Welcome to the 22nd article in our 2020 Pride Month Series! Each day in the month of June, we will be highlighting a different member of the LGBTQ+ community who we think is a great example of representation and dynamic characterization. We will focus on fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — the positive voices within the LGBTQ+ community and in mainstream media.
Five years after the season finale, Glee has gotten its fair and deserved share of criticism for seeming progressive while at the same time being incredibly problematic. But I credit Santana, played by Naya Rivera, as an influential part of helping many teens and young adults understand and come into their sexualities.
Glee tried to cover pretty much every issue a high schooler could possibly face, from coming out to racism to teen pregnancy to school shootings. And while some issues were handled well, like Kurt (Chris Colfer) coming out to his father (Mike O’Malley), while others less so. Santana Lopez is really a bit of both. Starting out as a backup for foil/antagonist Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron), Santana was not much more than a stand out Cheerio or promiscuous girl for the main boys to get into trouble with. Always paired with Brittany (Heather Morris) as the “mean girls” with Quinn, in the first season the show occasionally hinted that something more might be going on, but Santana’s sexuality, and “Brittana,” were not explored until the second and third season.
During the second half of season two, Santana starts to realize she has real feelings for Brittany but does not know how to express them. With the help of friends and a fierce backdrop of Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way,” Santana begins to accept herself but does not come out publicly and is rejected due to Brittany being in another relationship. The next season, Santana finally comes to terms with living her authentic self, though not on her own terms. After a tense fight, Finn (the late Cory Monteith) “outs” Santana in the middle of the high school hallway. This then leads to the information becoming public, before Santana is ready for the world to know. When this aired in 2011, not many shows geared towards teens had LGBTQIA+ representation, let alone gave these queer characters deep storylines. I know I had not seen anything like this on television before.
Naya Rivera gave such an authentic performance to Santana’s pain and fear, and it was the first real example I could point to to understand why coming out could be so hard. After she is outed, Santana tries to come out to her abuela. Her parents had been supportive, as well as, of course, the Glee club. She knew her abuela loved her, so she was excited, if anything. Unfortunately, her incredibly religious grandmother rejects her and effectively cuts Santana out of her life. It is heartbreaking.
I do not know if at the start of Glee the creators had this in mind for Santana. In the beginning, she was mostly used for sarcastic one-liners, mean girl drama for the “main” characters to deal with, and to give the show a bit of a “Teen” rating with off camera relations. Having Santana go on this journey, both with Brittany and her own personal journey towards self-acceptance, was one of the best plotlines the show ever did. So many stories on Glee felt like they were done so that they could check a box. Sometimes the characters felt that way too. It felt forced and unnatural and even for television, unrealistic. (Seriously, a teacher trapping two past students in an elevator to convince them to get back together? What is that?) But everything about Santana can only be described as authentic. Every horrible but clever insult, every declaration of love, every smile, every slap was nothing but genuine. And on a show where a high school can put on a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Santana’s coming out story was so importantly honest.
In 2011, Nerds and Beyond could not have done a Pride series like we are doing currently. Sure, there had been Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The L Word, but nothing so mainstream. Gay marriage was not even legal until Glee’s last season where consequently, not just Brittany and Santana, but Kurt and Blaine (Darren Criss) were married as well. So despite Glee’s many, many flaws, Santana shines through as one of the best characters vocally, charismatically, and as an important example of LGBTQIA+ storytelling, especially for her time.
All six seasons of Glee are available on Netflix.
Stay tuned every day in the month of June for more articles highlighting LGBTQIA+ voices. Read spotlights from earlier in the month here.