1980s-set ‘GLOW’ Is Relevant Today

At first glance, Netflix's new original show about women's wrestling may seem like a campy comedy, but 'GLOW' has proved to be a true dramedy with many layers.

click to enlarge Betty Gilpin, standing, wrestles Alison Brie in "GLOW." - Photo: Erica Parise / Netflix
Photo: Erica Parise / Netflix
Betty Gilpin, standing, wrestles Alison Brie in "GLOW."
When Netflix announced a new original show about 1980s women’s wrestling, I expected a campy comedy. Come on, GLOW stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling! How serious can it be?

But despite its presumed gimmicky subject matter, like a growing number of series that are tough to categorize, GLOW is a true dramedy with many layers. It is created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, with Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black) serving as executive producer. The show tackles serious topics but has a blast (from the past) all the while. From the music to costumes to early tech — even ’80s-rific training montages — the retro references are totally bitchin’. And yes, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling was a real women’s professional wrestling outfit started in 1986.

The show centers on Ruth (Alison Brie), the definition of a struggling actress — perhaps because of the sparse and unimpressive roles available to women, perhaps due to her level of talent. Ruth jumps at the opportunity to audition for a new project that will act as a female counterpart to the popular men’s pro-wrestling, unfazed by the prospect of playing a “Gorgeous Lady” and actually fighting in a ring.

Her cheerfully relentless, “go get ’em” attitude comes in stark contrast to that of her director Sam (Marc Maron, essentially playing himself). The tortured mind behind cult B-movies like Oedipussy, perpetually smoking and bemoaning his ex, dismisses her too-serious thespian take on the role.

But when Debbie (Betty Gilpin), Ruth’s best friend, hunts her down at the gym to confront her about a major betrayal — Ruth is not as squeaky clean as she might seem — their impromptu showdown wins Sam over. And he manages to recruit Debbie, a former soap opera star turned stay-at-home mom, to join Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, too.

The rest of the Gorgeous gang includes a diverse mix of women, in terms of shape, size, color and character — a stuntwoman, the daughter of a famous wrestler and a woman who, well, wants to be a wolf — played by everyone from singer Kate Nash and actual pro-wrestler Kia Stevens to both newbie and experienced actors.

Sam envisions Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling as being like another one of his sci-fi film odysseys, but Sebastian “Bash” Howard (Chris Lowell) has other plans. The coked-up Miami Vice-looking millionaire pushes for more stereotypes and less storytelling, leaving the women to embrace racist alter-egos like Welfare Queen, Beirut the Mad Bomber and Fortune Cookie. Sam tries to convince them the roles can serve as deeper commentary, but as “Welfare Queen” asks, will other people know that?

When forced to play into stereotypes, many of the characters discover their true selves. With fake moves comes real power; with faux rivalries in the ring comes real conflict in life.

Despite being the clear protagonist, it’s hard to get behind Brie’s character. Ruth is an intense over-actor straight out of your high school’s drama club. She sleeps with her best friend’s husband despite having zero feelings for him. She’s at once frustratingly flawed and refreshingly complex. Gilpin’s Debbie has a seemingly perfect life — she’s experienced fame, settled down and had a baby — but she’s on the brink of becoming unhinged. Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling seems like a ridiculous impossibility at first, but ultimately empowers her. And while Maron embodies his character, Lowell falls just short. He should be the biggest source of comic relief — and often is funny — but his comedic timing is slightly off.

Still, GLOW explores many topics very much relevant today: diversity versus tokenism, the politics of marriage, empowerment versus exploitation and the many interpretations of feminism. In the end, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling is a group of diverse women forced into shallow, stereotypical roles, but GLOW gives them purpose. 

Even today there are plenty of shows lauded for their diversity that actually lean on stereotypes and fail to tackle issues faced by minorities and other underrepresented people. Yes, representation matters, but so does content. Although GLOW has its flaws, it’s able to successfully address serious subjects while remaining flashy and fun.


CONTACT JAC KERN: @jackern