This article contains spoilers.
GLOW, a new Netflix series which tells the story of the short-lived 1980s television show GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, landed today. Starring Alison Brie, Marc Maron, Betty Gilpin, and an ensemble cast of women, the show follows a wacky cohort of actresses as they prepare for the premiere of a wrestling show for women. Well, more accurately, it’s with women, and in many ways by women, but technically for men. It’s a typical enough example of the dominance of the male gaze. Where Netflix’s GLOW triumphs is its insistence on repurposing its namesake’s mistakes and making itself all about the women.
GLOW is A League of Their Own crossed with a Mötley Crüe music video. Just add some ropes to the baseball diamond, replace the sporty skirts with very revealing leotards and backcombed hair, add people of color, and switch Tom Hanks’ character with a greasy, foul-mouthed, coked out visionary played by Maron. It’s inspiring, and it manages to truly play around with ideas of objectification and empowerment. A diverse cast of 14 women is its foundation and structure and insulation and paint. And just when this concoction seems far too ridiculous and a little too convenient, you remember that it’s all based on a true story.
The show is also a huge success for women behind the camera. GLOW was created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and Executive Produced by Jenji Kohan. The writer’s room appears to be mostly women, and seven of the ten episodes were directed by women.
And it shows in GLOW’s brilliant subversion of the male gaze. It’s so refreshing to see a television show about a group of scantily clad women putting on a performance specifically meant to titillate male audiences take such an empowering approach. It shows the complicated relationship women have with their bodies in a different way than we’re used to seeing. GLOW rethinks the expectations we have for women’s bodies. It gives real purpose to the normal adages of body positivity. While the two main characters are fit white women, the show is motivated by the idea that the shape of a woman’s body doesn’t matter; it’s about the confidence and training it takes to pull off a move. Alison Brie did all of her own stunts, and the actresses trained for weeks prior to shooting.
And while this entire shitshow is being orchestrated by Maron’s Sam—an exploitation film director who has an intimate understanding of Freudian concepts and how to sell them—it’s clear that even though he is a sexist scumbag, he’s too stressed to really derive any pleasure from directing most of the girls. And it’s his gruffness and unadulterated but somehow deflated chauvinism that brings the women that much closer.
At the center of the show is the rivalry and betrayal between struggling actress Ruth (Brie) and her former best friend, soap opera alum Debbie (Gilpin), whose husband Ruth slept with. They can’t be friends, but they need each other. They manage to build a new relationship rooted in trust and vulnerability as professional enemies, allowing Ruth a great redemption arc and Debbie a great working mom arc.
While GLOW’s biggest laughs probably come from its approach to some of the predictable and offensive stereotypes that were all too common in 80s wrestling, it doesn’t always do enough to truly resolve them. (But then again, those portrayals of brown and black people are only starting to be resolved today.)
In the final episode of the season, Arthie (Sunita Mani), who plays Beirut, a Middle Eastern terrorist with a fabulous glitter unibrow, has actual slurs, spit, and cans hurled at her by some of the more enthusiastic fans. “Everyone really hated me,” a shaken Arthie tells her sparring partner, Rhonda, after they get out of the ring. “Yeah but that’s a good thing though. Right?” comes the reply. Arthie is clearly conflicted. It’s one of the few moments that GLOW seriously confronts the consequences of playing into harmful stereotypes, acknowledging that it’s not all fun and games. But the moment is left hanging frustratingly.
A stronger moment comes when Kia Stevens’ Tamme questions Sam’s decision to cast her as “Welfare Queen,” which he claims is a “fuck you to the Republican Party, and their welfare reform and race-baiting shit.” Tamme naturally doubts that the audience will read her that way—or even want to. She and Sydelle Noel’s Cherry—who has been cast as “Junkchain”—turn the tables on the stereotypes they’ve been given, getting their opponents to dress up as the KKK so as to give them a more righteous beatdown.
To be fair, there’s not often time to dive deeper than that. With 10 episodes that are 30-35 minutes each, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and GLOW throws a lot of plot into the mix. One character promptly gets an abortion after discovering she’s pregnant. It’s a somber moment, but is treated as a normal, healthy decision: “Not the right time, not the right baby.” There’s also an incest storyline that highlights the show’s dedication to match the darkness of its humor with the darkness of some of its plot.
At the same time, for a show that is all about bending the rules and exceeding limits—whether the limits of the body or those of good taste—GLOW manages to give us a fair amount of relationships that are respectful of boundaries, and it ultimately gives us something all too rare: a true celebration of the female body and female relationships. All that from the bones of a glittery, hair-wild, sexist 1980s artifact.