime of … being too earnest. And not licking the royal boot forcefully enough.
A lot of people have suddenly decided, for reasons of entirely good faith, that Zegler is besmirching the untainted honour of Disney’s adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs because she, the star of the upcoming live-action remake, repeated the company line about their version being different in the same ways that every live-action Disney fairy-tale is. The usual suspects have tried to turn this into their new crusade, hot off the trail of ‘Black mermaids aren’t scientifically accurate’ and ‘Bud Light has been poisoned by a trans woman drinking it’ battles. None of this is surprising given that these chumps can make literally anything into a symbol of ‘wokeness’ they think is ready to steal their guns and make their spouses gay. It’s also, sadly, wholly predictable to see so many young women fuel the fires by turning Zegler into their latest socially acceptable woman to hate.
Because we know what’s going to happen with Zegler. We’ve seen this unfold so many times before that the cycle is embedded in our brains. A young and perfectly pleasant woman gets famous. She’s hyped up and celebrated. Then people start grumbling that they don’t like her, they think she’s smug or trying too hard. They nitpick every single thing she says, twisting perfectly benign statements into attacks and unbearable discourse. Then, eventually, all the shit that the ‘good’ side of the equation is saying becomes utterly indistinguishable from the right-wing cranks trying to start another bout of misogyny-driven ‘anti-woke’ drivel. At some point, people will realize how cruel they were and we’ll get a bunch of semi-penitent think-pieces sort-of apologizing for the sexist abuse, all while warning that we can’t repeat the mistakes of the past. But we will. Frankly, everyone enjoys it too much to stop.
Zegler’s situation has been compared frequently to that of Anne Hathaway, another actress with an earnest public image who dared to present herself as an eager professional who wanted to win the biggest honour in her profession. Mercifully, she wasn’t latched onto by alt-right weirdos as their target du jour, but the press and public-mandated hate she faced certainly paved the way for that concept to become a thing. Hating women for fun and profit is a proud tradition of humanity that dates back further than we truly understand. We’ve spent a lot of the 2020s trying to dissect and undo the damage of decades prior, at least in terms of how we perceived famous women, from Pamela Anderson and Britney Spears to Monica Lewinsky and Lorena Bobbitt. We talk a big game of repenting and hoping to protect the women who follow in their footsteps but it never happens. Meghan Markle is still barraged by racism and sexism by the British media despite not being a truly public figure in months. Amber Heard was thrown to the wolves by every corner of the industry she worked in. A lot of people made a lot of money from smearing Megan thee Stallion as a liar, even when the courts were on her side. And none of this even gets into the consistent maligning of gender autonomy and reproductive rights by the political system, which has seen abortion access be torn to shreds.
There’s a reason that the right loves to latch onto pop culture as its Trojan horse for forcing through hyper-conservative political policy. Everyone understands and engages with films, games, music, etc, and we all have strong feelings on it. Art is designed to elicit emotions, often on a primal level that can be tough to explain. It’s also something we heavily define ourselves by, something that helps the outside world understand us, often in ways we don’t agree with. There was a time when being called a ‘geek’ because you liked sci-fi, video games, and superheroes was seen as stupid. Frankly, too many people (let’s be honest, mostly white dudes) are still clinging to the idea that they’re ostracised because of their hobbies and not their general personalities. It’s pathetically easy to weaponize that twisted nostalgia, that overt investment in something that’s ultimately pretty silly, and turn it into a so-called culture war. Remember GamerGate? The Sad Puppies? The Ghostbusters reboot?
The vast majority of people don’t care about a Snow White remake. I doubt the losers screeching about this from the rooftops have any true investment in the supposed purity of a centuries-old fairy-tale that’s been retold countless times. It’s just an easy target because it combines women, ‘tradition’, the scourge of Disney, and a lot of well-worn talking points on ‘protecting the children.’ We know there’s real money in faux outrage, in appropriating the concept of staying woke and turning it into a racist dog whistle. Amplifying what is ultimately a tiny (if irritatingly loud) minority into ‘the voice of the people’ is an old trick. Women are all too often the bodies on which this tactic is thrown at, way more so if they’re not white or cis.
What we don’t need is a mob of smarmy TikTokers helping to push women like Zegler into the firing line by empowering her for-profit bullies by repeating their rhetoric with a vague girlboss edge. You know that all your videos offering pseudo-analysis of her body language and statements aren’t doing anything good for feminism, right? It wasn’t punching up to give credence to the bullies who are using a 22-year-old theatre kid as an example to reinforce their conservative agenda. And you know it’s potentially dangerous. We’ve been here before. Kelly Marie Tran. Anne Hathaway. Jennifer Lawrence. Brie Larson. Need I go on? You don’t like Rachel Zegler? Fine, but don’t pretend for a second that your pile-ons and anger towards her ‘tone’ or ‘disrespect’ towards a corporate product is doing anything but fuelling the absolute worst people to continue their cruel tirades.
It’d be nice if the media stopped helping this cycle too. The Telegraph deciding to get the decrepit grandson of Disney’s Snow White director to spout the word ‘woke’ repeatedly offered literally nothing to the conversation beyond more kindling for a violent fire. These same publications will be writing about how the internet was too mean to Zegler in a few years’ time, I’m sure, right before they choose another target for not being sycophantic enough to an IP that nobody thinks about. At the very least, we should be more cognizant of what our online opinions can be used for, whether we like it or not, and why it seems to always end with a Fox News host screaming about Black Disney princesses to a YouTuber with a bunch of white supremacist pals.