Friday, April 15, 2011

Santana Lopez and What Lies Beneath: Part 4


Santana Lopez is a bitch. 

It’s not an insult; it’s simply a truth.  She herself states to Artie in “Duets,” “I don’t mean to bitch... well, actually I do.”  Santana Lopez is a bitch, knows she is a bitch, and rarely operates outside the realm of bitchdom.  Santana works in bitch like an artist paints in oils - she’s a master.  She cuts people down, calls them out on their bullshit, and always knows when to make a dirty joke.  And we love it: name almost any of your favorite one-liners from this show and chances are it came from the smirking mouth of Santana.

Santana Lopez is a bitch.

But the writers rarely choose to present her in any other light.  She smirks, she snarks, she flips insults out with uninhibited ease.  Historically speaking, we aren’t meant to take Santana seriously - she slithers through the narrative with a Cheshire Cat smile, creating conflict and providing comedy.  It was the perfect way to utilize a background character, and a “bitchy” one at that.  Because “bitchy” is not always an insult on television.  Santana’s hilarious, and keeps it real.

But what happens with a character who is absolutely a bitch?  There is a divide in the results: based on how the show presents her, and how the audience interprets that presentation.

The show ran into problems in presentation after maneuvering Santana out of the background and into a more substantial onscreen role.  The problem is twofold: in doing this, they chose to have the other characters call Santana out on her bitchery.  Santana’s bitchiness was no longer floating above the narrative as something to laugh at - gravity kicked in fast and yanked it into the storylines, where Santana was going to get some very real comeuppance.  The idea that no one likes Santana because she is a bitch was about to get very real.  Finn and Quinn called her out, and Rachel and Lauren both insulted her rather venomously in “Silly Love Songs,” and she even got beat up by Lauren in a very public hallway.

Now, turnabout is fair play.  I’m not saying that Santana should be excused from all verbal barbs.  But, the writers still didn’t take the situation seriously - Santana’s bitchiness, and the repercussions thereof, were once again played for comedy, when we should have been allowed instead to see them in a more serious light.  It's not a joke that Santana wouldn't have any friends as a result of her behavior.  But her post-insult tears were simply there for a laugh, and her smackdown with Lauren was played entirely in slapstick, complete with a delusional Santana yelling, “That’s how we do it in Lima Heights!” as if she hadn’t just been tossed into a row of lockers like a ragdoll.

This is where the second problem arises: by “Silly Love Songs” in particular, Santana was not just a background character anymore.  As far as I’m concerned, the minute they mentioned the reasons for Santana’s summer surgery, she became a real character and not just a joke.  So the idea that she is not supposed to be a punchline, but is still being treated like Jugs the Clown, is a huge irresponsibility in storytelling.  It’s the one time that Santana’s bitchiness becomes an issue: when the characters in the narrative take it seriously but the execution of the narrative does not.  Once again, it’s denying Santana’s point of view from being communicated fairly - the writers are holding Santana accountable for a character trait that they give her almost exclusively, without allowing her to operate empathetically aside from it.

Of course, Santana’s bitchiness is part of why we love her, and for the most part it’s wielded to great effect within the storylines.  But in that Santana is almost unrelenting in her put-downs and disdain, it presents another possibility for interpretation by the audience - especially on the assumption that Santana is meant to be a three-dimensional character.

We begin to look through the cracks of Santana’s bitchiness, examining closely for something more.  And to that end, something intriguing happens: she becomes a character that we endeavor to understand not through her absolutes, but through her exceptions.  When is Santana not snarking?  When is she not covering up genuine emotion with disdain?  When is she not mouthing off to authority with a sizeable chip on her shoulder?

Santana Lopez is therefore a rare and fascinating character, in that she is a character who requires us to piece apart not what she is saying, but what she isn’t saying.  We learn more about Santana in the moments in between, when she defies her stereotype, sheds her well-protected lizard skin, and allows us to see what’s beating underneath.

