Remembering Naya Rivera's character Santana Lopez, who was the heart and soul of Glee
Naya Rivera was a powerhouse and her legacy as Santana Lopez on Glee will live on.
In Season 3 Episode 11 of Fox's Glee (Jackson), Santana Lopez walks into a room full of Warblers, a rival show-choir group, alone in a black hat and a suit dress to incite a confession for Slushee-ing her friend and teammate. She's challenged to a show-choir duel of 'Smooth Criminal' (Michael Jackson) performed to cellos, a palpable, growing tension rises between the two singers that crescendos to the confession and a Slushee at Santana's face.
This performance is one of the Glee Cast's top streamed tracks on Spotify. So are two others: 'Valerie' (Amy Winehouse) and 'If I Die Young' (The Band Perry) led by Santana Lopez, played by Naya Rivera who, as of 8 July 2020, is no more. She is survived by her husband and a son aged 4.
Naya Rivera was a powerhouse and her legacy as Santana Lopez on Glee will live on. Her performance as Santana, a strong, Black, Puerto Rican lesbian woman was a breath of fresh air in a show that lost itself in its plots and its quest to showcase Lea Michele's wafer-thin Rachel Berry character in a positive light. A lot has been written about the problematic and uncomfortable parts of Glee, from its celebration of bullies (on-screen and off) and normalisation of sketchy student-teacher romance arcs to making light of date rape. Through all of this, Santana Lopez not only grounded the show and made it a drama we can engage with, but arguably carried the show in the final seasons.
Glee, to me, is a show of great significance. I'd watch it as a high school student after school on Star World and it became my safe space. I was deeply invested in The New Directions, the choir that the show follows. Rachel Berry, a self-absorbed alpha character fixated on a Broadway career, in Season 1 talks of being "part of something special [that] would make her special". The show choir group would go on to win the National Show Choir Championships in Season 3, overcoming significant hurdles along the way. As someone in school a few years younger than the characters, I longed to be a part of a team and to have someone have my back the same way these kids had each others'.
Glee made a promise of acceptance and solidarity between teenagers who were poles apart in terms of economic background, talents, academic ease, and most importantly (then), popularity. It was also the first time I'd seen positive queer representation on TV, in a PG-13 show.
At age 13, this show was a world apart from my school, with limited extra-curricular activities and drab brown uniforms. At age 15, when impending board exams meant that I'd given up on TV privileges, I remember secretly streaming the latter seasons of Glee from shady websites. The show brought bucketfuls of music, a sense of joy and belonging at a time when these were in short supply. I think I also entered college looking for the sort of team that becomes a community in the way Glee promised was possible.
Santana's arc started off as a two-dimensional popular bully, part of The Unholy Trinity comprising her, Brittany Pierce and Quinn Fabray, all cheerleaders. She's portrayed as radically honest (read: mean) and identifies as a b*tch with no regrets; she enjoys her popularity and her power. The Unholy Trinity auditions for and infiltrates The New Directions on orders of their cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, the antagonist of the series who wants her spies in the new club. Over time she begins to enjoy Glee and warms up to the idea of being part of it.
Santana is a fighter, she is willing to stand up for herself and her friends. When a break-off Glee club forms to protest The New Directions' favouritism of Rachel Berry, Santana defects immediately. Over the seasons she quickly turns into the dependable Glee club member who is frank with her teachers and peers. She is often manipulative in a bid to have things her way or to help her friends, which is the first time she's seen as more than a vampy character.
Santana is a born performer and over the seasons they prove how she's equally as good as Rachel Berry, who has had acting and voice training since she was little. Santana even gets the part as Rachel's understudy in a Broadway production of Funny Girl. Santana is a dreamer. She quits her college cheerleading scholarship to follow her dreams in New York, a dream her parents living in the rough neighbourhoods of Lima, Ohio can't digest immediately.
Santana's arcs are the rawest and rewarding parts of the show. Santana is pushed to accept her sexuality and her love for Brittany while being outed publicly by a member of The New Directions (a mistake the show doesn't call to attention). She chooses to come to terms with her love for Brittany, her best friend, and teammate, with this intimate performance of Songbird by Fleetwood Mac.
Santana and Brittany's love is a template of what a good and healthy romance can be: tender, caring, and respectful. Season 6 is a celebration of their relationship despite arguably being the worst season of the show. Santana fights with Santana's religious abuela (grandmother) to accept their relationship and chooses to cut her off for the sake of her marriage. Santana and Brittany cross state lines to get married and nudge their best friends to take the plunge. Santana keeps Sue Sylvester on her toes the entire show, and by the end of the series, Sue is reformed and kinder for it; she also gifts them a honeymoon.
Santana is the underdog that we should be rooting for, despite her icy exterior and harsh tongue. She is supportive to the friends she fights with, she is the icon for working women unlike her more privileged classmates, she is the voice of reason between herself and a hare-brained Brittany. From fighting alone, accepting her anger and frustration, letting people in and growing into a three-dimensional character, Santana Lopez will be remembered as the heart of Glee.
Her Broadway audition of Don't Rain On My Parade for Funny Girl, 4 seasons after Rachel performed it for The New Directions, is a good reminder of where she comes from and what ground she's covered on her own steam. In her memoir, Naya Rivera talks of her and Lea Michele (who played Rachel Berry) as both being "strong-willed and competitive" in real life, too. It gives me hope that like Santana Lopez, Naya found herself, her love and happiness. Her haunting rendition of "If I Die Young" in co-star Cory Monteith's tribute episode echoes true to many fans.
Her voice may be lost, but will not be forgotten.
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