“But then I found wrestling, and it saved me.”
Ruth Wilder (GLOW)
I wish I had a show like GLOW to watch when I was younger. Where female relationships were the centerpiece, and the romantic relationships were presented in all their complicated, messy glory. Where the focus was on identity, on gender. One that highlighted the stupidity of societal gender ‘norms’. A show filled with women of all different races, colors, personalities, shapes and sizes. And full of tropes and situations women experience every day with such subtlety, and at times humor, that I feel the need to stand and applaud.
GLOW, the latest Netflix series created by Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive, is a fictional depiction of the 80s TV show of the same name. An acronym for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, the series is executive produced by Jenji Kohan, the creative genius behind shows like Orange is the New Black and Weeds.
GLOW opens on Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), a struggling actor in the middle of giving the audition of her life. She delivers a commanding, passionate speech: “I will not be bullied into submission.”
...until the casting director informs her she is reading the male role in the script. Ruth quickly switches to the female—a one-liner as the dutiful secretary.
And with this, we are introduced to life in the 1980s.
To clarify my opening paragraph, it’s not that I didn’t have strong female characters to look up to as a kid. Buffy the Vampire Slayer shaped 70% of my personality growing up. When I was younger, I would dream of being a Charmed one, and Dark Angel almost made wearing a barcode on the back of your neck cool (almost). However, despite all the ass-kicking, the Scooby gang-ness, the fierce independence depicted on my screen, it was all very Hollywood.
The women were always tiny with that late 90s / early 00s style of front-cover beauty, led by the likes of Britney Spears and Kirsten Dunst. They were nearly always white, with perfect teeth, perfect hair. Even in the middle of banishing demons or slaying vampires, they looked flawless. And then there was me – a 10-year-old incredibly awkward looking tomboy. Growing out of childhood puppy fat, to soon transition into pre-pubescent weight gain. A lover of pro wrestling, often found elbow-dropping cushions from the top of the couch, or outside fighting a tree with a homemade stake. My cousin once told me, “Don’t worry. You’ll grow into your looks.” I was 12. Surprisingly, his comment didn’t aide the situation.
And now, in 2017, here is GLOW.
Ruth (Brie), is constantly described as ‘real’ (read: Hollywood for ‘plain’). In a painful assessment made by director Sam Sylvia (Maron), “Do people think you’re pretty? Because like, I’m looking at you - one second I think, ‘fuck yeah, she’s hot.’ And then the next second I’m like, ‘I don’t know. Is she? Really?’ I mean, you just have one of those faces that changes.” Her counterpart, Debbie Eagan (Gilpin), is a former daytime soap star. Blonde, all-American, who gave birth to her first child six months prior. Tall, stunning, but so desensitized to life she is barely holding on. The other twelve GLOW women range from an athletic strong black woman (Cherry Bang, played by Sydelle Noel), to a small Cambodian girl with the gimmick Fortune Cookie - from China (Jenny, played by Ellen Wong), to even a wolf (Sheila the Wolf, played by Gayle Rankin). Spiritually, that is. She is human, but identifies as a wolf, nonetheless.
Every single woman in this main cast of fourteen bring strong, clearly defined, complex, and completely endearing characters to the table. There is a range and versatility in type represented that (said in old woman voice) “back in my day” just did not exist. And not only is there diversity where each of the fourteen women are given solid, fulfilling storylines to dive into, they are so specific to the character’s backgrounds it leaves every episode filled with an entire gamut of colour.
And to be honest, this kind of diversity is why I fell back in love with pro wrestling.
When the Women’s Revolution first began in WWE, all of a sudden we started seeing female pro athletes in the ring. Not that this was entirely a first, with women like Chyna, Jackie, Beth Phoenix, Lita, Trish Stratus, Kharma (Kia Stevens, who also plays Tamee in the show) to name a few. And honestly, I still take my hat off to the women who were employed purely for their sex appeal, because fact is they went out there, put on a show, and played the game. I’m grateful the game has changed, but they were all influential in getting us here: two years into the Women’s Revolution. With the change in style and presentation of the women’s division, I found hope. I found an inexplicable weird strength and confidence, an acceptance of self I hadn’t had since I was a child. And now with the Mae Young Classic beginning soon, even more women of different talents, backgrounds, races, shapes, sizes will come together and be introduced to WWE audiences.
