When Glee premiered on May 19, 2009, I was 17. At the time, I knew I had feelings for women, but I didn’t understand them; my worldview was so sheltered that I didn’t even know that being bisexual or a lesbian was a thing. As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see, and it wasn’t until I watched Santana fall in love with Brittany on Glee that I realized my feelings for women were valid. Yet while I and countless other queer young women felt represented by Brittana (the duo’s couple name), many people didn’t take their romance seriously — including the show’s own writers.
"We got into that storyline almost as a goof at first," co-creator Brad Falchuk said during Comic Con in 2011, according to Digital Spy. Indeed, Glee initially played Brittany and Santana’s intimacy for comedy; in Season 1, Episode 13, Brittany joked, "if [sex was dating], Santana and I would be dating," much to the confusion of their peers, and other throwaway lines about them hooking up ("I’m like a lizard, I need something warm beneath me or I can’t digest my food," Santana once said about Brittany) made it seem like the duo was never destined to be treated like a real couple. In 2010, Heather Morris (Brittany) even told The Advocate that Brittany and Santana’s relationship had "always sort of been a joke with the writers," done simply because of how close Morris and her co-star Naya Rivera (Santana) were off-screen.
The fact that Glee aired on the historically conservative, prime-time network FOX made it even less likely that the show would deepen Brittana’s storyline. Although Pride reported that Murphy said at Paleyfest 2011 that network censors never said no to any of Glee‘s stories, just encouraged restraint because of the 8 p.m. time slot, Morris told The Advocate that Murphy felt differently. "I asked Ryan about [a potential make-out scene] and he said there was no way," Morris claimed. "He said that since we’re a prime-time television show, he didn’t want to do that."
Perhaps as a result, until Season 2, Brittana’s sexual history and relationship was hardly mentioned — despite Morris and Rivera’s clear chemistry on screen and passion from fans who’d ‘shipped the couple since before the actors were even series regulars. It wasn’t until the season’s fourth episode, "Duets," that things changed. In that hour, Santana and Brittany were shown together in bed, with Santana nuzzling Brittany’s neck and saying it was a nice break from all the scissoring.
It wasn’t a great scene (no, scissoring isn’t all two women can do to have sex, despite what many writers seem to think), but it was groundbreaking. Until "Duets," many fans had felt like Brittana was nothing more than a cruel figment of our imaginations; after the episode, the ‘ship finally felt real. "I AM SO GLAD THEY PUT SANTANA AND BRITTANY TOGETHER!!!!!!!!" one fan wrote on Twitter. "OKAY YES SO MUCH TO THE BRITTANY/SANTANA IN THIS EPISODE," said another. "OMG OMG OMG BRITTANY AND SANTANA! I WAS WAITING THIS SINCE THE FIRST SEASON!" wrote yet another.
Critical reaction to the scene, however, was mixed. As After Ellen reported, most of the mainstream post-episode coverage ignored the event completely, focusing more on Arie and Brittany’s romantic storyline (Brittany was bisexual) than Brittana. Entertainment Weekly’s review glossed over Glee‘s building of queer female representation to declare that gay male character Kurt "is the most important character on television right now." (Bold and italics and all.) And some coverage was flat-out critical; USA Today even asked if Glee went "too far" with the Brittana scene. Later, after a Season 2 episode in which Santana came to terms with the fact that she was a lesbian, a FOX affiliate referenced the episode in a segment about whether TV was becoming "too gay."
For queer fans, though, Brittana’s storyline mattered enormously — and it was our passion for the coupling that led to the "Duets" scene and subsequent Brittana moments happening at all. "I think it was because the writers and Ryan [Murphy] were getting such a strong craving from the fans — from the Brittany and Santana fans — for them to be together," Rivera told Vanity Fair in 2011. "We sort of took it lightly at first. But then we thought it was something people really wanted us to do, that it was something we should tackle."
At Comic Con in 2011, Falchuk echoed this, saying that the storyline began in earnest only after the writers "realized this show is so inclusive, and then there were people we weren’t representative of. This whole lesbian-bisexual female community."
At the time Glee aired, queer representation on TV was minimal, and practically nonexistent when it came to lesbian and bisexual teen stories. Degrassi: Next Generation had a bisexual character, Paige, and Pretty Little Liars had a lesbian character, Emily, but that was it. While I can’t speak for Degrassi, as I didn’t get the Canadian channel it ran on, Pretty Little Liars depicted a toxic relationship between Emily and Ali, who frequently used and manipulated Emily’s love for her — not exactly the best representation of a healthy relationship for young queer viewers.
That’s what made Brittana so special. Their relationship was real, and it was loving, and it made me, for one, see that kind of romance as a possibility for my own life. It’s no coincidence that I told my friends and family that I was gay the same year that Santana realized and expressed her love for Brittany; the show legitimized my feelings and gave me the confidence to come out.
Even today, I still can’t listen to Fleetwood Mac’s "Landslide" without tearing up because Santana used the song to tell Brittany how she felt about her. In fact, Santana’s admission of love was such a momentous moment in my young adult life that it warranted an entry in my diary at the time.
I was far from the only Glee fan who felt so strongly about Brittana (although I may have been the only one with 39 pages on my old Tumblr blog dedicated to the couple under the hashtag #ProudlySo, a nod to Brittany telling Santana, "I’m so yours, proudly so."). There were countless Brittana ‘shippers on Tumblr — some of whom were queer, some of whom weren’t — and among them, I felt safe to express my feelings about women and excitement for the show’s increasingly representative storyline.
