Was charismatic mean girl and queer icon Santana Lopez ever really a villain, or a secret hero all along? When it comes to characters to root for on Glee, it’s not as simple as ‘love the main character, hate the antagonist.’ One name that continuously pops up on lists of ‘best’ and ‘nastiest’ Glee characters is Naya Rivera’s Santana - a character who was unmistakably introduced as a villain, with her signature snappy comebacks and harsh insults. But thanks to Rivera’s performance, an unorthodox coming out narrative, and her channeling her mean girl energy to fight the bullies, Santana ends the show as one of the most lovable, easy to root for characters.
Was charismatic mean girl and queer icon Santana Lopez ever really a villain, or a secret hero all along? When it comes to characters to root for on Glee, it’s not as simple as ‘love the main character, hate the antagonist.” From the often-insufferable protagonist Rachel Berry to the hilariously cruel pseudo-villain Sue Sylvester, the series’ approach to who’s ‘good’ and who’s ‘bad’ veers way beyond typical character archetypes. One name that continuously pops up on lists of ‘best’ and ‘nastiest’ Glee characters is Naya Rivera’s Santana-a character who was unmistakably introduced as a villain, with her signature snappy comebacks and harsh insults.
But thanks to Rivera’s performance, an unorthodox coming out narrative, and her channeling her mean girl energy to fight the bullies, Santana ends the show as one of the most lovable, easy to root for characters. he may bring an edge, but like Rachel, she’s got the talent and the drive to back up her attitude. Looking back, Santana feels a lot like a Glee ‘hero’ from the jump–she just makes us aware of how that line isn’t always as clear as it looks at first. So how did Glee make a textbook mean girl who started out as a background character so memorable and well-loved?
Santana: “I’m sort of a bitch, but I’m willing to change.”
- Glee: Season 2, Episode 12
How Naya Rivera Willed Santana Into a Main Character:
Although fans recognize Santana as one of Glee’s most memorable characters today, she was first introduced to the show as just a background dancer and singer for mean girl cheerleader Quinn Fabray. According to Naya Rivera in her memoir, Santana didn’t have any lines in the pilot, and the few early lines she did have were almost exclusively insults and takedowns of Rachel Berry But Naya Rivera’s on-set chemistry with Quinn actress Diana Agron and her ability to make the most out of even a small ‘background’ role convinced showrunner Ryan Murphy that Santana was worth keeping around in a larger supporting role. Rivera said,
“I tried to think of ways I could make Santana stand out… I figured that if she was the bitchy sidekick, then I was going to make her a megabitch, with extra kick, and I guess it must have worked.”
Santana went from background character to fully developed principal role by the second season.
The Significance of Santana’s Coming-Out Arc
As The Glee writers considered what a season-long arc for a supporting Cheerio would look like, they landed on a plotline that became one of the most affecting and memorable in Glee’s history: Santana’s coming out and romance with Brittany.
Today it’s difficult to imagine a version of Santana Lopez who isn’t a certified queer icon, but her coming out narrative is yet another element of her character that wasn’t originally planned. Writing a coming out narrative for Santana was risky for a broadcast show at the time.
Glee premiered in 2009, and in the TV season before that, only 2.6% of scripted regular characters on broadcast television were LGBT; the year before that it was 1.1%. Glee was already challenging these boundaries with Chris Colfer’s flamboyant character Kurt, who came out to his father in season one. But with Santana, they took it even further, crafting a way less conventional coming-out narrative.
Santana is forcibly outed in season three, first by Finn in the middle of the McKinley hallways, and then by a political rival of Sue Sylvester’s in a smear campaign ad. Adding insult to injury, Santana then comes out on her own to her Abuela Alma, only to be scolded and kicked out of the house.Santana’s confrontation with Abuela Lopez is one of season three’s most difficult to watch scenes: a tense and all-too-real picture of how painful and messy coming out to close-minded loved ones can be, and how not every story has a neat, cut-and-dry happy ending. Though Santana did eventually repair her relationship with her Abuela, that wasn’t until season six, and her struggles with identity and acceptance resonated with audiences.
Moreover, while Glee already had Kurt, he was a very clean-cut, white gay man who was conventional in some ways with portrayals we’d seen onscreen before. Santana’s coming out narrative allowed the series to examine queer visibility through a female lens, something that is still sorely lacking in LGBT representation on TV. And Santana presented a much-needed portrait of a queer Afro-Latina woman on network television when there was virtually no other significant positive representation around. Santana is a powerful reminder that queerness doesn’t come in one size, shape or form, and that nobody is defined just by their sexuality.
Chapter 3: The Mean Girl Vs. The Bad Guys OR A Mean Girl for the Misfits
Even in the face of sadness and pain, Santana never lost the spark of humor, wit, and venom that made her mean girl character such a scene-stealer in the first place. Santana was beloved because of her refreshing willingness to talk back to anyone and everyone she needed to - from Rachel Berry to Mr. Schue to even Sue Sylvester. Santana’s vitriol is often aimed at her fellow New Directions for a quick laugh. But she also uses her mastery of insults to defend her fellow New Directioners when they can’t or won’t stand their ground.
Finn: “Santana, we’re worried about you.
Santana: Worry about yourself, fetus face.”
- Glee: Season 3, Episode 7
Santana stands up to Dave Karosfky, Kurt’s homophobic bully, when he attempts to harass Kurt and Blaine. She confronts him again an episode later when she realizes that Karofsky is gay. But she doesn’t immediately turn around and out him to the entire school like a conventional “mean girl” would–instead she proposes an alliance between them to win Prom King and Queen to conceal the fact that they’re both in the closet. Santana’s motives are self-serving–she wants to protect her own reputation more than she cares about protecting Kurt. But by using her powers of intimidation to manipulate an even more powerful bully, Santana becomes a totally new kind of mean girl.
Santana: “You and I are going to be each other’s beards… the only straight I am is straight up bitch”
- Glee: Season 2, Episode 18
A similar dynamic plays out a season later between Santana and Sebastian Smythe, another bully who targets Kurt and Blaine. Sebastian adds rock salt to a slushie he throws at Blaine, and it falls to Santana to stand up for the New Directions. Once again, Santana redirects her mean girl savvy towards the bullies who target the misfits of the glee club, and she ultimately comes out on top.
Sure, Santana has her fair share of fights with the New Directions but she cares deeply for them, and she isn’t above apologizing and making up when she realizes she’s wrong. And the Glee Club in turn embraces her as part of their misfit group. They become the people who support her through the difficulty and trauma of her coming out experience and beyond.
Glee was a pop culture powerhouse that captivated audiences with its offbeat humor and bombastic-but-somehow still poignant and down-to-earth storytelling, and Santana Lopez perfectly reflects the show’s idiosyncratic charms. She’s an unlikely encapsulation of the show’s underdog spirit and celebration of oddballs.
Of course, all the good writing in the world wouldn’t have mattered, had uber-charismatic Naya Rivera not been there to lend Santana her signature smirk, snark, and sense of humor.
Though Naya herself may not be with us anymore, her dedication to making the most out of Santana Lopez laid the groundwork for a queer icon, the mean girl to end all mean girls, and a complexly-written character who forever flipped the script for tv “heroes” and “villains.” Her performance blazed a trail for queer women and Latinas in an era of television with far too few opportunities for visibility. Naya’s legacy lives on through her unique, powerful, and beloved character.
Santana: “You taught me to be bigger than the world was ever gonna give me permission to be. And I have.”
- Glee: Season 6, Episode 6