This is why it is so important we see such a diverse range of characters depicted on screen. Someone like Shawn Michaels will always be respected across the board, but it’s always the one specific personality that isn’t necessarily a mainstream favorite that will carry a special meaning. The one you identify the strongest with, the one that carries that personal connection that makes them “your girl/guy”.
Which ties into the central theme of GLOW – the subject of identity.
“They’re going to be wrestling with their own female stereotypes, metaphorically...And I think that’s something that’s really going to resonate with female audiences.”
– Sam Sylvia
At the beginning of the series, most of the women and men are lost. They’re stuck in a repetitive cycle, or just completely clueless - most of them don’t even know why they’re at the casting call. Over the course of the season, they slowly begin to grow into themselves, using and accentuating parts of their personalities in their gimmicks. For others, they are confronted with stereotypes given to them by the director, Sam. The most difficult storyline to watch is Arthie’s (Sunita Mani), a girl of Lebanese decent who is constantly found with her head in a book. She is given the persona of Beirut, a terrorist. Which unfortunately coincides with a real-world plane hijacking by a real-world group of Lebanese terrorists. In the final match between her and Rhonda (Kate Nash), Beirut is met with hateful jeers, spitting, and racial slurs from the crowd. A beer can is even lobbed into the ring, maiming Rhonda in the process. After the match, the two girls sit backstage as Rhonda is patched up:
Arthie: Everyone really hated me. All those people HATED me.
Britannica: Yeah but, that’s a good thing... right?
The question is left unanswered.
GLOW is told from a uniquely female perspective that doesn’t alienate or preach. It is filled with nuances and subtleties so specific to the female experience, but done in such a well-crafted and at times, humorous way. It manages to wrap up entire sentiments in gut-punching sentences with such ease. For example, one line from Sheila the Wolf sums up an entire sentiment I wish I could explain so simply:
“And what I do in the morning. What I put on, what I wear— it’s not for you. It’s for me.”
GLOW is smart, poignant, funny as hell, and always entertaining. The writing is next-level and as a wrestling fan, does not feel at all out of place in the pro wrestling world. It has a ton of callbacks and references to the past and current product – there is a Bayley reference in there that almost had me in tears. This show is so aware of not only what it is, but what women’s wrestling was and still is, that at points if you changed their costumes and modernized the music, it could just as easily be set today.
“Nobody respects the lady wrestlers, sweetie. It’s like the midgets. You’re a side-show.”
- Big Goliath
And here we are in 2017. Thirty years after the original GLOW went to air, thirty years after this show was set, such views are still being fought.
But it’s not all doom, gloom and despair.
I sincerely hope pro wrestling creative teams watch this show and learn from it. The storylines are straightforward, the characters are complex, diverse, and identifiably individual. There is even a sequence in which Carmen (Britney Young) is talked out of a Jason Voorhees mask by Bash, after originally been given the heel gimmick of the Ogress. Bash hands her a hat he bought on a hike along the Machu Picchu trail: “You’re not a serial killer. Look at this face, huh? Look at that smile. You’re smiling all the time.” And thus the gimmick Machu Picchu was born.
If only they’d let Nia Jax listen to this advice.
GLOW is an absolute gem (half a pun intended). The casting is impeccable – every character brought to life on that screen brings with them an entire world. And with writing like this, you would hope for nothing less. Everyone involved in this show has hit the jackpot.
And I know I’m biased – GLOW is my golden unicorn of TV. It even has a Steve Guttenberg reference within the first ten minutes. But I can guarantee everyone – irrespective of gender, regardless of whether you think pro wrestling is one of life’s greatest gifts or the biggest load of horse dung to ever exist, whether you believe perms should have died out with the Cold War, or that there never will be A Flock of Seagulls quite like the band – you will get something out of this show. All I ask is you watch with openness. Expect to be entertained, expect to learn something new, but let it take you on a journey, and trust that your day will be better for it.
To one-up Dave Meltzer: 7/5 stars.
GLOW season one is now available on Netflix. Here is a picture with Alison Brie (Ruth) on the right. That’s me on the left. I am an actress who loves pro wrestling and has had training.
Let’s do this. #AnnaforGLOWs02 #AlisonBriesSister
Editor's note: This is the first piece we've had the good fortune of Anna writing for us. As a woman, an actress, a wrestling fan -- and now a wrestling personality -- I figured her to be a perfect fit. Make sure you go give her a follow on Twitter @AnnaBauert, and check out her "Most Ridiculous" segment weekly!