Is GLOW a Glow Up for Female Representation on Television?
Now that the series has been out for a while, we investigate.
Netflix’s GLOW opens with what sounds like a pretty tough female lead: aspiring actress Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) is in an audition, wearing what we can assume is her power suit. There is determination in her eyes and every word is said with bold attitude. She ends her audition a defiant statement, then turns giddy. “There are not roles for women like this,” she exhales happily. Two uninterested women sit across from her. One says, “You were reading the man’s part.”
The woman’s part is a timid knock on the door and one line: “Excuse me, sir? Your wife is on line two.”
We’ve seen this time and time again: The meatier, more complex lead role often goes to a man. Moreover, we are still consuming plenty of media (film, television, and more) that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, a low-bar gut-check that requires two women who are significant characters in a film to television show to talk about something other than a man.
But despite the setbacks, thankfully, female writers are having none of it.
GLOW, a Netflix original series about the 1980s women’s wrestling show of the same name, is created, written and executive produced by a group of women, with men not entering the list of key crew members until the names reach some of the lower-level producers. At the helm is Liz Flahive, who has worked on Nurse Jackie and Homeland. The main executive producers are Jenji Kohan (Weeds, OITNB), Carly Mensch (Weeds, Nurse Jackie, OITNB) and Tara Herrmann (Weeds, OITNB).
Another key member in production is Ursula Hayden, a story consultant and owner of the GLOW brand. The original show, which the Netflix version is loosely based on, ran 1986–1990, and a documentary about it titled GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling was released in 2011. It was created by a man during the height of the wrestling craze, and according to Paste magazine, the original GLOW relied a little too much on trashy gimmicks and included comedy and dance sketches in addition to wrestling.
The new GLOW is a lot more feminist-friendly, and it is a refreshing change to see a show for women, by women, and about women. And not just any women; GLOW tells the stories of strong, diverse, and headstrong ones.
Even better, the male gaze is practically non-existent on GLOW. Sam Sylvia (played by Marc Maron), the main male character, is definitely sleazy, but in a room of women, his comments get blank stares instead of leers, laughter, and agreement. It doesn’t take him long to stop underestimating the women, and Sam actually starts to give some pretty feminist advice early on.
When Debbie is angry, he tells her to harness her rage and “fuck polite and comatose.” He encourages her to not play it safe and ladylike, and her wrestling greatly benefits from it. When Ruth is struggling to create an entertaining wrestling persona, Sam tells her, “Try not giving a fuck. There’s power in that.” They have a conversation where Sam tells Ruth she is a desperate, unbearable villain and home-wrecker and then tells her to leverage the emotions and channel them into her performance. He doesn’t say she’s worthless or acts like the two women having a fight over a man makes them stupid. He sees their intelligence and wants to use it.
The locker room nudity and one sex scene are handled casually, not gratuitously. The sex scene actually isn’t very sexy, with the woman literally putting her hand over the man’s mouth to get him to stop talking to her. It’s clear the scene wasn’t added in to get shots of the female lead naked; it was added because it’s an integral part of the story.
When the abortion storyline comes up, it’s handled with tact and practicality. Abortion is a touchy enough subject as it is, but it can come off as a dramatic shaming tactic in most cases. GLOW’s abortion scene reminded me of the one on Scandal, a no fuss scene a that doesn’t involve a woman going on and on about how she’s supposed to want a baby and the inevitable moment where she asks herself if getting an abortion makes her a bad person. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t, ever.
It’s subtle, but there are one-liners and scenes peppered throughout the show that poke fun at typical Hollywood writing or empower women in a way men don’t often think to include. On the humor side, Cherry calls Sam’s original pilot script a “jerk-off space opera,” which sounds like most of the projects male film students try to present as “artsy.” There’s also a scene when Sam is deciding which wrestlers to pit against each other, and when he chooses Britannica and Melrose to face off, one of them says, “Nerd vs. party girl! Classic structure!”
The beauty of the wrestling plot is that it not only proves that women can do anything that men can do, but that stereotypically “male” activities are empowering for women. In episode nine, Debbie talks about how wrestling has changed her view on her body after having a baby. She says, “It’s like I’m back in my body and it doesn’t belong to Randy or Mark… I’m like using it, for me, and I feel like a goddamn superhero.” Throughout the season, you see the female characters grow as they learn to wrestle and become more confident with their bodies. Body image is rarely handled well on television, but GLOW gets it right.
Female stereotypes are still there, but all of the women have depth. Cliches are cliches for a reason; some stereotypes can be true and are better when not overplayed. The only stereotypes that seem tired and unnecessary in the show are the racial ones, and those shouldn’t be overlooked. All of the wrestlers of color are given racist wrestling personas, while the white woman get personas based on personality traits, not skin color. The characters themselves are diverse and interesting, however; Cherry is a highly successful stunt woman and Carmen comes from a family of famous male wrestlers with a dream to do the same thing her brothers do. Hopefully GLOW continues to show these multi-faceted women in the future.
Overall, it’s not in-your-face that GLOW is all female-created. But that’s okay — not every piece of work by women has to roar with hatred for the patriarchy and soft feminine aesthetics. Good work is good work when it comes down to it. GLOW will hopefully pave the way for more women in the entertainment industry behind the camera and bring forth more humanized, three-dimensional female characters who are allowed to be unlikable, messy, selfish, loud, and frustrating.