Ready, steady, GLOW: Powerful women wrestle with the 80s


Netflix’s new series GLOW follows the diverse stories of women in the 80s, as they find power and community through professional wrestling.

“Well, it IS stupid, isn’t it?” Debbie “Liberty Belle” Eagan (Betty Gilpin) asks in Netflix’s GLOW. The soap-opera-star-turned-professional-wrestler echoes many viewers’ initial reactions to a show about female wrestlers in the 80s. But by the end of the night, Debbie is a believer, and so are we.

Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men) stars as Ruth Wilder, a struggling but devoted actress who responds to a casting call for a ladies’ wrestling television show. GLOW is a semi-fictionalized version of the actual women’s wrestling league from the 1980s.

The Netflix original also stars Betty Gilpin (Nurse Jackie) as Ruth’s former best friend Debbie Eagan, and Marc Maron (Maron) as Sam Sylvia, the show’s director and the quintessential 80s Hollywood sleazeball. GLOW is produced by Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange is the New Black).

First things first, and that’s Alison Brie. Her fans have been desperate for a show with her at the front, and GLOW doesn’t disappoint. Whether or not she is doing one-woman fight choreography across the ring, or polishing her questionable Soviet character at a Jewish bris, Brie owns every scene she’s in.

The character of Ruth Wilder stands in opposition to Jenji Kohan’s typical female anti-hero. OITNB‘s insufferable Piper Chapman treats people with no respect and whines about how “difficult” her life is, while Weeds’s Nancy Botwin is basically the Godmother. But Ruth Wilder is different. In the pilot episode, she sleeps with her good friend Debbie’s husband (played by Mad Men alum Rich Sommer), and must spend the rest of the season atoning for this betrayal.

Ruth and Debbie’s relationship is one of the most powerful aspects of GLOW. Debbie Eagan, the star of their fictional show, eventually realizes that Ruth’s “Zoya the Destroya” is the perfect foil for her “Liberty Belle” character. GLOW takes two women whose friendship has been torn asunder because of a man and allows them to rebuild their relationship through collaboration on their craft: performing. By season’s end, Debbie is not yet ready to be BFFs with Ruth again, but both women have a mutual respect centered around each other, not a man.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about Alison Brie and her character, but GLOW actually has a diverse and well-written cast of characters, each of which is a complex and well-developed human being despite the sexist and racist constraints of the 1980s.

The real genius of GLOW is the same kind for which fellow period piece Mad Men has been praised. Set in the oppressive Reagan era, the show takes place in a time where racism and misogyny are alive and well, and it doesn’t shy away from this. However, in the midst of a dark time period, our female characters are able to find some form of empowerment and joy.

In a tender moment toward the end of the season, Debbie tells Ruth that she actually likes wrestling, on account of being “back in [her] body,” and being reminded that her body belongs to her, and not the men in her life.

Stacey and Dawn, the women in the white hoods, debate on the morality of the performance, but we know better. In earlier scene, Cherry and Tammé decide to throw away the storyline written for the match by the director, and replace it with Cherry’s own, a story that sees her and Tammé come out as champions and victors. In the 1980s, two lower-class black women putting on a show that they wrote, a narrative which portrays them as the heroes, and winning wild praise from an audience is victorious.

Now, not all of GLOW is fun. This is a drama almost as much as it is a comedy.

Most viewers in 2017 cringed when Jenny Chey (Ellen Wong) was told that her character would be a hideously racist Asian caricature. “I’m Cambodian,” she says, but Sam Sylvia continues on to Tammé, dubbing her “Welfare Queen.” Arthie Premkumar (Sunita Mani), who is Indian, is made into “Beirut the Mad Bomber,” which shouldn’t require much explanation. Carmen Wade (Britney Young), Cherokee daughter of a wrestling dynasty, is a caricature of a Mayan. Even Ruth’s brief Jewish caricature was ruthlessly offensive. And so on.

The ladies accept their characters though, and do what they can to have fun with them and indulge their audiences. The problematic characters are soon consumed into the show’s campy nature, but the show does not neglect to address these portrayals.

One powerfully chilling scene occurs when Tammé approaches Sam to discuss her issues with her “Welfare Queen” character. Sam reveals his camp storytelling’s intentions, to be satirical and overblown for the sake of entertainment. But Tammé asks the eerily timely question: “Will they know that?” which isn’t answered immediately.

This leads us to one of the season’s most uncomfortable scenes, especially for modern viewers. Arthie, as “Beirut,” is fighting Rhonda “Britannica” Richardson and the audience becomes extremely angry and fervent to the point where they are shouting out slurs at Artie, and a poorly-aimed beer can hits Rhonda in the face.

Later, in the locker room, shaken Arthie says “They really hated me.” Rhonda answers: “Isn’t that a good thing?” This uncomfortable question is also unanswered, and isn’t addressed again.

In our age of social awareness and activism, when a piece of media’s success can be affected by its portrayal of social minorities (or lack thereof), GLOW pulls off a powerful artistic move. It portrays racist and sexist elements on the screen, nestled in a deeply conservative period, and it interrogates them.

Art is a space for telling stories that cover the variety of human experience, and therefore art shouldn’t be afraid to explore things that make many people uncomfortable. The important thing is that GLOW doesn’t condone these awful things. Like the wrestling show itself, it portrays them in a digestible form, with plenty of surrounding camp and humor, but honest about their damaging nature. And lo, dialogues are started, and new stories have the potential to be explored.

GLOW  is utterly fantastic. It isn’t perfect, but it tries to look at uncomfortable aspects of humanity in an accessible way.

Oh, and Alison Brie.  So it may just be perfect.

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GLOW is now streaming on Netflix.