It happens rarely.  But every moment of development that Santana has had on this show - the moment where she admits enjoying Glee Club, when she confesses to Sue the real reasons for her summer surgery, when she discovers Brittany thinks heart attacks are just from loving too much - are when Santana, as a character, lets her shield down just a little, and allows us to catch a glimpse what lies beneath.  It's not always written - more often than not it's in reaction shots, in the background, or through actions she's not taking. 

This has long been the approach with Santana’s character, and has been the cause for much debate amongst fans.  Some choose to view Santana only for her rough exterior, and the way that she seems to enjoy wreaking emotional destruction on other characters’ storylines.  But others, myself included, choose to view Santana for those brief moments in the in-between, where we can see Santana genuinely, and ask ourselves: why is she so bitchy?  Why does she seem to enjoy wreaking emotional destruction on others?  Why did she get a boob job?  Why does she stick with Brittany despite showing little patience for every other human being’s shortcomings?

Santana seems to wield her bitchiness in an effort to push people away, based on the fact that the only person who's close is Brittany.  She tries to keep people beneath her, to keep people from getting under her lizard skin.  So it's safe to say that Santana Lopez is protecting herself.  Keeping her true self hidden, underneath a prickly exterior, so people don't want to get close.  Santana keeps a thick and poisonous skin because she doesn't want them to see what's underneath.  She wants people to notice her (her reasons for the boob job) but she doesn't want them to see her, for what she truly is.  She wants people to look at her and see the front she puts up - the in-charge, super-cool, self-confident hot cheerleader.  Because deep down, Santana is not always the in-charge, super-cool, self-confident hot cheerleader. 

In “Sexy,” we got a whole truckload of truths about Santana’s real self.  Santana shed her hard exterior, opened up, and we learned the complete, verbalized answer to the question of why she’s a bitch all the time: because she has feelings for Brittany that she’s scared of.  100% valid.  And it makes sense - Brittany's the one person who knows Santana for her true self.  It makes sense that Santana would have feelings in accordance with that.  But I hesitate to say those feelings for Brittany are the only reason Santana is a bitch and be done with it.  Frankly, those feelings speak to a whole larger issue that has bubbled up in Santana’s character all season long, and can explain a lot of her Season 1 behavior as well.  I’ll deal with this more in a future part.

The fact of the matter, and a true triumph of the show, is that Glee’s cast of characters are built on a stereotype, but allowed to be more than their label within the narrative.  Sure, the writers have difficulty putting this into effect with consistency, but the purpose remains: no one should be defined by their High School Label without the writers giving them an opportunity to demonstrate how they defy that.  And Santana, as a main character on Glee, deserves to function, and be interpreted as more than just a bitchy cheerleader.

Santana may be a bitch, but “bitch” is not the end-all, be-all of the character.  The writers need to write those in-between moments, and let them mean something in the storylines.  They need to let us understand Santana in a meaningful way.  Hopefully, as Santana is moved more towards the forefront of the show, we'll see more of this change reflected onscreen.




  1. Great post.

    What makes Santana my favorite character is exactly what you bring up here, the in between moments when she lets her guard down. Her bitchiness makes her hilarious and her hidden interior makes her fascinating. The moments when we get a glimpse into her issues and fears and emotions are so much more poignant than when other characters do it because she is so guarded.

    I agree with you that there is a vulnerable girl underneath and her bitchy persona is a way to protect that, but not just by keeping people away, but also by asserting her power. She has worked very hard at creating this persona, the one that kicks ass and slashes with her vicious words and would be willing to take on Lauren herself, just to be seen as powerful and therefore protecting herself from attack. Even if she kept people away, that wouldn't protect her from the viciousness of that school, which she probably became a part of because it was more preferable to be part of the system rather than be out of it and open to attack. When she's attacked, her facade mostly falls apart, specially when the attacks are emotional. Since I don't see bitchy Santana giving dim Brittany the time of day, I assume that they met at some point in time when Santana wasn't 'The Bitch'.

    Underneath, I think she's also very insecure and putting other people down makes her feel better. As time has progressed though, I think she has embraced that quality about herself and started doing it in part to be funny, rather than to hurt. It's clear to me that by mid season 2 her contempt for her fellow Gleeks is considerably less, and I do believe her when she says that she 'keeps it real and is hilarious'.

