Opinion | Glee’s homage to Britney Spears changed my life


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The second episode of season two of “Glee” pays tribute to singer and songwriter Britney Spears.

By Megan Williams, Contributing Editor

I’m 11 years old and waiting for the second episode of the second season of “Glee.” I’m only half tuned in — the first season was pretty boring, full of Journey covers and lots of unpopular girls pining for popular boys. If this season doesn’t start to turn a corner, I’m officially pledging my allegiance to “Pretty Little Liars.”

Just before I can change the channel, something incredible happens. Brittany (Heather Morris) gets her first solo of the show … singing a Britney Spears song. Not just any lousy, auditorium-set solo, either — she’s fully recreating the “Slave 4 U” music video, with the famous VMA’s boa constrictor.

The episode, “Britney/Brittany,” aired 10 years ago. It changed “Glee” and the entire world. Or at least my world — for the first time in my life, I saw Sapphic behavior on mainstream television.

Seeing gay women on screen in 2010 was like spotting a fox in the wild. While Ellen DeGeneres is credited with creating the first show in which a lesbian was the main character, there was a distinct lack of Sapphic content aimed at young women — those who did exist, like Willow from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” were often resigned to sidekick status, and typically seen as “weirdos.” For context, President Barack Obama, the Democrat in office, was still against gay marraige in 2010 when “Britney/Brittany” aired.

Before I watched “Britney/Brittany,” I was kind of confused about why my friends liked the show so much. One of my very best friends had a Finn cutout (portrayed by the late Cory Monteith) and practiced kissing on it. I found the idea of kissing Finn, or any other “Glee” boy, objectively repulsive. It might seem obvious what my next conclusion would’ve been, but growing up in a small, conservative town in 2010 meant that I was just desperately waiting to find a boy I could stomach.

After Brittany absolutely bodies “Slave 4 U,” she and her best friend, Santana (the late Naya Rivera), go to the dentist and demand to be drugged so they can have a Britney Spears fever dream together. They sing “Me Against the Music,” portraying Spears and Madonna, respectively. During the three-minute song, I had several earth-shattering revelations.

Firstly, Santana was the best singer in the entire Glee club. Secondly, Brittany was the best dancer in the entire Glee club. Thirdly, I was gay.

Somewhere in between seeing Santana in a perfectly fitted white suit and hearing her croon, “Hey Brittany! You say you wanna lose control! Come over here I got something to show you, sexy lady!” I realized that I was probably a lesbian.

Of course, I had to have my first of many gay panics quietly, as my father was sitting 2 feet away, reading the newspaper and surreptitiously tapping his foot. My hands felt sweaty, my face was hot, and I knew I’d be rewatching those same three minutes again and again the second Dad went to bed.

The performance ends with a guest appearance from the real Britney Spears. Glee’s Brittany smiles at her and says “You’re really hot,” before the fantasy ends.

It was the first time I’d seen two girls — three girls, with the addition of real Britney — do something overtly sexy for each other. Brittany and Santana were grinding on each other, singing to each other, because they wanted to date each other and have sex as two women. I knew this, intimately, despite their nonexistent relationship in season one because I knew being with a girl was what I wanted, too.

Their sexual relationship would be confirmed two episodes later. While gay women are often the victims of the “bury your gays” trope, Brittany and Santana have a happy relationship that ends in marriage. And it all started with their first on-screen duet in season two.

Britney Spears’ guest appearance paved the way for a star-studded season two. This season is often ranked highest on both fan lists and in terms of average viewership. The cast went on tour for “Glee! Live! In Concert!” after the wide increase in prestige and attention. Glee won three Golden Globe awards for its sophomore season, one of which was Best Television Series — Musical or Comedy.

In many ways, upping the ante saved Glee from an early cancellation, something other Ryan Murphy-directed shows haven’t escaped. “Britney/Brittany” was the first episode to pay homage to a megastar while also inviting that megastar on the show. It was the first episode to forget soppy, painful heterosexual pining plots for nonstop Sapphic fun. It was also the first time Glee really accepted itself — a show about teenagers bursting randomly into song is silly and strange. Why not lean into the weirdness a little with laughing gas-induced Britney Spears fantasies?

I did go back and rewatch the “Me Against the Music” scene after my dad went to sleep. Then again the next morning. Then I bought the song on iTunes and listened to it on the bus ride to school. I tried to learn the dance with my friends at lunch — they were more interested in Rachel’s take on “Oops, I Did it Again!” of course. So I waited until I went home, then learned the moves alone in my living room. I didn’t have a partner like Brittany did, but I felt less alone than I ever had before.

Ten years later, I still love “Britney/Brittany.” It’s my comfort television episode — I watch it when I’m sick or sad. I watched it after my first girlfriend broke up with me and felt safe knowing that at least I’d always have my sexuality, something I grew to love with time. I watched it when Rivera died this summer, the only celebrity death by which I’ve been personally devastated.

Representation for gay women still isn’t where it should be, but the progress made in 10 years would make little Megan scream. On shows like 2019’s “Euphoria,” the lead is a Black queer woman — one of the most underrepresented groups in America — in love with a trans queer woman. It’s getting easier for Sapphics to see ourselves as people worthy of attention and narrative ownership, though, as roles grow more frequent and more diverse.

“Glee” is long gone from our screens — fizzling out in its ill-received sixth season — and in many cases from our culture. It’s not beloved, like “Seinfeld,” and not enough time has passed for nostalgia to kick in like it has for “Friends.” For myself, though — and I’d wager for other queer girls — “Britney/Brittany” is never far from my heart.

Megan Williams writes primarily about mental illness, literature and queer culture. Write to her at [email protected].