Santana, Alison, and Cheryl. Bitchy queer women who are hot, say what they want, and are still sympathetic characters for the viewer to root for.
I think Santana on Glee is the first groundbreaking example of this. Santana got to be a lovable bitch and still have the viewers on her side. Her insults are still classic and she got to have a happy ending – marrying her main love interest in the final season. The reveal of Brittany and Santana’s relationship and the depth of Santana’s feelings managed to give the character something for viewers to latch onto and identify with – even more impressive given the show already had a progressive coming out storyline with Kurt. But while Kurt tended to be one of the main protagonists Santana was free to be a bitch since that is quite frankly what she was introduced as. Even though we get to know her and her motivations much better over the course of the show, there is no tired reveal that she is only mean because she is scared of her sexuality and its repercussions. That really made her stand out and I feel her story makes Glee far richer.
Even though I have my reservations about Alison it is obvious I am in the minority for not shipping her and Emily. And in the end they ended up together. Alison was cruel to everyone in her life including her closest friends, yet she also went through a long albeit convoluted redemptive arc that largely focused on her unresolved feelings for Emily. Although Alison still had an edge, her meanness was largely chalked up to being a teenager whose sense of superiority was heightened by the power her friends bestowed upon her. Alison was the it girl and where she went others would follow. Although I still believe they retconned her to make her queer to appease fans, I appreciate her journey and the way many viewers saw something to admire or identify with in her.
Now with Riverdale we finally have the first indications of the newest character to fit this mold: Cheryl Blossom. Although she often plays the antagonist in situations to help create a more three-dimensional and sympathetic Veronica for the sake of the show, Cheryl is often shown to have a vulnerable side. She is also still friends with Archie and gang even if that friendship is often tenuous and only truly called upon in moments of dire need (like when Archie punched ice for a long time).
I have to admit being mildly surprised they aren’t going for a sweeps relationship for Veronica given some of her more flirty behavior with other girls on the show. But hopefully the O.C. and Greek sweeps storylines are relics of a time of dicey queer representation on television. Hopefully Cheryl will keep the trajectory going of interesting queer women who can balance being both antagonists when needed and still characters we root for and support.
I think characters like Santana, Alison, and Cheryl are a nuanced approach in creating more morally ambiguous gay characters on the small screen while not making them into flat-out villains. More importantly, instead of attributing their “bitchy” behavior to being gay, that behavior is instead just another part of their personality separate from their sexualities. And there are many times we are meant to laugh with them when they make fun of another characters even if the other character is a protagonist. Even when the joke is at the expense of a character we like, they are often echoing things a viewer might be thinking or feeling, increasing our ability to identify with the character in the moment.
What do you think? Are these characters representative of a new type of queer character? Or has our love of insult comedy and reality television made us root for characters who should function more as antagonists? Are they character we love, love to hate, or something in between?