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Feeling the ‘GLOW’

Hopes and dreams for Netflix’s new show about hopes and dreams in the world of pro wrestling

(Netflix/Ringer illustration)
(Netflix/Ringer illustration)

As early as the 1930s, reputable American newspapers stopped printing the results of wrestling matches. They knew the fix was in, knew the sport was a dance and the game was rigged. Sportswriters weren’t about to let the wrestling industry make fools of them by playing along with such obvious fakery, perhaps — or perhaps, as The Ringer’s own David Shoemaker writes in The Squared Circle, “they realized that pro wrestling made them expendable. The wrestling matches mythologized the athletes and wrote the stories themselves.” In his seminal 1954 essay “In the Ring,” critic Roland Barthes concurred, calling wrestling “the most intelligible of spectacles.”

Is this self-mythologizing, this intelligibility, to blame for the relative absence of wrestling from fiction, too? There are precious few novels about this most novelistic of athleticisms; the few mainstream movies made cover the extremes (the tormented drama of The Wrestler, the goofball comedy of Nacho Libre) but little of the strange, amorphous middle where most wrestling takes place. Should we conclude, like those baffled sportswriters of the 1930s, that this absence is understandable and excusable? Professional wrestling is already a fiction, after all. What benefit exists in layering script over script? What story about wrestling could be more spectacular and more absurdist, sillier and bloodier, more awe-inspiring and more heart-wrenching than wrestling itself?

Here’s hoping that we’re about to find out. GLOW, the new series from Liz Flahive, Carly Mensch, and Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan, begins streaming on Netflix on Friday. Taking its inspiration from GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a syndicated television show which ran from 1986 to 1989, the new GLOW ducks behind the cameras to depict the fictionalized lives of those eponymous ladies and their exploits outside the ring. The show is billed as a comedy, but so was OITNB — rape, murder, and mice swallowing included — so it’s a safe bet that GLOW (2017) won’t be borrowing the laugh track of the original.

The original — how to describe the campy, surrealist, glitter-fueled spectacular that was GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling? An unsuspecting viewer stumbling onto the show’s first episode might be forgiven for thinking he’d found a strange and violent breakdown of the world’s most poorly budgeted beauty pageant. The women went by place-based monikers (Americana, California Doll, Royal Hawaiian, Spanish Red), performed raps, and wore swimsuits (more or less) for every portion of the proceedings. At the end of the show, a winner was crowned. GLOW displayed no qualms about putting the “entertainment” in sports entertainment: Almost none of the cast members had wrestling backgrounds, and hair-pulling was far more common than hip-tosses. Backstage segments rarely involved a wrestler cutting a vicious promo on her upcoming opponent; instead, the wrestler would smile at the camera, make a few truly terrible puns unrelated to absolutely anything else, and let the laugh track play her off.

Where the WWF’s programming of the day resembled soap operas — telling one uninterrupted story, hinging on twists and (heel) turns — GLOW’s approach to storytelling fit the mold of a classic sitcom. Characters rarely changed or grew from one episode to the next, and rarely did the results of a match have consequences beyond that match’s ending. Subtlety was a language GLOW didn’t speak: The name given to the bad girls on the roster was “The Bad Girls.” (You can guess the catchy epithet by which the good girls were known.) And kayfabe, the illusion of reality winkingly perpetrated and maintained by professional wrestling, was an equally foreign concept — not because GLOW hewed to actual reality in any way, but because the show’s hammy, neon ridiculousness left not a sliver of doubt about its lack of veracity.

Here is where GLOW diverged most strikingly from other wrestling promotions, before and since, coed or not. While fans have known of wrestling’s falseness almost as long as the sport has existed, much of professional wrestling’s appeal rests on a willful suspension of disbelief. Such a state is hard to achieve watching GLOW, between the perfectly rhyming insults and the oft-feeble maneuvers that follow. Besides, wrestling isn’t all fake — at least, we can’t be sure that it is. A “worked shoot” is a blistering speech that treads the line between scripted and revelatory; “real heat” can be felt between opponents who might genuinely loathe each other. The cheers and boos of the crowd are genuine, unscripted, and an integral component of the show (a component GLOW foreswore in favor of a strictly controlled studio). The injuries, all too often, are real. The line between truth and lie can grow incredibly thin, in wrestling, and it’s at those fine, uncertain moments that the unique intrigue of the sport — or entertainment, yes, or performance, or art — is felt most keenly.

