By the time this post is up it’s been almost three weeks since Naya Rivera was confirmed dead, and as someone who grew up as a young sapphic around the time Glee was live I just wanted to give her a little tribute because I think this may have been the first wlw character I saw on TV.
I wasn’t a huge Glee fan, in fact I barely remember much about the show except some parts around the time Santana came out as a lesbian and had her romance with Brittany. I watched plenty of shows and films that were queer coded but nothing overtly queer in representation. I think Santana became my favourite character, because she was always so upfront and blunt. She was hot as hell, as well. Sassy, feisty, deadpan humour, and sharp wit were a selection of descriptors I’ve seen used for the character of Santana Lopez and this was something that always drew me to her as a character. But I didn’t know how much I would love her until I finally watched Glee.
We all know of the curse around the Glee cast. Numerous deaths and controversy follow the original cast members. The first death in 2013 of Cory Monteith from an accidental drug overdose after a past of substance use struggles, and sadly Naya’s body was found on the 7th anniversary of Cory’s death (13th July). Soon followed by Mark Salling who committed suicide after pleading guilty to possession of child p*rnography in 2018, and finally Naya Rivera who drowned after falling into a lake in California. Other awful circumstances have followed the Glee cast. Melissa Benoist came forward about domestic abuse at the hands of her ex-husband (and Glee co-star) which left her with possibly permanent physical damage detailed in her IGTV video. It also appears that Ryan Murphy, one of the shows creators, would get into public feuds with bands that denied his request to use their songs in the show and made some rather distasteful public comments about them and got called out for it by Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters and Nirvana) “the guy who created Glee is so offended that we’re not, like, begging to be on his f–king show”. Yikes. Also he seemingly stole ideas from the cast to write into the show without express permission, Chris Colfer said, “I don’t think any of us directly try to give input on the character or on the storyline, but they definitely steal things from us.” Amber Riley punched a girl in London whilst there with the Cast on tour, something I would call mild compared to the rest. And finally, we can’t forget the shady things Lea Michele herself has been involved in. Besides numerous cast members (particularly Naya) saying Lea Michele was impossible and unbearable to be around, recently Samantha Ware came forward about Michele making Ware’s life hell on set, which sparked a roll of other people’s experiences with Lea Michele as well from a selection of her past productions all the way back to her stage days. Lea Michele seems to live in an ignorant bubble.
I have watched the show properly for the first time during Lock Down and I understand why so many people loved Glee, but boy did it not age well. (I won’t even go into its constant use of the phrase ‘Handicapable’ like some woke buzzword) These characters were born in the same year I was (1994) and during this time, not many shows had out right queer representation and we have Naya to thank for Santana and Brittany coming out and having their love story. Naya really portrayed Santana so well, I would call it one of the more accurate portrayals by a straight actor to date. There were so many moments where she brought a softness that we had never seen before from Santana, but also breaking the stereotype that sapphic couples have to have a butch one and a femme one. She was also one of the first Latina queer representations on T.V. She has such a full character arc, the queer community is always lacking, and I will always be thankful that Glee didn’t follow the ‘bury your gays’ trope that is so damaging to viewers. Though the queer characters may struggle, none of them die. She once said in an interview, “There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them.” She took this role seriously, and Demi Lovato (who played a girlfriend of Santana’s in season 5) said, “I’ll forever cherish the opportunity, the character you played was groundbreaking for tons of closeted queer girls (like me at the time) and open queer girls, and your ambition and accomplishments were inspiring to Latina women all over the world.”
In Naya’s 2016 memoir, she wrote a lot about the hard stuff that many people deal with in normal life but also in the acting industry. I love how blunt and straightforward she is, it really shows they chose the right woman for Santana, or maybe they chose Naya because of her authenticity and moulded the character after her. It wouldn’t be the first time as Kurt was created after Chris Colfer auditioned to be Artie. Naya talked of her relationship with Mark Salling “I think everyone should have that one relationship where you look back and ask yourself, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ You’ll learn something and you won’t regret it. Unless, of course, that relationship was with someone who had a sizable stash of child p*rn on his computer. Then, by all means, regret everything.” but also about being on set, from sexual chemistry to Diva moments of other people on set. She stood up against fellow star’s unprofessional behaviour and stood for Brittana becoming more than just casual ‘lady kisses’.
