Hatewatching: GLOW (Season Two) Review
Hatewatching is a series in which I apply my film theory degree to shows and movies that failed in some way to the point of making it difficult to watch. I don’t know why I’m doing this either. Also, spoilers.
Netflix’s GLOW is a fictionalization of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling TV show from the 1980s. With source material featuring hours of footage, a documentary, and plenty of living actresses and behind-the-scenes folks, showrunners Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive had plenty to pull from.
When I made it through season one of GLOW last year, I was left with the same thought I have with every show that has Jenji Kohan’s prints somewhere on it: I guess this is feminism?
In typical Jenji fashion, our line into this wild world is another unlikable (either to the audience, other characters, or both) white woman. Wonderful themes and scenes get Trojan-horsed in, but as usual, I thought the first season fell short for women of color.
Credit where credit is due, season two felt like the writers room listened to criticism and tried to add some dimension to characters of color. Unfortunately, these moments are fleeting and don’t get stitched into the overall story.
The most effective attempt was Tammé’s episode, where she had to perform her “minstrel character” a.k.a. Welfare Queen in front of her son, Earnest, a student at Stanford. On the way to and on campus, we get some notions of The Black Struggle 110 from the white lead writer and directors of this episode. Earnest getting mistaken for a completely different black guy is a very real issue that I still deal with today, but it’s pretty low-hanging microaggression fruit.
In the ring, we get this heartbreaking moment where mother and son lock eyes as strangers chant “Get a job!” and Tammé gets so overwhelmed that she has to leave the ring. No one goes to comfort her (because strong black women don’t need emotional support, right?), and our attention is immediately back on our white female leads whose only mission is to save the show. When Earnest talks to Tammé afterwards, we’re rationed a beat of emotionality before the entire event is laughed off.
Meanwhile, Cherry, a black stuntwoman gone primetime star, struggles with acting. Instead of anyone trying to build bridges between the great improv work she was doing on GLOW with scripted acting, her lines are cut, her hair is haphazardly relaxed — I almost wrote this entire review on that white stylist dabbing chemicals into Cherry’s un-parted hair — and Sam just tells her that she’s not ready.
The best part of the season was the show-within-a-show episode (Ep. 8: The Good Twin) that emulates the original Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling show, mixing wrestling and sketch comedy. It’s deliciously campy and shows instead of telling how an injured Ruth can remain part of the narrative.
We get a new throwaway character, a break-dancing, lesbian, Latina stripper named Yolanda who awakens the sexuality of Beirut/Arthie. Arthie’s main moments of the season are: having the idea for her one way out of her racist character stolen by two white women, flunking out of med school, and exploring queerness. All of these revelations take up maybe five minutes of screen time and never go below the surface.
Carmen, our Samoan sweetheart, gets ditched by Bash as he upgrades his beard to Rhonda in a surprise marriage. Because yeah, apparently we’re leaning harder towards Bash being in the closet. His best friend/butler Florian dies of a presumably AIDS-related illness in a tacked-on arc which could have had more emotional value if we got to see Florian at all this season.
You know what that death means? It’s time to hire a team to deep clean your mansion because it’s the 80s and the Reagans know best.
Between Bash, Yolanda, and Artie, the show tries to say more about queerness. But in 30 minute episodes where characters of color are already being underserved, the writers just end up biting off more than they can chew.
Let’s get one thing straight: every actress and actor on this show is bringing it, especially Alison Brie. But when you’re crafting a feminist show about women wrestlers in the 80s, an old white guy should not be the easiest character to relate to. Marc Maron gets some of the best lines and moments in both seasons. He’s a great actor, but he also gets to play a complex, occasionally likable, character.
We get some broad strokes about consequences for women who are unapologetically ambitious and the standards put on mothers, especially single mothers, but these moments lack intersectionality and are outnumbered by scenes that focus on men.
Ensemble casts are difficult to write for, especially when it’s a diverse cast. It’s easy to shoot yourself in the foot when you don’t add diversity behind the scenes as well.
Like in Ocean’s 8, the women of color are smart and capable, but mainly exist to support the ego and vision of the white leads. This actually reflects the real world very well, but it’s never subverted in a way to make the audience aware of this power dynamic.
When Ruth finally leaves the hospital after having her ankle broken, we get this triumphant slow-mo shot of our white leads as they stroll off to make the show their way. Ruth, Debbie, Sam, and Bash garner a lot of attention from others in the hallway which feels undeserved since neither Debbie or Ruth are wearing their costumes anymore. These four white people just get a lot of attention for no discernible reason.
*Look, I know I didn’t talk about the #MeToo arc, but there’s plenty of thinkpieces out there specifically about that. Cliff’s Notes: Really? Sam is more understanding than Debbie. Sam?*