Yet despite GLOW’s rhinestone-encrusted shrug in the direction of verisimilitude, and despite its emphasis on campiness and comedy over athleticism, the show occupies a privileged place in the history of women’s wrestling. This is understandable: Something is better than nothing when it comes to women in the squared circle — even if “something” has been, more often than not, cringingly awful. (See — or don’t, please — for reference: bra-and-panty matches, ball gown matches, thong matches, etc.) Female wrestlers have existed as long as the sport has, but were long seen as sideshow acts, their matches as rare and comical as those of midgets, giants, and animals. Pre- and post-GLOW — and until very recently — women have earned pseudo-starring roles only by playing up their sex appeal. Even in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as charismatic performers like Chyna, Lita, and Trish Stratus honed their in-ring skills and elevated the athleticism of women’s matches, the shows — and the women’s roles within them — still revolved unquestioningly around men. The women were wrestlers, yes, but they remained valets, love interests, plot points, and jokes.

But this, at least, was something, and nothing was a very real threat. Wendi Richter and the Fabulous Moolah headlined The Brawl to End It All, the then-WWF’s tentpole event airing on MTV in 1984, but the company’s Women’s Championship would be deactivated in 1990 and remain uncontested for much of the decade. Absence — of titles, of minutes, of roles — is a defining concept in the history of women’s wrestling, and GLOW, whatever else it was, was most certainly a presence. In an all-female show, women finally got to play the starring roles: They could be heroes and villains, not just arm candy for heroes and villains. They could be monsters and clowns, con artists and powerhouses, saints and psychotics. They could be — and were — so weird.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

One of the greatest things about GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling was that not all of the ladies were, in fact, gorgeous, nor did they want to be. The best-loved babyface on the roster was Mt. Fiji, billed at over 350 pounds and impossibly pure of heart. Her foes were Matilda the Hun, a sneering, carnivorous “German”; and Big Bad Mama, a creepy voodoo queen from New Orleans. Spike and Chainsaw were a face-painted tag team easily mistaken for a death metal band; the women under the paint also played the Housewives, Phyllis and Arlene, who wore puke-green face masks and shower caps at all times. (A personal favorite, those two.)

This, perhaps, is GLOW’s greatest legacy: Despite playing to the base racial stereotypes regularly deployed in wrestling at large (names like Palestina and Little Feather say it all), many of GLOW’s characters possessed a memorable specificity. Blame it on the show’s unrelenting oddness, maybe, or on the cast’s wholehearted commitment nonetheless. (It’s worth noting that most of the cast, trained as actresses, were better on the mic — even when rapping and punning — than your average wrestler.)

GLOW was the perfect showcase for these characters — a strange stage for stranger folk — even if they often lacked character arcs. Just call GLOW old school, in its way. “In wrestling,” says Barthes, “it is each moment which is intelligible, not their sum.” Each scream of agony and each wrenching pose stands alone, a perfect signification of a single, wholly felt human emotion, condensed into the span of a rhyming couplet. Who needs story lines? Just add glitter.

But the new GLOW is not a showcase: It’s a show. And while wrestlers might revolve in limited movements — babyface to heel to babyface again — the lives of the humans behind those wrestlers, by comparison, feel dauntingly wide-open. What will these women want? It won’t be anything as easily snatched as the GLOW Crown. Fame is one answer — the original cast was populated by aspiring actresses like the protagonist of GLOW 2.0, Ruth Wilder, played by Alison Brie. And fortune is always a solid bet. But a more nebulous aspiration is hinted at in the glimpses we’ve been given of the show so far.

“I’m interested in real parts,” Ruth says in the trailer, and later, after she’s joined the cast: “This is the only place that I get to do what I want to do.” What is it she wants to do? What makes her want to put on a uniform of spandex and bruises each day? There are easier and less-brutal routes to fame and fortune than wrestling, even of the GLOW variety. But the role Ruth walks into is an entirely different kind of part. “This could either feel dinky or it could feel epic,” says Sam Sylvia, played by Marc Maron, gesturing at and beyond the ring, and we see Ruth’s eyes alight with purpose. A long-absent element of control has been handed to her along with a leotard, a chance not just to play a character, but to create her. And to create, in the process, herself — her real self.

In wrestling — real wrestling, that is — this opportunity is still as rich as any fiction. Female wrestlers have been working and creating in Mexico and Japan and elsewhere, on indie and even-indier promotions, and this work has trickled up at last to the WWE: After decades of model-filled rosters and minimal screentime, mainstream women’s wrestling is currently better than it’s ever been, by a long shot. Two years ago, WWE promoted Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch, and Sasha Banks — three phenomenally talented athletes — to their main roster, heralding a “revolution” in the process. The company’s revolutionary capabilities remain debatable, but the improvement in women’s matches and storylines since is unquestionable. The butterfly-shaped “Divas” belt was ousted for a steely Women’s Championship; screentime has increased exponentially; and Flair, Lynch, and Banks are playing roles more prominent than any dreamt of by their predecessors — and they’re doing so without having to wrestle in ball gowns.

