I was never into wrestling as a kid. I was aware that wrestling existed. I had friends from school who were fans of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, but wrestling was never my thing. I was into Care Bears and Cabbage Patch Kids and My Little Pony. I also have vague memories from my childhood of the existence of Women’s Wrestling. In particular, I remember going over to one of my parents’ friend’s houses, and the kids were watching women’s wrestling on TV, so I sat down and watched it with them. As a child, I didn’t have the language to fully articulate my thoughts on what I had seen. I knew that I didn’t like it, and if I could have articulated my thoughts, I probably would have said that women’s wrestling was exploitative and offensive, pitting different “types” of women (read: walking stereotypes) against each other for (mostly) male consumption. Although, in all fairness, as my mother just told me minutes ago, male wrestlers were also sexually exploited, at least in her day. Physically fit men wearing skimpy clothes wrestled around with each other. And, at least in the 80s, these wrestlers were also walking stereotypes. As the amateur- producer rich-kid in GLOW points out, what was the Iron Sheik’s backstory? Nobody knows. All we know is that he hates America and that’s good enough for us.
At any rate, thirty-ish years after I accidentally watched GLOW as a child, the new Netflix series GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) takes a comedic look at the creation of the popular women’s wrestling series from the 80s. The show is really funny and very addicting, as most Netflix shows are. I watched all ten 30-minute episodes in two days. Having watched the whole series, I’m feeling a little conflicted as to what the point of it all is. I get the sense that it’s trying to be a little more than just nostalgic brain Cheetos. I get the sense that it is trying to make a statement about women and empowerment and exploitation, but I’ve been having a tough time unpacking just what that statement might be. Let’s start at the beginning…
Alison Brie plays Ruth, an aspiring actress living in Los Angeles who can’t seem to get cast. She constantly reads for roles as secretaries to powerful and important men, but she can’t even book those gigs. Casting agents always think they want a “real” girl, but when they actually see a real girl, they realize that she’s not what they want. On the verge of resorting to making erotic movies, Ruth shows up for a casting call where the director is specifically looking to cast “unconventional” women. Turns out, the jerk behind the casting call is a B-movie director who is casting women for an all-women’s wrestling league. In fact, in a sponsorship meeting, he actually sells the concept as a giant cat-fight. He says it’s like girl-on-girl porn that you can watch with your kids. Finally!
So at this point, the series seems to be making a statement about the limited choices for women in Hollywood? And it seems like the creators of the Netflix series aren’t exactly painting the concept of women’s wrestling with a flattering brush either? In fact, the brush is quite broad and unflattering. The Indian med student is cast as a terrorist named “Beirut.” The Asian woman is “Fortune Cookie.” The black woman is “Welfare Queen.” Some of these women grapple with the way they’re bring represented. “Welfare Queen,” in particular goes to the sleazy director stating that she finds her character offensive. He responds by telling her that it’s commentary on the state of race relations in a capitalist system, or some other such bullshit, but that it’s exactly how his rationalizations come across: as bullshit. I don’t think anyone truly believes that embracing and owning these stereotypes somehow empowers these women, do they? I don’t think anyone would truly believe that embracing these characters subverts the system that created those types to begin with. But is that what this new Netflix show wants us to believe? At the very least, are we to look at Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling as a vehicle that gave women actors interesting roles with some meat to them, as opposed to characters whose sole purpose is to tell powerful men that their wives are on line 2? I’m sincerely not certain. Take a look at what happens to “Beirut” when she first hits the ring. Spectators spit at her and throw cans at her, injuring Britannica, her opponent, in the process. We can see fear in her eyes. Yes, spectators are supposed to boo and hate you when you’re the “bad guy” in wrestling, but there was something scary in the particular hatred aimed at “Beirut.” I don’t know if wrestling has changed much in the past 30 years, but at least in the 80s, it was all about constructions of “good” versus constructions of “evil.” To look back on it now and pretend it was at all subversive or empowering strikes me as silly and more than a little revisionist.
At any rate, back to Ruth’s backstory, GLOW is not where Ruth expected to be as an actress, but it’s where she has now landed, and she is trying to make the most of it. She is our flawed hero. She’s our Piper Chapman (it’s hard not to make comparisons to OITNB when Jenji Kohan is behind both shows). She comes from a place of privilege she doesn’t even fully realize she has, she is overly analytical, and more than a little self-absorbed. She slept with her best friend’s husband, and she actually hadn’t been cast in GLOW until that very best friend, herself an out-of-work soap opera actress, shows up on set and starts beating her up in the ring. Let’s face it, that’s some fun drama! That’s some delicious brain Cheetos.
So I’m still not sure if there’s more to GLOW than glitter and cat fights, but it did get me to think about, and write about, some issues that aren’t present in a lot of TV shows. I suppose whether GLOW is trying to say something profound about women in show business, or institutionalized racism and sexism, or whether it isn’t actually saying anything at all, it’s still a fun and nostalgic show. I love the hair and make-up. I love the soundtrack. I love how smart, fun, and complex these women are, even if the characters they play in the ring are problematic. After all, just because I have a hard time buying that GLOW was subversive 30 years ago, that doesn’t mean that examining its existence and the players behind the masks through a 2017 lens isn’t, in its own way, a subversive act.