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‘GLOW’ Is About Way More Than Women’s Wrestling

The Netflix series packages observations about gender and performance in neon spandex

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

There is no pop culture debate more tiresome than the one surrounding the so-called “unlikable female character.” Springing up in the wake of Golden Age antihero shows about men who could murder with impunity and still attract adoring, uncritical fans, the UFC discussion straddled several unanswerable questions. Could a female protagonist be “unlikable” and accrue a similar following? Was it sexist to call a female character “unlikable” at all? Why does the term “unlikable” almost never apply to a man? TV has largely outgrown the phrase, largely by embracing it (Girls), commenting on it (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and populating the screen with enough qualified candidates to pummel the phrase into submission (Orange Is the New Black). Orange’s successor series — from producer Jenji Kohan and Netflix — is about the unlikable female character too. But GLOW has found a way to revive the discussion and add something new: By decking out the parties in leotards and makeup, adding in a hefty dose of hair-pulling and body slams, and putting a self-reflexive twist on the conversation. GLOW has unlikable female characters, but the show is more interested in using its wrestling story to unpack and explore the concept of the UFC.

GLOW, short for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, is the fictionalized behind-the-scenes origin story of the all-female wrestling series that ran for four seasons in the late 1980s. The 10-episode comedy is Kohan’s OITNB follow-up and the first turn as a series lead for Alison Brie after years as an MVP in supporting roles on Mad Men and Community. It’s also a deceptively meta romp: a television show about television that avoids self-absorption by packaging shrewd observations about gender and performance in tights and catchphrases.

Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, GLOW centers on Brie’s Ruth Wilder, a figure instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever sat through a college acquaintance’s Chekhov production. She’s an actress who oozes desperation, chasing down casting directors in bathrooms and improvising when no one asks her to. For a brief stretch of the pilot, GLOW appears to uncritically position Ruth as a martyr for her craft: At an audition, she delivers a meaty monologue only to realize she’s read the male part; she’s actually trying out for a single line. The point about complex female roles is as obvious as it is facile: There aren’t enough of them. But GLOW soon focuses on the side of Ruth she wouldn’t want an outsider to see — her bottomless need for validation, expressed in part through an affair with her best friend’s husband. And when Ruth improbably finds her way to women’s wrestling, she finds she’s a hell of a lot more believable, and interesting, as a villain than a hero.

GLOW-the-wrestling-show is the skeezy, slapdash brainchild of B-movie director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) and rich-kid novice producer Sebastian Howard (Chris Lowell). When Ruth first shows up to tryouts, she’s earnest and try-hard enough to be grating, yet not malevolent enough to hinge a wrestling persona on — or at least, Sam doesn’t see her that way until Ruth’s now-ex-bestie Debbie (Betty Gilpin) calls out her aforementioned adultery. When the real-life drama erupts at the audition, Sam instantly sees how he can channel it into scripted TV.

The first step to capitalizing on your own unlikability is embracing just how unlikable you are: such is the lesson that Sam imparts to Ruth, and which GLOW explores from the start. Rather than lecturing about the paucity of female roles in Hollywood, GLOW shows us that these women find the opportunity to venture outside the strict confines of sex object (though the wrestlers are still that), sidekick, or saint to be highly rewarding. A former modestly successful soap actress, Debbie, too, finds something freeing in returning to the life’s work she left behind to start a family. (A blond, pretty housewife with a newborn baby and the ultimate moral high ground, Debbie is Sam’s picture of a sympathetic hero.) The dynamic between Ruth and Debbie isn’t something they’d ever get to dramatize from their own perspectives in show business, because a knockdown, drag-out fight honed over hours in a gym isn’t ladylike.

Ruth and Debbie make perfect foils in and out of the ring, but they’re only part of a colorful and broad-ranging cast, each member of which toys with their own stereotypes when crafting their personae, some more successfully (and less offensively) than others. British flirt Rhonda (musician Kate Nash) gets to play a brainiac character, complete with oversize glasses and a lab coat; Tamee (Kia Stevens) struggles with whether it’s worth it to play a welfare queen for boos. Misfit Sheila the She Wolf (Gayle Rankin) has found a place where her quirks fits right in; wrestling scion Carmen (Britney Young) has found her own way into the family business. GLOW is a very different show from Orange Is the New Black, but its multifaceted ensemble suggests a budding Kohan signature. GLOW’s secondary players aren’t quite as fleshed out as Orange’s, nor its spotlight as evenly shared, but this series is working with fewer episodes, half the runtime, and a tone that’s far more straightforwardly comedic. Besides, there’s no reason maximal representation ought to be confined to social-issues dramas. Every genre, Kohan is saying, benefits from a diverse cast.

The show’s most intriguing lessons still come from Ruth, its central character. She and Debbie eventually stumble on a gimmick that channels their IRL animosity: Debbie’s Liberty Belle, all-American freedom fighter, versus Ruth’s Zoya the Destroya, capitalism-spurning Russian villainess. This is the 1980s, so Liberty Belle always wins — which means the arrangement is also Ruth’s way of making amends with the friend she’s betrayed. But there’s a more selfish motive at foot too. Once Ruth accepts how off-putting she can be and how counterproductive her neediness is, driving people away even as she tries to draw them in, she leans into the part, recognizing like Star Wars and Psycho before her that a great bad guy can steal the show. GLOW, too, sees how much more fun there is in letting Ruth be her terrible self rather than trying to defend her. Most of the show’s funniest moments come when a well-intentioned gesture or overachiever-y burst of effort are met with indifference or rejection.

GLOW is able to get away with potentially knotty ideas like expanding the limits of femininity and subverting our standards for women’s behavior only because this show doesn’t take itself seriously, and can therefore let some serious concepts slip in. There’s not a whiff of Netflix bloat here; 10 episodes, as opposed to the platform’s typical 13, is the perfect length for a summer comedy, and the buildup to the show-within-a-show’s premiere provides an easy-to-follow through-line. This isn’t a cringe-a-thon in the vein of I Love Dick or The Comeback; GLOW takes a potentially dark premise (sleazebag producers exploiting desperate women) and spins it into laughs instead of doubling down on the alienation. Turning herself into a monster is liberating for Ruth. That GLOW lets us feel her joy only helps it make the case for monstrous women on TV.