Admittedly, I came for the outrageous costumes and nostalgic soundtrack. But I stayed for the much-needed positive messages GLOW has for women.
As a ‘90s kid, it’s hard to remember my childhood without professional wrestling. I was more of a Beanie Babies and Ribbon Dancer girl, mind you, but the boy I played with seemed to always have WWF on in the background. “You’re fiiiired,” he growled in as low of a voice he could muster, strutting around like Vince McMahon. He wore Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirts and frequently snatched his little sister up from our Spice Girls roleplay, spinning her upside down and yelling, “Piledriver!” with the move that would, ironically, break his hero’s neck.
I never liked wrestling for the same reason I changed the channel during monster truck rallies and NASCAR races: too primal, too loud, and too hyper-masculine to be taken seriously. Having seen enough Monday Night Raw battles and having been to a number of amateur shows in person, I’ve found myself split between enjoying the inventiveness of the storylines and cringing at the way fathers, finding permission to behave badly, goad their boys into hurling “Pussy!” and other epithets into the ring.
So when GLOW was released on Netflix at the end of last month, what caught my eye wasn’t the wrestling. It’s pretty hard to ignore a bronzed and coiffed Allison Brie, thigh muscles taut, lunging from the ropes in a metallic teal leopard and matching lipstick to Journey’s “Separate Ways.” Admittedly, I came for the outrageous costumes and nostalgic soundtrack. But I stayed for the much-needed positive messages GLOW has for women.
GLOW, an acronym for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, is loosely based on the real life women’s wrestling program from the mid-’80. Produced by Carly Mensch of Orange Is The New Black fame, GLOW likewise features a strong female ensemble cast, whip-smart dialogue, and riveting social commentary: specifically, on navigating race relations and changing women’s roles in the Reagan era. Slight, mousey-haired Ruth (Allison Brie) is yet another struggling actress trying to find her big break in Los Angeles, and when she’s not stumbling through auditions, she’s prolonging an affair with her best friend’s husband. (The motivations for this are unclear. But if the arc of this series looks anything like OITNB, I’m sure we’ll get some backstory in a future season.)
When Debbie (Betty Gilpin) learns of the affair, she shows up at the arena where Ruth and the rest of the newly-cast wrestlers are warming up. A former soap star turned stay-at-home mom, Debbie crashes the practice in the most dramatic fashion: bursting through the doors screaming obscenities, passing off her newborn son to Tamee (Kia Stevens, an actual wrestler in real life), and climbing into the ring to kick Ruth’s ass.
This production catches the eye of disgruntled, coke-snorting director (Marc Maron), who immediately casts Debbie in a leading role. But what’s most worth savoring about this moment is that the first fight – in a show about scripted performance – is completely unscripted. It’s brought on by the raw emotions of real women fucking up and finding out and engaging in actual conflict, which sets the tone for the rest of the season’s focus on the characters’ internal dilemmas vs. the manufactured drama they’re assigned.
Debbie’s transformation over the first 10 episodes is one of my favorite things about GLOW. She’s a statuesque and almost uncomfortably radiant flesh-and-blood version of my old Totally Hair Barbie, but she’s also juggling career aspirations and new motherhood during a very conservative time. “Getting pregnant and written off that show, best decision I ever made,” Debbie tells Ruth about her decision to leave a dwindling part in Paradise Cove, which feels more like a testament to frustratingly bland roles for women at the time than an actual motivation to start a family. Ruth, after all, auditions with the lead male part in the pilot’s opening scene because “it’s the better part.”
After Debbie learns of the affair, she moves out of her home with Mark (Rich Sommer). GLOW’s glittery fantasy world provides Debbie with a space to find herself, and she spends most of the season channeling that confidence into All-American heroine Liberty Belle. When Mark presses Debbie to move back in so that they can work on their marriage, it doesn’t take long for Debbie to realize that Mark will not support her in this venture, deeming it as “silly” as the rest of her shows. The finale concludes with Debbie tearing off her dress and leaping into the ring in her star-spangled getup, choosing career over societal expectations in a thrilling reversal of her past advice to Ruth.
GLOW is also rife with body positivity. In the series’ pilot, Debbie and Ruth collapse into laughter when Debbie starts lactating at their exercise class, and over time, we see Debbie fall in love with what her body can do. “I love wrestling,” Debbie tells Ruth. “It’s like I’m back in my body, and it doesn’t belong to Randy or Mark, and…I’m like using it for me. And I feel like a goddamn superhero.” The rest of the female cast packs as much variety as a Dove ad, demonstrating that bodies of all shapes and sizes are capable of amazing feats.
Set during the year my mom was pregnant with me, the show has prompted all kinds of questions about an era I barely remember. “Was the aerobics class you taught anything like this one?” “Did pregnancy tests really look like science experiments?” “Why is acid-washed denim back?” It feels like an appropriate ode to the show’s emphasis on female bonding. Decidedly less tribal than the cliques of Orange Is The New Black, GLOW’s girls quickly form a support system bound by a genuine desire to make one another happy—one of the most touching scenes is when the group throws outcast Sheila the She-Wolf (Gayle Rankin) a birthday party at the roller rink.
These positive relationships, coupled with the attention GLOW gives to minority casting and how racial stereotypes in entertainment clash with the times we live in, make for a thoughtful and empowering summer treat. If you’re looking for something that’s high quality but a little less on-the-nose in 2017 than The Handmaid’s Tale, GLOW is worth the watch.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.