The Essay I Wrote About Santana Lopez When I Was 19 and Closeted, Annotated by My Present Self

It’s 2011, fall semester. I’m a sophomore at University of Michigan, closeted, extreme and extremely online (tumblr dot com, obviously). Every week, I host Glee watch parties in my dorm room, friends piling onto my bed and my roommate’s bed so we can watch the Fox teen musical from the wild mind of Ryan Murphy while sometimes drinking smuggled Smirnoff ice and not-smuggled snacks from the downstairs cafe, including mozzarella sticks that tasted more like the approximation of mozzarella sticks but were cheap and there so we ate them anyway. I’m enrolled in a one-credit course called Pop Culture & Feminism just for fun, because I thought it would be neat and cool to do a full 18-credit course load because, yes, I love school, and also it’s taught by a Graduate School Instructor as part of her program requirements who’s not much older than me and very smart and maybe attractive but I definitely would not notice that, of course not, no way!!!!!!

Anyway, because this GSI is trying to be Cool Teacher, our big project we’re working on all semester is a zine of mini essays about, you guessed it, pop culture and feminism. I write one about Sassy Magazine, even though I’m too young to really remember Sassy Magazine, but she mentions during the first week of class how much she loves Sassy Magazine, and, well, I think we’ve established what a lot of my motivating factors are (impressing women in authority positions). I also write about Josie Gellar from the feature film Never Been Kissed and kinda miss the mark on a feminist reading the text, but I’m young and green, so let’s not dwell on that too much!

And lastly, my pièce de résistance for our class zine: a 700ish word essay praising and critiquing Glee that becomes, specifically, an ode to Santana Lopez (and Naya Rivera). I’m definitely not gay, no way, just ultra-passionate about queer representation on television, like all other straight girls are, you know? Just like how I hooked up with a girl for the first time over the summer but am still blazing forward with the whole heterosexuality thing and have told no one, not a soul, not even — especially? — not my roommate who is also my best friend. NOTHING TO SEE HERE, MOVE ALONG!!!!

***

I recently had the joy and ache of revisiting this tiny piece of pop culture criticism by tiny writer Kayla, and I thought it would be more cringe, but it actually made me feel a tenderness for my younger self, so unsure of who she was, an insecurity that bleeds onto the page. So here it is, my Santana Lopez Memorandum, originally published in a long lost zine for a fluff course at Michigan, reprinted here — original typos and all! — with some bonus annotations by my present self.


Breaking Down Sexuality Boxes
[honestly a great title good job closeted KKU]

From the very beginning, the popular TV show Glee has been championing gay teen story lines. [HAS IT?]  Ryan Murphy, the show’s creator, is openly gay and recently has started pointing out the important role that sexuality plays in his show. [uhhhh citation needed? I mean like literally citation needed. I know this was for a print zine so not linkable but you’re a future writer+journalist, so maybe learn how to quote someone/reference sources idk!]

However, a key problem I have had with Glee [ONE! Just ONE key problem with Glee! Oh to be so young and not yet completely disillusioned by the work of one Ryan Murphy. I wish I could go back in time and describe the Glee final season to my younger self, because she would not believe me??? She thought Glee was PEAK TV!!!!] is the fact that while it has done a great job exploring the lives of gay male teens through Kurt and, more recently, Blaine [again…HAS IT?], the show has not given much attention to its female characters who might be struggling with their sexuality.  Until recently, any queer  woman story lines have been largely gimmicky and not real. [let’s ignore the extremely awkward wording of this sentence, but I was onto something that would remain true for a lot of future Murphy projects!]

However, all of this changed in the 15th episode of Glee’s current season. [DRAmATIc claims were def my thing back then, huh]  The episode, titled “Sexy,” focused on Santana Lopez, who is arguably — especially after “Sexy” — [omg I didn’t know how to do em dashes yet! Bless my heart!] one of the best female characters currently on television. [ok FACTS…at the time]  But before we start talking about Santana’s story line in “Sexy,” let’s jump back to episode four of the second season, “Duets.” [interesting structure to this essay and by interesting I mean bewildering]  This episode features Glee’s first girl-on-girl scene. [“girl-on-girl scene” does sound VERY 2011]  Santana and her best friend Brittany are cuddling and kissing in bed.  When Brittany implies that she wants more of an emotional connection, Santana quickly shuts the door on that possibility, causing Brittany to drift towards Artie, who she starts dating by the end of the episode.