Unfortunately, our passion for Brittana didn’t seem to be shared by some of the series’ writers. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2011 that after the show paired the duo together, Ryan Murphy’s response to Brittana fans was, "are you happy now?" — as if the simple act of daring to depict queer women was a chore worthy of high praise. This attitude was replicated on the actual show; when Brittany and Santana briefly broke up and Brittany dated Sam, a male character, there was a line about how she was worried that "all lesbians of the nation …. [would] turn on [Sam] and get really violent." To many Brittana fans, this felt like the writers were attacking us for being understandably upset about the split.
Yet despite the writers not always taking us seriously, Rivera and Morris seemed to realize just how important the work they were doing was for queer fans. At the 2011 Paleyfest, Rivera told audiences that she was shocked to hear from some viewers that watching Brittana’s relationship helped them combat suicidal feelings. "I never thought that it would be that serious to some people and it is," Rivera said. "And a lot of people have said that [it] gave them courage to come out to their parents and their friends and their loved ones."
Morris, meanwhile, told TV Line in 2011 (via Digital Spy) that she’d met many Brittana fans who couldn’t stop thanking her. "[They] told me how appreciative they were, because they were going through that themselves. It was nice to hear that we did something for them," Morris said.
Once the actors caught wind of how important the storyline was to viewers, they frequently championed it in interviews and encouraged the show to add more gravity to Brittana’s scenes. "We know that there are tons of people who experience something like that and it’s not comical for them in their lives," Rivera told E! News in 2011.
The stars’ encouragement, combined with fans’ passion, did lead to deeper Brittana storylines after "Duets" like the one in which Santana expressed her feelings for Brittany. When she did so, she was shot down because Brittany was still dating Artie, and the heartbreaking scene showed a vulnerable side of Santana’s usually stoic, mean girl character. After the episode, GLAAD recognized Glee for portraying Santana’s coming out experience as real and raw.
"The storyline 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," GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios told the Los Angeles Times. "We win acceptance and respect from people across America through shows like Glee, simply by having our stories told."
After Ellen writer Dorothy Snarker added to the Times that "there was a lot of rejoicing" when the Brittana relationship started to become real. "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."
The mainstream media also started taking notice of Glee‘s deeper portrayal of Brittana, with The Houston Chronicle writing, "For two characters whose primary purpose has been comedic relief, it was refreshing to see them tackle an arc so nuanced and, dare I say, real. It’s exploring a very common, confusing situation many teens find themselves in …. [Santana’s] fear, her confusion, and her journey were all rendered with honesty and even a subtlety rarely exhibited on this show."
Glee was by no means a perfect portrayal of teenage gayness. The show featured a damaging Season 3 scene where Finn outed Santana with no consequences for him, yet many for her, and it also took its sweet time letting Brittany and Santana kiss, waiting until Season 3, Episode 13 — nearly a full season after Santana first told Brittany how she felt. "Peck" would really be a more accurate term for what happened, anyhow; Glee rarely let the women make out, despite straight couples like Rachel and Finn doing so often.
The show also had several problematic lines about bisexual people. Kurt once insisted that Blaine couldn’t be bi because "bisexual is a term that gay guys in high school use when they want to hold hands with girls and feel like a normal person for a change." And when Santana dated a lesbian in New York (after breaking up with Brittany), she happily said, "I finally have a girlfriend who I don’t have to worry about straying for penis." Glee may have had bisexual characters, but it didn’t always understand the nuance of that sexual identity.
Yet for all these problematic elements, the series’ portrayal of Brittana was still, ultimately, a victory for queer young women and representation overall. Was that representation a result of fans essentially forcing the hands of the show’s writers through our passionate tweets and Tumblr posts? Maybe. But that just makes it even more spectacular. Here’s a show that first didn’t even think about representing the "L" and "B" of LGBTQ+ and, when it eventually did, didn’t take it all that seriously. The only reason things changed was the fans, who spoke up about what they wanted and wouldn’t be ignored. As Rivera told the Los Angeles Times, fans "should take credit for [Brittana.] … 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."
It’s now been 10 years since Glee premiered, and TV’s representation of gay women is still lacking. Too many shows kill off their LGBTQ+ female characters (looking at you, The 100), while others write them off after they run out of ideas (hey, Grey’s Anatomy). Even the few shows that have healthy explorations of young women’s sexualities aren’t safe from cancellation (R.I.P., Netflix’s One Day At A Time.)
But things are changing, albeit slowly. After The 100 killed off Lexa, viewers expressed so much outrage that showrunner Jason Rothenberg actually apologized, writing a Medium letter saying he was "powerfully reminded" by fans how difficult life can be for the LGBTQ+ community, and how much positive on-screen representation can matter. "Television characters are still not fully representative of the diverse lives of our audience. Not even close," Rothenberg wrote. "Those of us lucky enough to have a platform to tell stories have an opportunity to expand the boundaries of inclusion, and we shouldn’t take that for granted."
Fan support for LGBTQ+ representation matters now, and it did 10 years ago, too. Because queer fans advocated for themselves, Brittany and Santana’s Glee plotline evolved from a joke to a real romance that affected many of us deeply. We made waves on social media, at panels, and in blogs, telling Glee‘s writers that our perspectives mattered and demanding for more until they listened. Through Brittana, Glee taught many of us that we have the power to create change for queer representation by raising our voices and using our words. A decade later, we’re still doing it.
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