    I disagree with one thing though, I don't think that she enjoys wreaking emotional havoc in others, nor do I think she's any worse than the other gleeks when it comes to verbal abuse and inappropriate behavior. She might be the one who does it the most, but she's certainly not the only one. Even Artie herself has been guilty of it, making lewd remarks at the 'ostrich eggs on her chest' or something like that. So, while she might have the sharpest tongue, I don't find her as toxic as some people might think her to be, mostly because most characters seem to shrug off her insults. If she was truly vicious and went truly hurting people's feelings, I don't think I could have the sympathy I have for her.


  2. ....

    Also, I think that there is a logic to the madness when it comes to her bitchiness. Verbal attacks aside, Santana only attacks when provoked.

    She attacked Quinn when she got her demoted to the bottom of the pyramid because of the boob job, but she didn't rattle her out to Sue when she was pregnant.

    She puts her moves on Finn, but after she felt humiliated by Rachel, who left her out of the 'girls with football players as boyfriends'

    She blurts out that she slept with Finn months after it happened, and only after Finn humiliates her by telling Rachel that she's 'not worth' it.

    She gives mono to Quinn and Finn to bring their cheating to light, but after they ganged up on her at glee club and started the attack that ended in her leaving in tears.

    She went after Lauren, Mercedes and Quinn when they went after 'her man'...

    She broke up Artie and Brittany because she knew Brittany was doing it just to make her jealous, yet she didn't try to break them up again when they got together the second time, or after Sexy, when Brittany pretty much told her that the only obstacle for them to happen was Artie.

    All in her, her real attacks aren't random or even based on lies used to manipulate. Even at her worst, like the mono thing, or breaking up Bartie, or blurting out that she slept with Finn, all of those were truths.

    I'm really looking forward to seeing more of Santana's journey and I am completely blown away by Naya's work with her, specially since I have the feeling that most of what humanized Santana at the beginning (which allowed for her to be taken seriously later) was Naya creating the character in her head and bringing her to life at a time when the writers weren't even paying attention. There is so much that I'm pretty sure wasn't on the page, but Naya brought to the screen. Bravo.

  3. @Nat I agree with most of your post. Part of it does raise a question, though. Why does she go after the girls instead of Puck? After all, Mercedes and Lauren didn't go after "her man," PUCK went after them despite initial rejections. So, why aim the bitchiness at the girls instead of at Puck?

  4. @anon Well, would Santana really know that he went after them and it was not the other way around? Besides, this is the same thing as when wives go after their husbands' lovers instead of the husband himself. Also, regardless of who started the relationship, in Santana's head they're competition, I think (which may be why she goes after them instead of him), so it may be more about her proving to herself that she's better than them, than about Puck. And the way to do that is to bully them into backing off.

    IDK, it's difficult to make conclusions about Santana when the writers treated her so carelessly for so long, viewing as nothing but a walking insult/tool for drama for other characters rather than a real person. After all, Rachel dated Puck as well, so you'd think she would go pretty heavily after her too, no?

  5. @Nat You're right that it is difficult to draw conclusions about Santana. But she must know that Puck is the chaser in these scenarios. He has pursued each girl specifically by serenading her in front of the entire glee club (Quinn being the exception).

    I think you're probably right about the competitive aspect. She never really seems to care about Puck, so it makes sense that her actions would be more about besting a rival than about the prize (Puck) himself.

    As for Rachel, I thought maybe Santana didn't really consider a loser like Rachel to be enough of a threat to bother going after, in spite of the serenade.

    Technically, Lauren should fall into the same category, except that Puck made a point of publicly declaring, "I'm not your man" to Santana. That one sentence turned Lauren into a more serious rival than any of the others.

  6. They need to give Santana more agency, more choices as you so eloquently put it in your posts on gender - simply if only to make up for this complete vacuum of significance in most of the first two seasons.

    You're right, between here becoming a slightly more real character and Brittany, she was still played as a joke. Her genuine emotion at everyone ganging up on her was just a laugh. To me that's particularly cruel.


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