At first, I was angered by this character arc in “Duets.”  [I just realized I did two spaces after periods throughout this entire thing! tbt!] Glee was finally exploring queer issues from a female perspective, but it failed to go deep into the issue.  The moment was rushed and seemed completely stripped of any realness.  We didn’t get to hear how the character’s [this typo is killing me I can’t believe I’d become an editor at my college newspaper’s arts section like six months after this] felt about the situation and by the episode’s end it was almost like the “Britana” [I MISSPELLED BRITANNA SOMEONE TAKE MY TUMBLR GAY CARD AWAY] moment never happened.  The arc was completely ignored for several episodes!  To quote drunk Santa, “No me gusta!” [ok]

This brings us to “Sexy.”  In hindsight, we now see that Santana didn’t blow off Brittany because the writers were uninterested in pursuing a complex and poignant “Britana” [omfg this misspelling will haunt me] story line.  She blew her off because she was deeply conflicted about her own sexuality.  And in “Sexy,” she confronts the conflict head-on.  In a heart-wrenching moment but the school lockers [did like anyone proofread this?], Santana shares her true feelings with Brittany:

“I wanted to thank you for performing that song with me in glee club, because it made me do a lot of thinking.  What I realized is why I’m such a bitch all the time.  I’m a bitch because I’m angry, angry because I have all of these feelings, feelings for you that I’m afraid of dealing with, because I’m afraid of dealing with the consequences…do you understand what I’m trying to say here?  I wanna be with you, but I’m afraid of the talks and the looks…I’m so afraid of what everyone will say behind my back.  Still, I have to accept that I love you.”
[to this day, I do love a blockquote moment]

After this believable and visceral monologue, Brittany explains that she doesn’t want to break up with Artie.  She goes in for a reassuring hug,but Santana pushes her away.  “Don’t.  Get off me.”

While Santana’s confession was certainly shocking, it did not come out of left field like many other spontaneous Glee relationships (Murphy has actually been quoted as saying I was bored for an explanation as to why he chose to end a relationship between two characters on the show). [LMAO wait this is so funny — was this a real quote??? I can’t find it????? PLS if someone can verify this lmk but for now I will simply call my younger self’s journalistic integrity into question but also…LMAO]  But the developments in “Sexy” do not seem to be the product of writer boredom.  In fact, this seems to be the most realistic and complex relationship arc that’s ever been featured on Glee.

The most important moment in “Sexy,” however, is not the heart-breaking locker scene.  The most significant moment happens when Santana and Brittany have a talk with Holly Holiday, the substitute sex-ed teacher.  Holly, played by guest star Gwyneth Paltrow, asks both girls if either of them thinks they might be a lesbian.  Brittany replies, “I don’t know.”  Santana says, “Yeah, I mean, who knows?  I’m attracted to girls and I’m attracted to guys.”

I can’t think of any other female character currently on television who doesn’t identify as gay or straight or bisexual, but just as herself.  Santana is Santana.  Don’t put her in a sexuality box!  She is a woman who is attracted to both men and women.  And that’s that. [sure, some people indeed do not like labels, but this does ping so overtly as me writing about myself while writing about Santana and, ultimately, avoiding labels because I was afraid. again, there are plenty of reasons to not identify with specific labels, but at the time I wrote this, I knew I was gay. I knew I was a lesbian. I just couldn’t say it yet, not to myself, not to anyone. And I think that drew me to this storyline. It gave me a way in to write about queerness. It gave me a way in to start thinking about these questions for myself.]

I can’t finish without mentioning Naya Rivera, the actress who plays Santana, and the fact that she totally sold the story to me.  [ok this makes me sad :( ] Not every young actress could have pulled off the locker scene so convincingly.  I’m completely serious when I say that this girl needs to start compiling her Emmy reel ASAP! [also true and also SAD :((((( ]


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 459 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. Omg KAYLA. Glee fandom on tumblr dot com in 2011 was A LOT, especially that summer when they did the live tour. (Yes, I was a full grown adult who called in sick from work to go to a meet & greet with Cory and Naya at a cell phone store in NJ and then went to the concert and screamed like a 12-year-old girl the whole time.)

    I also love this because I used any opportunity I could in college to write papers about my favorite pop culture things. I took a Feminist Theory course as an elective one semester and wrote my final paper about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I no longer have a copy of it (this was early ‘00s, I saved it onto a floppy disk) but I’m sure it was full of gems about Willow & Tara from half-closeted me.

  2. Kayla ilu but your editorial note from the present correcting past Kayla’s spelling of Brittana… also misspells it 😂 all this to say, it’s fine and past and present Kayla and the rest of us are all doing the best we can!!

  3. oh, the joys of rereading very queer things you wrote prior to coming out! when i was about fourteen i wrote a sherlock holmes adaptation that was murders at a boarding school with an insufferable lesbian sherlock and a quietly heroic bi watson and honestly this might have inspired me to reread it!

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