This is to say: The arrival of Netflix’s GLOW feels simultaneously retro and hyper-relevant, like any new chapter in an unending story. (Wrestling is one unending story, of course, and women’s attempts at self-determination are another.) An early trailer for the show begins with a voice-over we mistake, briefly, for being about wrestling: “In this world,” says Ruth, “there are good guys and there are bad guys.” The emphasis, it turns out, is on guys. The screen cuts to an audition, where Ruth has read the wrong lines, the man’s lines, with simmering fervor — “I will not be bullied into submission” — before her mistake is corrected. The part actually available to her is that of a secretary, and the line (singular) that Ruth reads is as bland and substanceless as a sequence of words can be. There’s no need for Ruth to act, in the world of this nameless film or show. She only needs to appear.

Ruth’s mistake is telling. Don’t we see ourselves as stars, protagonists, characters rife with depth and nuance? Aren’t we the leads of our own lives? But to others, we might be merely sidekicks, love interests, or extras. We might be props. A prop is the role Ruth reads for, at that audition, and a prop is what women often have been, in movies and television shows and most certainly in the world of professional wrestling. This isn’t news, and it isn’t, frankly, very interesting. What interests me is the glee and grit and rage and screen-shattering euphoria with which Ruth and her costars — I hope, god, I hope — are going to tear that motherfucker down.

I should add: It’s possible that the way I watch the original GLOW is not, in fact, the way GLOW was meant to be watched. The outfits are hilariously skimpy, after all; the backstage segments rife with come-hither innuendo; a common move-set involved one wrestler bouncing her nearly bare bottom up and down on another, justifying the camera’s close-up angle. “A world without men but entirely constituted by the male gaze,” says Barthes of another realm, in another essay, and there are moments when I feel the urge to glance behind me as I watch, to see who on earth those gorgeous ladies are talking to — it sure isn’t me.

But while the original show may have been aimed at a straight male audience, it charmed a far broader range of viewers. It allowed for those phenomenally weird characters, remember — for every pouting glance from Babe the Farmer’s Daughter, there was a wide-eyed snarl from the unhinged and decidedly unlovely Dementia. Some viewers might have seen the wrestlers as nothing more than love interests, extras, or even props, but what did that matter? The women knew they were stars. Their self-creation was wholehearted and magnificent.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The GLOW of 2017 brooks no doubt about this fact. Promotional posters and an early teaser show a glittered-up Brie flipping off the audience, the world: She doesn’t care what you think. “We’re empowered,” says another wrestler in the trailer. “We’re the heroes.” The statement is too simplistic to stand unchallenged — “empowered” too forced and flimsy a word — but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely false. Heroes can be complicated, in the real world and in the many worlds of television.

Executive producer Jenji Kohan’s other Netflix original, Orange Is the New Black, portrays a group of women stripped of the trappings with which their lives had been consumed: marriages, careers, the small dramas of neighborhood and family. What is left, the show asks, when you take all that away? What are they — what are we — made of? Where is the moral center in a prison facility? What does love look like, in this hopeless place? What does hope?

The task at hand in GLOW is, in many ways, an opposing one: Instead of tearing down their characters’ façades, showrunners Flahive and Mensch have to layer them on. Wrestlers live two lives, in and out of the ring: the real self and the gimmick, the character a wrestler plays. (Sometimes, the line between them bleeds.) The gimmick is a performance, but real selves can be performances too, of course. To these two performative layers, add a third: the performance of womanhood, or what Barthes calls “the eternal status of femininity.”

“A woman must continually watch herself,” says John Berger in Ways of Seeing, raised as she has been in a society that constantly evaluates her appearance. “She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself,” he continues, for “from earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.” She is both observer and observed — both climbing to the top rope and, at the same time, watching herself climb to the top rope, pose, and leap — and this is a division of self and persona that wrestlers know well.

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

How will the women of GLOW hold themselves together, many-parted as they must be? How will the show grapple with the pain, both metaphorical and real as bone, inherent to any life lived between the ropes? How will it grapple with the glory? Here’s hoping that fiction can beat wrestling at its own game, these layers upon layers building to form something spectacular. Every wrestler is many people; GLOW is already many shows. “Are you hiring actors to play wrestlers, or are we the wrestlers?” asks Ruth in the trailer.

And this, this is the crux of the matter: I find an unnamed and incredible possibility evinced by this show about a show, in our lives about lives. That possibility is why I watch wrestling and why, I suspect, so many women (and men), then and now, step between those ropes to magnify, glorify, and wreck their only bodies. Between the camp and the laughter, between the ogling and the insults, a sliver is glimpsed of something found and lost in childhood, some wide-open horizon, some wild, transcendent purpose granted to each hour. There lies some other self we might become. Our shouts from the crowd grow full-throated; we come to mean the lines we’ve memorized, snarling at the camera. A slippage occurs between real and false, these superficial distinctions swept aside by a deeper joy. The “power of transmutation,” Barthes calls it, the process by which men — and women — are made into gods, but I’ll just say that it seems to me like a faint glow, a light brimming around the edges of our ordinary lives, making them shine a little brighter.