The 1980s was the decade that subtlety forgot. All big hairs and bold colours: it was a time when more was more. Similarly, wrestling, which peaked in popularity in the 1980s, is — as semiotician Roland Barthes put it —“the spectacle of excess”. All of which means that if you’re making a comedy about a 1980s women’s wrestling league that attempts to ask some pretty nuanced questions, you risk having some of those questions drowned out amid the loudness of the Lycra. Certainly, this seems to be what has happened with GLOW, a new Netflix original series, which appears to vacillate between a very 2017 sort of woke social commentary and politically-incorrect 1980s slapstick. And it’s this unresolved tension that likely explains why GLOW seems to have polarised opinion since it was released on Netflix last month. While some see the show as empowering, others have accused it of being exploitative.
Perhaps the first thing to note is that GLOW is based on a true story. It’s a fictionalised account of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling; debuting in 1986, this was the brainchild of a guy named David McLane who realised getting a bunch of aspiring actresses to wrestle each other would make for very popular TV. The original GLOW, then, wasn’t exactly born of the most feminist of intentions. The Netflix reincarnation, however, is another story. It’s created and produced by a team of formidable women — including many of the women behind Orange Is The New Black, a show that broke new ground when it came to telling diverse female stories on mainstream screens. GLOW also puts a stake in the ground from the very beginning when it comes to its feminist objectives. The first episode starts with Ruth Wilder, an out-of-work actress played by Alison Brie, deliberately reading the man’s part in an audition. When chastised for this, she complains that there aren’t any interesting roles for women. So, her agent sends her to a casting call for a project that’s looking for “unconventional women” and, lo and behold, she ends up in spandex learning to wrestle with an ensemble of unconventional women.
There is still far too little diversity on our screens and so, purely from that regard, GLOW is massively refreshing. There are black women, brown women, fat women, and, um, a woman who has “species dysphoria” and identifies as a wolf. Like Orange Is The New Black, its cast is made up of the sort of people whose stories don’t often get told and whose bodies are rarely in the spotlight. But this is where things get tricky. Orange Is The New Black does a great job of humanising people who are often demonised by culture; it develops most of its characters thoughtfully and gives them layered back-stories. GLOW, however, never really gets beyond the level of caricature.
GLOW, however, never really gets beyond the level of caricature. Caricature, after all, is the essence of wrestling
Caricature, after all, is the essence of wrestling. Each of the women in GLOW is assigned a “persona” they wrestle under. The Indian woman is cast as “Beirut”, a terrorist. One of the black women is cast as a Welfare Queen, who sits at home all day watching TV and mooching off the government. The blonde is Liberty Bell, the all-American heroine. GLOW wants us to interrogate these stereotypes and the show is peppered with self-conscious Stop and Think moments where it prompts you to do so. In episode four, for example, Tamee (played by Kia Stevens) voices concerns to the director that her Welfare Queen is offensive. “That’s the genius of it,” the director mansplains. “It’s commentary on an existing stereotype. It’s sort of a fuck you to the Republican Party and their welfare reform and race baiting shit.” Tamee isn’t convinced. “Yeah, but will other people know that?” she asks. The director doesn’t have a straight answer.
While GLOW has plenty of these Stop and Think moments there’s no getting around the fact that much of the entertainment of the show comes from exploiting these stereotypes not interrogating them. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by reviewers. In Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote: “As it goes on, GLOW wants its cake while eating it too, unsure whether it’s a rude, edgy ladies-wrestling send-up peppered with anachronistic dialogue, or a more thoughtful, searching look at gender in the 1980s workplace.” Similarly, a Guardian writer wrote: “GLOW … wants to have its cake and eat it with regards to this kind of sick humour, having Sylvia [the director] articulate the show’s get-out-of-jail-free sentiment that Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling is about interrogating stereotypes rather than perpetuating them.”
According to the creators of GLOW, this cake-eating conundrum isn’t a bug, but a feature of the series. “I think in our dream world the debate between is it empowering and is it exploitative is always going to live at the heart of the show,” producer Carly Mensch told Variety. “I think we hope to never fully leave the question of, ‘is this slightly exploitative?'”
Yeah, but will other people know that? Or are viewers just going to enjoy the cheap laughs and 80s fashion? GLOW certainly poses numerous interesting questions. But the bigger conundrum is whether people are really going to be asking them.