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Thank You, Santana - Some Thoughts on Representation

The world experienced a great tragedy in July with the untimely passing of singer and actress Naya Rivera. Rivera, whose body was discovered on July 13th after almost a week of searching, saved her son from drowning in Lake Piru in California. Her talent, but moreover her commitment as a mother is already missed.

I can’t even begin to imagine the pain her family and close friends are experiencing - her death has undoubtedly stirred up a lot of emotions, even for people outside of her personal circle. Naya Rivera gained many fans, myself included, for her portrayal of Santana Lopez on the show Glee. She was a pioneer for Latinx and LGBTQ+ representation and actively pushed beyond the stereotypes so often assigned to both Latina and lesbian women.

Naya Rivera was obviously so much more than her role on Glee - she is remembered saying that the best thing she ever did was become a mother. While Santana Lopez may not have been her most important role to her, the Glee character has been an important figure in many people’s lives.

Whenever I saw Santana Lopez on the screen as a middle schooler, I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stick up, my cheeks burn, and a broadening awareness of the room around me. I thought that my parents, who I was watching with, would know just by the way I looked at Santana that she and I were more alike than I was ready to admit. Of course, they didn’t know, and I was being neurotic, but Naya Rivera’s character - the first lesbian character I and many others saw on TV - brought out these feelings in me that no one else ever had.

I didn’t know a single out, LGBTQ+ woman until I was in maybe my sophomore or junior year of high school. When I started having questions about my own sexuality at thirteen or fourteen years old, I felt like an alien, begging and bargaining with myself to just be normal. My “normal” was typically heteronormative and even though I was just as happy to normalize gay couples, I was only familiar with the union of two men. Even now, I struggle to find real life lesbians and queer women for me to look to and see that I can live a happy, normal life. Being a queer kid relies a lot on trust - trust that things will turn out okay for you, even though you have no evidence.

When I was a kid, TV and movies didn’t offer much evidence for me either. In a time where lesbians seem to only exist in porn created for men, I didn’t run into many queer characters in what I was watching - Ellen Degeneres was probably the only lesbian woman I had seen on a regular basis. The slim number the LGBTQ+ women in TV and movies were ending up either in heterosexual marriages at the end of the film or, more often, dead. No wonder it took me so long to figure out my sexuality - no one I saw was like me and if they were, the universe righted their deviancy by killing them off.

I don’t think you care about representation unless you’re starved for it - and you probably don’t know you’re starved for it. But when I finally saw someone like me on TV, I remember thinking, That’s what I’ve been missing! I never understood that the hollowness within me required a mirror to fill.

Representation is not just an issue for queer women. Mainstream media remains overwhelmingly white, male, able-bodied, cisgender, and straight. According to the annual Hollywood Diversity Report done by the UCLA College of Social Sciences, non-white people still make up only 27.6% of lead actors in films and only 15% of film directors. Meanwhile, a study from 2018 shows that only 1.6% of speaking characters in blockbuster films had a disability. And just because this (dismal) representation exists, doesn’t mean it’s quality. Black actors are still boxed into roles in movies about race that focus primarily on white characters, like The Help or Green Book. It’s not a new or a finished conversation - the representation of actual human beings in popular media is seriously lacking.

When Glee first aired in 2009, it offered a more diverse cast of characters than the average viewer was used to. It’s admittedly packed with cringey moments that have left the adult version of me shaking my head, but for the time in which it aired, it was groundbreaking. Having the benefit of sharing a moment in media history with Lady Gaga, who pushed almost any kind of perceived oddity into the mainstream, Glee embraced its opportunity to offer some diverse characters, especially in terms of sexuality. There was, of course, Kurt, who was very similar to many of the gay men already seen on TV. Yet his role ushered in a more realistic and inclusive portrayal of gay men - the anticipation around losing his virginity in the second season was one of the first times gay sex had been so openly and positively explored on television.

But the crown jewels (in my opinion) of Ryan Murphy’s musical show were Santana Lopez and Brittany Pierce. Both cheerleaders, singers, incredible dancers, and just straight up hot, their early fling could have easily been fetishized and then turned away in favor of heterosexual storylines, but Glee saw it through. Instead, viewers got a vulnerable relationship between the characters, as well as an opportunity to watch Santana struggle with the process of coming out to her family and friends. And after all that, they even got a happy ending.

It wasn’t just the first time I had seen a lesbian character in my life - it was also the first time I had seen a lesbian character who was wholly human. Santana, because of the storyline surrounding her coming out and the nuance of her character, made her someone real for me. She could be happy, she could be snarky, she could be angry, she could cry, and she could be vulnerable - she was a human being. And I saw myself in her, both in what I knew I was presently going though, and what I hoped I may one day achieve.

In my darker hours living in the closet as a teenager, it was hard at times to see myself as a person. Like I said, I felt like an alien, biding the time until someone would find out I wasn’t straight, and I would be exposed for what I was hiding under my human skin. I always think the hardest person I’ve ever had to come out was myself, and it was made even harder because it was so lonely. For years the questions, the discoveries, and the misguided shame festered in my mind and were never shared with anyone. The emergence of Santana Lopez in my life made the process - always ongoing - so much less lonely. Her character joined my side in a mental battle against myself.

Santana Lopez opened up space on TV for more queer womxn. Today, we are all fortunate enough to watch characters like Casey Gardner of Atypical, Rosa Diaz of Brooklyn 99, Judy Hale of Dead to Me, or Clare Devlin of Derry Girls, or shows like Pose that paint LGBTQ+ womxn as people, and often happy, alive people. Queer womxn are starting to see some wins in representation mission, and while I’m sure many people have role models they can credit with this shift, I have Naya Rivera.

When I mourn Naya Rivera, I feel a little ridiculous. I didn’t actually know her, so how could I possibly grieve her disappearance beyond distantly sympathizing with her loved ones and feeling my own mortality. But when I mourn Naya Rivera, I feel grateful. I have so much gratitude for her because she gave me the evidence I needed to know I wasn’t an alien. She helped me believe I was human and worthy of human happinesses and capable of overcoming human defeat. So in mourning this woman I never personally knew, I say thank you.

Thank you, Naya Rivera. I know that you are not Santana Lopez - that you were far more than her - but the way you portrayed that role changed lives. It changed mine. And while there’s still a lot of ground to cover for LGBTQ+ people in the media, the Cheerio who let herself love and be loved paved the way for many happy endings.

Rachel is a senior at George Washington University, studying English. As the founder and editor of Feminist Essay Project, she is passionate about providing creators with more inclusive spaces to share stories and ideas. In her free time, she enjoys running, reading, writing, and cooking.

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