I’ve read a lot about Naya being everyone’s biggest supporter. In People, a source said, “She always made sure to involve everybody around her. It was never just about her. It was about everybody getting to experience everything that she was doing together. She made sure everybody felt bigger than they maybe were.” and Heather Morris’s instagram posts dedicated to Naya said, “You would tell me “you look so skinny” EVERY TIME you saw me and it made me giggle slash I loved it and when I told you how it made me feel…you said “well I’d always like to hear that I look skinny so I make sure to make others feel good like that.” ” and if you look through Naya’s twitter profile, you can see all the posts dedicated to the BLM movement. She wrote, “In times like these, and always, we must stand up and be counted. Stand up against injustice. Prejudice. Pure evil. These are photos of my grandma protesting for civil rights in the 60s. She was an advocate for civil, women’s, and human rights. She is my hero.” She was clearly a vocal supporter of people from all backgrounds, she made people feel seen, mostly for good reasons but also called out bad behaviour with no remorse. “She was not selfish. She was a very strong person. I think she was ahead of her time for speaking up on certain issues. If you look back around 2011, she was on the forefront of it all. Partnering with GLAAD and doing different things with her heritage,” the source said. “Most people at the start of their careers, she didn’t care if she faced backlash — she just wanted to make sure she spoke out. Some people would’ve hidden, but she took everything head on.” It’s truly tragic that the world lost a woman like this, not many actors or stars stand up so boldly for what they believe and make the voices of the vulnerable heard. She used her platform for good.
Thankfully her talent on screen was seen, as she won several awards in her time. In 2009 she won a Gold Derby award for best comedy supporting actress, 2014 Favourite TV Gal Pals for Santana and Rachel (???), 2014 she won an award for her voice acting role Best Female Vocal Performance, and in 2011 and 2012 she won two awards from ALMA for Favourite Music Artist and Favourite TV Actress for Leading Role in a Comedy. (all from her IMDB I struggled to read this so sorry if anything I wrote was not correct) She was also one of the few cast members of Glee who has had a relatively successful career and regular work since the show ended. I watched Devious Maids but I don’t remember Naya in it so I may have to go bad and give it another watch, it is a good show and one I would highly recommend if you like Drama and Crime. And she was in the Step Up TV show, which I have not seen but may be worth a look but to me nothing will match the original Step Up film starring Channing Tatum.
People speak of her talent a lot. One thing I struggled with when watching the show was that many of the cast of Glee were astronomically talented singers and performers but hardly got any screen time and I found it hard to understand why Rachel and Finn were the stars or lead vocals when many other cast members were more talented and likable. The actor Kevin McHale who played Artie Abrams said, “The amount of times [Naya] would memorize all of those crazy monologues on Glee the morning of and would never ever mess up during the scene… I mean, she was clearly more talented than the rest of us. She was the most talented person I’ve ever known. There is nothing she couldn’t do and I’m furious we won’t get to see more.” and honestly I agree, there was so much she gave already but she clearly was not done.
Naya touched many people’s lives in person and through the television screen. I hope that her death will remind people of everything she did and worked towards, and make you think about how you could better yourself and better the world around you like she did. Obviously, I do not know her, I do not claim to, but everything I have read has lead me to this conclusion, even after reading some bad reviews on her memoir (which I think is just based on a reading preference rather than Naya herself). The world is going through a purge where everything is rising to the surface and we are finally seeing the corruption our personal privileges may have shielded us from. Now is the time to be vocal. I feel inspired by Naya Rivera that there are some people in the world with the right idea, equality above everything. She was a huge part of creating a space for queer women, queer femmes, and for queer BIPOC where there wasn’t one in the mainstream. There’s still a lot of work to do for all marginalised communities and I hope more celebrities will speak out about it the way Naya did.
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