GLOW: Grappling with the Glass Ceiling

Back in the 1980s, wrestling dominated on the airwaves with the excitement from the WWF (these days known as WWE). Fans watched as big personalities like Hulk Hogan, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, and “Macho Man” Randy Savage would take to the ring and battle it out. However, there was one outlet that promised something different. This was a group known as GLOW, or Glorious Ladies of Wrestling. Created by David B. McLane, GLOW ran from 1986 through 1990. It featured plenty of high-flying wrestling matches, along with some comedy sketches for a bit of added fun and an off-color attitude to stand apart from the Reagan-Era wholesomeness. The bigger feature, however, were the wrestlers. All of them were women, made up of actresses and stuntwomen who were looking for their big break in a field that barely gave them any. For them, this was their chance in the spotlight, a big thing considering how women’s wrestling was for the longest time viewed as nothing more than a sideshow. It is this outlet which had caught the attention Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, creators of the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Seeing the potential in crafting a tale about a fictionalized version of the wrestling group, their new Netflix series GLOW serves as an effective look inside the world of wrestling and of women struggling to break out of the restrictive mold.

In the city of Los Angeles in 1985, Ruth Wilder is desperate for her break. She spends day after day going to auditions for minor bit roles, then goes to a scene study workshop where even the other students are bored. For all of her work, she is stuck in a dinky little apartment with barely any cash in her bank account. Then, she gets her opportunity when she is informed about an audition for “offbeat women”. This audition, it turns out, is for the Glorious Ladies of Wrestling, led by skeezy B-movie director Sam Sylvia and rich manchild Sebastian Howard. Amid the tensions over just how to present this new wrestling show, Ruth and the other women (such as the serious-minded stuntwoman Cherry Bang and kind-hearted Carmen Wade) see this as their opportunity to make something of their own. However, there is an additional wrench in the works. Brought in to be the show’s star face is Debbie Eagen, a former best friend of Ruth who now hates Ruth for sleeping with her husband. Now, they must deal with their tension as they fight to make something of this shot, that tension being fodder to Sam as the makings of a great in-ring rivalry.

As their follow-up creation to Orange is the New Black, Flahive and Mensch have a wonderful to series on their hands. The show expertly weaves its way through comedy and drama, relishing in the fun of developing its big spectacle world of wrestling while looking at the grit in the lives of its performers and creators. The series is well-acted, with a cast that is ready to deliver. Alison Brie, for instance, works well in capturing the well-rounded nature of Ruth Wilder. She displays her desperation, playing her with an exhaustion in her form but a spark in her eyes that lights up at the merest performing opprtunity. Marc Maron also works well as Sam Sylvia, delivering all the rough edges of a filmmaker who justifies his vulgar and sleazy B-movies with artistic pretensions and wears his sexism on his sleeve. Even as he has his moments when he recognizes his own dickish behavior and tries to act better than that, he serves as a sort of reminder of the hurdles that these women find themselves facing.

For a lot of the women in this series, the struggle to have something of their own is all too real. For instance, Ruth’s attempts in auditions have her purposefully misreading a man’s part in a desperate play to be notice, only to find it already given to someone else. For Debbie, she finds herself trapped in her marriage, as her husband tries to mend things but from a viewpoint concerning himself and finding herself without a home if she tries to go for a divorce. Even a chance with GLOW has hurdles of its own, with Howard and Sylvia’s guiding practice of stereotypes for their wrestlers. This is particularly a problem for women like Arthie Premkumar and Jenny Chey, whose respective wrestling personas as Beirut the Mad Bomber and Fortune Cookie are all wrapped up in negative racial stereotypes. Still, even as this chance possesses shades of exploitation, this is their shot. As these women practice their moves and develop their wrestling personas, there is a satisfaction in watching them be able to create for once. Whether or not this chance in wrestling is truly empowering or merely exploitative, this is still a chance where these women stand in the spotlight. They are the ones who get to lead, and not merely play bit roles. For them, when they step into the ring, they get to be the headliners.

In real life, GLOW stood apart from the pack thanks to its particular focus on presenting women wrestlers as major talents. In this new series, GLOW looks outside of the ring at the impact of these women getting their chance to make something of their own and shine at a time when they were still being kept aside.

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