When news broke that Netflix had greenlit a Jenji Kohan-produced comedy series based on an actual all-female wrestling league from the 1980s, you probably asked yourself: "What is this actual all-female wrestling league from the 1980s, and how in all my years of depressive YouTube hole-burrowing have I never stumbled across it?"
Don't worry. Here's everything you need to know about Netflix's upcoming series, G.L.O.W., and the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling that inspired it.
The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, or G.L.O.W., was a syndicated all-female wrestling promotion that aired in hundreds of television markets nationwide between 1986 and 1990. Millions tuned in over the course of those four years to watch more than 500 matches between the league's dozens of athletic entertainers, who also performed sketches, musical numbers, and commercials in character.
It being the mid-to-late '80s, the makeup was extreme, the styling was super neon, and the bangs were crimped and hair-sprayed for
the gods Kelly Bundy. The gloriously campy acting was just as crunchy.
G.L.O.W.'s all-female roster was notable at the time, given the limited opportunities available to women in the sports entertainment world. Local independent leagues often featured female grapplers, according to documentary G.L.O.W.: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, but they'd promote them as a sort of "freak show" to lure in crowds while saving the "real" matches for the men. And before the recently deceased World Wrestling Entertainment icon Chyna changed the game in the late '90s, larger national organizations like WWF—which became WWE in 2002 following a legal battle with the World Wide Fund for Nature—rarely let female stars into the ring with their male counterparts, despite the high status afforded to individual women like the Fabulous Moolah, Miss Elizabeth, and the Sensational Sherri.
"There was no male image on G.L.O.W.," Dawn Maestas, a.k.a. G.L.O.W. wrestler Godiva, told documentary filmmakers. "There was no big guys leading us to the ring. It was all women."
That's not to say that the world of G.L.O.W. was some kind of perfect feminist paradise. The wrestlers—a mostly twentysomething mix of aspiring actors, athletes, and at least one professional phlebotomist—often found themselves with very little control over their downtime. For one, promotion heads David McClane and Matt Cimber demanded that the cast give up their apartments and move into the curfew-enforced G.L.O.W. House in Las Vegas, not far from the now-closed Riviera Hotel & Casino where the bulk of filming took place. Cimber also routinely called the women "fat" and criticized their appearances as a means of "motivating" them, according to several women interviewed in The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
And I haven't even gotten to the wrestlers' assigned characters yet, which Cimber apparently conceived of while watching the women during training. While white wrestlers were generally given subcultural or personality-based types to play with (cheery Shirley Temple doppelgänger Tammy Jones, misandrist punker duo Heavy Metal, butch-ass military "bunkmates" the Corporal and Attaché), wrestlers of color were usually, if not always, asked to play reductive stereotypical versions of their race or ethnicity (fiery Latina Spanish Red, Voodoo-practicing Big Bad Mama, Soul Train line-dancing Ebony).
That's not to say that white wrestlers never portrayed ethnic or cultural stereotypes in the ring—Cold War anxiety figures like East German killer Matilda the Hun and anti-American Soviet warrior Colonel Ninotchka are proof of that. But as a whole, G.L.O.W.'s character assignments reflected the long-held racist assumption that whiteness is neutral, unless further adorned. Look no further than the cast's introductory rap number, which juxtaposes cock-eyed plane-jacking terrorist Palestina with bubbly girl-next-door White Tina. I mean, Tina. Just Tina.
It will be interesting to see how G.L.O.W.'s showrunners adapt such problematic source material for a contemporary audience. Series co-creators Liz Flahive (Homeland) and Carly Mensch (Orange is the New Black) and co-executive producers Jenji Kohan (Orange is the New Black, Weeds) and Tara Herrmann (Orange is the New Black) have all made highly acclaimed, top-quality programs that place complex female characters and their perspectives at their centers. Yet those complex female characters are often white and, I would argue, written with far more nuance than the female characters of color that populate the world around them. Take Orange is the New Black, for example, which frequently relegates its black leads to group scenes in order to free up more screen time for its white principals' individual character arcs.
Besides delivering on the “big hair and body slams” Netflix promised in its greenlight announcement, here’s hoping that the G.L.O.W. team will make an effort to deconstruct the racial, ethnic, and sexual stereotypes that were an inextricable part of the original Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.