Why Santana Lopez is so integral to the lesbian coming-of-age canon
It hurt to love her. My body ached when she entered the room, it was like I could feel my heart pulsing with longing and excitement and deflating miserably at the same time. I couldn’t believe how beautiful and talented she was, her sensitivity and her snark. I was an intense and emotional teenager—all my crushes were this way: feverish, obsessive, endless—but there was something about Santana Lopez that hung me out to dry, that left me wounded and looking inward. Both the beauty and the tragedy of it was that she was a fictional character: I was able to latch onto her, catch her in the background of a scene and pause, rewind, pause again, zoom in on the details; but I knew that my feelings wouldn’t be reciprocated, that she would never notice me. She wasn’t even real.
I had been consumed by made-up people before, The O.C.’s Marissa Cooper and Dana Fairbanks from The L Word among them. They were always women, conventionally attractive and feminine in a stupid, inaccessible way. They made me feel bad about myself, though I didn’t understand why; it wouldn’t be until a few years later, when I was more cognizant of my unspooling queerness, that I realized I had transmuted my romantic desire into a “why can’t I look like them?” level of despair. I assumed my unhealthy investment was a product of wanting to be them, not be with them. So it didn’t quite add up that I was inconsolable about Mischa Barton (who played Marissa) dating the oil heir Brandon Davis, or that Erin Daniels (who played Dana) was straight in real life. The nebulous disappointment manifested as a flat resignation, a hyperbolic tween ennui that I would never get the things I wanted.
Santana Lopez—who came into my life in 2009, in the pilot episode of the overwhelmingly popular yet grating FOX series Glee—was immediately different. She was introduced as a peripheral character for most of the first season but was an intuitive scene stealer (I, at least, couldn’t stop staring at her) and became a lead during season two. Unlike my previous character fixations, we were the same age. In ‘meeting’ her when we were both 16, I was sure I felt a mutual energy exchange that crackled and flickered beyond the screen. I was also certain that I wanted to be with her, not be her; by this point I’d kissed enough girls to know a hardcore physical attraction when I felt one, even if I was still mired in shame and embarrassment re: an explicit coming out.
Most exciting and unbelievable of all was that, via tasteful, delicate character development, Santana was revealed to be going through the same thing: after both loose and concrete evidence is put forward that she is hooking up with her best friend Brittany, Santana lets her guard down and learns that she is both in love with Brittany and also a lesbian. (This is unpacked through a rendition of “Landslide” featuring Gwyneth Paltrow; the writing was on the wall.) I recall watching the scene where Santana confesses her love to Brittany on live television in my parents’ living room. I felt assaulted by the candor and intimacy as I observed my favorite character (on a primetime show, no less) reckon with the extent of her queer desire; Santana, typically so hostile and aggressive, is a flood of emotion. “I’m angry because I have all these feelings, feelings for you that I’m afraid of dealing with because I’m afraid of dealing with the consequences,” she says quietly in the school hallway, her voice succumbing to fragile little chokes and breaks. In high school, it was so unusual for me to know a girl who had queer feelings that weren’t a product of a ratings ploy or flippant experimentation. I was always the one who loved too hard and wanted to hold on a little longer, yet here Santana was, in it with me. It was like fanfiction, so surreally perfect that I could only have imagined it on my own terms.
When Naya Rivera, the actress who played Santana for the six years that Glee ran, was found dead on July 13 after going missing the week prior on Southern California’s Lake Piru, I felt like I had lost something that was mine. It has been a particularly concrete and indulgent grief, rigid and heavyset, that erupts in weird moments: I compulsively return to her now-haunting performance of “If I Die Young,” I watch every interview, I space out to my favorite scenes until I am numb. Cory Monteith, another main cast member on Glee, died exactly seven years before Rivera’s body was discovered; in honor of his death, they also killed off his character. The show was still running, he had been a huge part of it, and it wouldn’t have made sense otherwise. The same isn’t so for Santana: Glee concluded its final season five years ago, with Santana marrying Brittany and presumably continuing to live a happy—nay, gay—life. Not only her legacy but her character literally lives on. To me though, the death of Naya Rivera feels like the death of Santana too; it is impossible to parse the disconnect between character and actor, to reconcile that one is alive and the other is not.
