“I don’t know how to deal with Naya Rivera’s death,” a Twitter user posted on July 13, shortly after the “Glee” star, 33, was found dead in an accidental drowning. “Her representation of a Latina lesbian who learns to accept and love herself helped me to accept myself.”
“We’re heartbroken,” another fan stated. “Rest in peace, Naya. Thank you for bringing Santana Lopez to life. The impact she had on us and many others while growing up is indescribable. Sending love to her family and friends.”
“Rest in peace, beautiful angel.”
“We love you Naya, forever in our hearts.”
The messages are heartfelt, and there are thousands of them. Rivera’s portrayal of a Latina woman who struggled to accept her sexuality has transcended far beyond a simple TV role. For some people, Santana Lopez was a character who truly spoke to them and understood them. And though “Glee” ended nearly five years ago, the recent outpouring of love shows that its influence has hardly waned.
Critically lauded, commonly beloved, sometimes campy but most often heartwarming: Fox’s “Glee” was a show unlike any other.
From its melodramatic plotlines to the cast renditions of pop music and show tunes, “Glee” captivated young audiences worldwide by touching on a variety of social issues — many of which, in the year 2009, was considered inappropriate or even taboo.
Today it might seem natural for teen shows to address the deeper issues. Shows like “Andi Mack” and “Thirteen Reasons Why” are aware of the darker reality members of their audience might be facing, such as gun violence or mental illness, so writers make a conscious effort to depict these topics on screen.
Mainstream media has also made leaps and bounds in terms of representation, both on and behind the camera. For example, “The Half of It” features a Chinese-American lesbian, while Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” stars Indian actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Women of color directed both.
Casting inclusivity and character diversity, along with the refusal to sugarcoat realistic truths, have finally become the norm. And today, we criticize shows that do not meet this standard as being stale, boring, and often downright offensive.
But from its very first episode, “Glee” had no such advantage.
In the mid-to-late 2000s, 45.5% of American teenagers suffered from self-esteem issues. A staggering 95% felt inadequate in comparison to their peers. But this widespread insecurity was hardly ever reflected onscreen. The average teen drama protagonist was five-foot-nine and beautiful, the most tortured character, a handsome bad boy without acne. Straight white actors dominated the small screen, while in reality, people of color made up a quarter of the American population, according to the Census.
Also, character drama was fanciful and tended to center around parties or relationships. So while shows such as “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Gossip Girl” were entertaining, they were hardly relatable to the average audience member.
That’s where “Glee” was revolutionary.
From its onset, showrunner Ryan Murphy made it clear that it would be the “imperfect” and marginalized characters who formed the heart of the show. Its protagonist, Rachel Berry, was a “little girl with a big nose” who had an exceptional voice but was alienated by the popular kids; who dreamed of Broadway and dating the star quarterback. Her classmates included a closeted gay teen, a shy freshman with a stutter, a boy in a wheelchair and a girl who sang in her church choir.
Mocked and abused for their weight, looks and disabilities, these ostracized teens found a haven in their school glee club, a place where they could sing and dance together away from their crueler peers. It gave them confidence, shattered their sense of self-isolation and made them feel a little less alone.
“So far, my time at McKinley has sucked,” Rachel confessed to her classmate in a flashback episode. “But..not this week. I made some friends. And that’s always been really hard for me.”
So week by week, “Glee” spun a tale of family and acceptance, interspersed with show choir competitions. Black or White, Latinx or Asian, straight or gay, rich or poor, the glee club did not discriminate so long as you could sing. But never once was there any illusion that all the characters’ problems were solved. Nor was there any false hope that the taunts and bullying would end overnight.
Instead, the constant theme of hope and optimism prevailed to a drumbeat of tolerance for yourself and others. Under the guidance of glee club supervisor Will Schuester, the kids and teens of McKinley High learned to accept their classmates for who were they were — no matter what they looked like, where they came from or who they chose to love.
The show’s depiction of LGBTQ+ issues was especially inspiring. From repression to homophobia to familial acceptance (the scene in which Santana Lopez, portrayed by the deceased Rivera, came out to her grandmother is especially heartbreaking), “Glee” fought to normalize queer relationships in the same way that heterosexual couples were so commonplace.
“Glee” conveyed critical messages about identity and hope, showing the difficulties of belonging to a marginalized community while also depicting the overwhelming joys. Two of the show’s longest-lasting couples were gay and lesbian, and while some worried about the kind of message “Glee” was spreading to its young audience, the intent was clear.
You are visible, the show seemed to tell its LGBTQ audience. You are seen.
Without spoiling too much, one can say that the message of “Glee” went far beyond the cool kids accepting the losers. You could hear the words it gets better playing under each Madonna cover and Broadway classic. With every triumph and defeat, “Glee” told the stories every other show was terrified to tell — stark but drily humorous tales of teen pregnancy, eating disorders, homelessness, sexuality and gun violence.
And the diversity of the cast and characters was admirable. As a whole, “Glee” represented nearly every race, ethnicity and sexuality under the sun and showcased each of them on prime time. The impact that has on young minds is unquestionable. It would be a lie for me to say that I didn’t see Tina Cohen-Chang, an Asian-American character, and think: “Hey. She looks like me. I like that she looks like me. We’re the same, aren’t we?”
I’d never seen anything like that before.