"Glee" star Naya Rivera (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Fans of "Glee" have long suspected that there was something special going on between Santana and Brittany, the show's mean girl/dim girl cheerleading duo. There were the goo-goo eyes and the intertwined pinkies, the back rubs and flirty duets.
The relationship might have been just another inside joke on a show full of inside jokes, but fans wanted more. They dubbed the pair "Brittana," and tweeted and blogged endlessly about how great it would be if the two became a real couple. Of course, fans known as "shippers" have fantasized for years about imaginary trysts between their favorite characters. This time, though, show creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk did something unexpected: they listened, creating a plotline this season in which Santana professes her love for Brittany.
The fans "should take credit for that," says Naya Rivera, the 24-year-old actress who plays Santana on the show. "Who knows if the writers would have taken that relationship so seriously if there hadn't been such an outpouring for them to get together."
The long-awaited event has pushed Rivera to the forefront of a series already overloaded with stars. Two months before the critical episode aired, Falchuk tweeted a shipper-friendly message that "Brittana is on" — and that guest star Gwyneth Paltrow would be the one to bring them together. Murphy's response to all those insistent fans: "Are you happy now?"
For Santana, it's been an admittedly rough period — after Brittany rebuffed her to stay with boyfriend Artie, she formed a temporary relationship-of-convenience with Karofsky, a closeted football player — but it's been nothing but upside for Rivera herself. "I didn't know where they were going to take the story line, but I ended up having a lot of fun playing with it," she says. "I've gotten to show off different sides of who Santana is, and I've gotten an overwhelmingly great response."
A native of Santa Clarita, Rivera has been acting since she was 4, appearing in such series as "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Family Matters" and "The Bernie Mac Show." In between auditions and tapings, Rivera worked odd jobs as a telemarketer, a nanny and an Abercrombie & Fitch greeter before landing her current role on "Glee."
Woefully underused for much of "Glee's" first season (not so unusual on an ensemble show with more than a dozen regulars), Rivera has gone from playing a secondary character, the mean Cheerio with the blistering put-downs, to cast regular.
Off the set, she's done a gay-themed Q&A with Vanity Fair (something of a stretch, given that Rivera is not gay), seen her stock soar on sites like AfterEllen, a lesbian media website, and won the ultimate honor for any aspiring gay icon: a gig as host of the GLAAD Media Awards.
At the event, which took place in San Francisco earlier this month, Rivera joked about "Glee's" standing as "the gayest show on television," and gave shout-outs to some of the "incredible on-air lesbians that came before me" (the admittedly short list included Mariel Hemingway, Alyson Hannigan, and Ellen DeGeneres).
"The story line with Santana struggling with her affection for another teenage girl, calling herself a lesbian but not knowing how to say that out loud yet, is one that hasn't been told on a prime-time network television show at that level, particularly by an LGBT teen of color," says GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios. "We win acceptance and respect from people across America through shows like 'Glee,' simply by having our stories told."
"There was a lot of rejoicing," says blogger Dorothy Snarker, who has written about the evolution of Brittana at AfterEllen.com. "I think it's a really important relationship, especially for younger viewers, because there aren't that many teen shows with consistent and regular lesbian or bisexual female characters."
Of course, "Glee" hasn't had a universally positive response to these story lines. In recent weeks, the show has been lambasted by the Media Research Center ("Ryan Murphy's latest depraved initiative to promote his gay agenda") and former "Saturday Night Live" comedian Victoria Jackson, who accused the show of "shoving the gay thing down our throats." On a recent news segment on a Fox TV station in Houston, pundits debated in a segment titled "Is TV Too Gay?," opening with a clip of "Glee's" Chris Colfer sporting a T-shirt that read "Likes Boys."
"We just laugh it off," says Rivera. "Everyone's entitled to their opinions, but I know that for those of us who play gay characters on the show, we feel very happy and honored and lucky to be a part of that. I think the show is just as much revered for that as we are chastised, so it evens out."
Fans of the show will likely get a glimpse of where Brittana is headed on Tuesday's season finale, which will feature the cast's long-awaited trip to nationals.
"Honestly, I never thought I'd actually be playing a teen lesbian," says Rivera. "I didn't think it was going to go this far. But I'm glad that it did, because there have been a lot of fans who have expressed that they've been going through similar situations in their lives. I've heard from girls that are in high school, they're 16, 17, and they're like, 'I came out to my mom,' or 'I came out to my friends, and thank you for helping me do that.'"