“Santana’s coming out arc did not feel cliché but was steeped in high drama, intensity, and earnest musical performances, AKA the Tenets of High School Lesbianism.”
I consider this an intrinsically queer response, tied up in the fractured and often torturous ways young queer people come to understand themselves, as well as the reality of having so few healthy and positive pop culture models to base ourselves on. Santana Lopez had a seismic impact on the queer community; in the wake of Rivera’s death there was an outpour of essays and thinkpieces that all articulated the central thesis of, “she saved my life.” It is essential for queer characters to feel authentic; this was particularly true in the 2010s when representation was nowhere near as inclusive as it is now (though much remains to be desired). Santana’s coming out arc did not feel cliché but was steeped in high drama, intensity, and earnest musical performances, AKA the Tenets of High School Lesbianism. When we meet her she is an acerbic, intimidating cheerleader at the top of the pyramid; when she joins glee club, and later falls in love with Brittany, she retains all of her original qualities but we see more sides to her, like her vulnerability and just how sensitive she could be. Santana is so gorgeous to watch because of her flaws and her many complications. She feels lived in. The loss of Naya Rivera, then—as the body and voice and disposition of this vibrant character, the one who brought her to life—makes a rewatch of any Santana-centric Glee episode or scene feel haunted, like I am prophetically aware of the tragedy ahead.
It is the overwhelming queerness of Santana’s arc—replete with friend/lover blurred lines and k.d. lang covers—that makes Rivera’s death just so difficult to bear; queer people take what (rare) nuanced and honest representation we can get. If that portrayal is somehow interrupted or challenged in the real world it can be painful and disorienting. Orange is the New Black was explosive for its time with its racially and gender diverse cast, and I along with so many other queer women became enamored with Alex Vause, a post-That ‘70s Show Laura Prepon with fake tattoos and winged eyeliner. Her chemistry with her ex, Piper, was fractious and thrilling. I guess I had chosen to forget that Prepon was a Scientologist, and most certainly straight, but when I learned the information anew I returned to that familiar teen malaise: disappointed, dour, detached.
Queer Twitter recently went wild when it was revealed that Jodie Comer—the actress who plays Villanelle in Killing Eve—is not only straight (which I will question forever after watching this video) but is allegedly dating a Republican. It’s not that I expect everyone who plays a queer character to be queer in real life, or that I should hold any sort of sway over who they sleep with. It’s simply a testament to the immersive queer storylines they have given us, and the way we grasp onto the clarity and familiarity of those stories as if our lives depend on it. (In many instances, they do.) Villanelle is operating in a world inaccessible to most of us—haute couture and decadence, MI6, a ton of international escapades and murder—but as she is basically driven insane by unrequited queer desire, her experience is all too known. When the next season of Killing Eve airs, I know it will be hard for me to separate the rumor about Comer’s love life from the fictional world I am watching. It is one of the many reasons why a series like Pose is so special: the characters and actors are fighting the same fight, but decades apart.
Naya Rivera was straight in real life, but it didn’t matter much. (Although I did get a pang of sadness when she dated Big Sean, a personal nemesis of mine.) She was so inextricable from my queer coming-of-age that she was always Santana to me: a crush and a confidant, someone who just got it when others didn’t. When I found out that she died it was like a part of me had died too—that girl from ten years ago that I can barely remember, the obsessive and introspective teenager who was just figuring things out. I don’t know when it will feel safe to return to Glee again and be with her, or at least say thank you for all that she gave me; but until then I will see her in my dreams, where she’s been appearing most nights as the Santana that I know. I hold onto her tight, trying to make sense of how I can suddenly touch her, be in the same room as her, and in that same revelation I know she is gone.