There’s this thing about guys: they fight and then make friends. Remember Gilgamesh? – Mighty ruler of Mesopotamia, who was so mighty that no man was worthy of his friendship (insert: rolling eyes emoji face). Well, The Epic of Gilgamesh tells of a wild and powerful adversary named Endiku who is thrust into the wake of the king’s indomitable personality and the two men come to blows with immediate effect – beating each other to a bloody pulp until finally the mighty Gilgamesh emerges victorious. And, as if nothing has happened, the two brawlers are buds for life.
Women aren’t made the same. We bitch and bicker, hold grudges and let things fester; wounding friendship, killing comradery. But what if women did like dudes – had a quick box, vented all the pent up angst and anger with a few biffs and bops? Could we end up better friends? According to Netflix’s GLOW – yes, we can!
Kitsch, kinky, crude and crazy-cool – the contrived onslaught put on by the ‘gorgeous ladies of wrestling’ in Netflix’s latest offering is a smorgasbord of awesome. The show is set in 1985 Los Angeles, and is based on a real-life programme that started off as a low budget TV franchise but kabloomed into fame and money with its “porn you can watch with your kids” premise. It’s virile and violent, and thrusts women into the role of men, creating a sort of feminist conundrum; chicks kicking ass (yay!) except…they’re kicking each other’s asses – playing out the fantasy of newbie neophyte Sebastian ‘Bash’ Howard (Chris Lowell) who finances the show with momma’s bucks (not yay). The irony is that in the midst of the pain, injury and brutal physicality of GLOW-training, the women of wrestling find friendship…not in spite of the fighting but because of it.
Show protagonist Ruth (Alison Brie) is a serious actress, a good actress, who can’t seem to get cast, so ends up on GLOW along with her blonde bombshell gal-pal Debbie (Betty Gilpin). Debbie is in a different sort of rut but a rut nonetheless; she’s ditched her role on popular soap opera Paradise Cove to be mom to her new baby, keeping home and husband. But she’s not happy. GLOW offers Ruth a job and Debbie reprieve. The twist is that Ruth has slept with Debbie’s husband (twice) and Debbie has just found out. Now the frenemies have to work together.
Needless to say, Debbie wants nothing to do with Ruth but a little bit of genius on the part of sleazeball, drug addict, B-grade movie director and also director on GLOW Sam (Marc Maron) sees the two women pitted against one another in a microcosmic Cold War showdown: US versus USSR. Good versus bad. Honey versus Ho. Debbie becomes southern princess Liberty Belle and Ruth, Zoya the (motherf***ing) Destroyer; turning Debbie into GLOW’s leading lady, the face of the show.
As Ruth and Debbie are forced to work together to create set pieces in time for filming, Debbie gets to pulverise the woman who has humiliated her and destroyed her marriage, in an acceptable, safe (sort of) context. Society tells us it’s not OK for women to hurt the person who sexed her husband (it’s just not what women do) but if you’re wrestlers taking part in a competition on TV; hey, it’s OK! Debbie gets to chop Ruth, kick her, slam dunk her into the floor, pull her hair, skadoosh her face into the ropes; sure, it might be fake but its cathartic effect is evidenced by the fact that although Debbie and Ruth are not best buds, their interactions take them to a place of tolerance and perhaps even understanding.
As much as Debbie loves to crush and belittle Ruth, the truth is; to be a heroine, Liberty Belle needs Zoya. In a convo with Debbie, men’s wrestling pro Steel Horse says of arch-nemesis Mr Monopoly, “I sell it but he’s the one with the real strength; the real craft. That’s how it is with the bad guys; they’re craftsmen…the heel makes the face. Rick has been making me look good for years.” Ruth has the skill, the badassery, to make soap star Debbie look amazing. Their relationship might be fractious but it is essential to their survival on GLOW, and in life.
It is through the enactment of stereotype so ludicrous, that Debbie and Ruth are, in fact, empowered. Debbie gets to win – she may not have won in her marriage but she will win at wrestling, dammit. And Ruth receives the punishment that she feels she deserves – playing the villain she feels she is. In much the same way, the other ‘gorgeous ladies’ get to purge their personalities and live out fantasies through the characters they play in the show. She Wolf, for example, believes she is a wolf (for reals) and whilst this might be strange in the context of ordinary life, she finds acceptance on the stage of GLOW. Britannica gets to be smart and Cherry Bang and Welfare Queen dish a vengeance beat down to the Ku Klux Klan. It’s through these excesses that the power of healing and friendship is invoked, enabling a motley crew of misfits to become comrades in arms. It’s like women at war, against perception.
On a side note; Ruth may have screwed up by ruining her best friend’s marriage but she’s kind of the coolest character in the show! It is just so easy to champion Zoya! Debbie is all blonde and boobs but Ruth is raw; the kind of unglamorous artist directors have in mind when they vow to cast “someone who’s real” — then change their minds once they see her. As a woman rooting for another woman; the one who walks around with no makeup, bravely exerting her natural self on the fakery around her has gotta get some credit, even if she’s a philandering communist. She’s also freaking hilarious. And as ‘real’ as Ruth is outside of the show, she’s
extravagant in equal measure when marching around the ring as Zoya.
Writing for the New York Times, James Poniewozik calls GLOW an insightful story about making art from trash. The lights, lipstick, lingerie, glitter, spandex — hairspray and hate…GLOW is a seismic ode to popular culture. It’s the Dada of the 21st century, which, circa 1915, was the first conceptual art movement where the focus of the artists was not on crafting aesthetically pleasing objects but on making works that often upended bourgeois sensibilities and that generated difficult questions about society, the role of the artist, and the purpose of art. Right? GLOW cleverly uses the exaggeration of the 80s wrestlemania obsession to satirise society and parody the prejudice. There are so many demented things happening all at once: it’s ambiguous and illogical — defying stereotype and impersonating it in the same breath — and as a show within a show about a show, there are so many layers of narrative that the irony almost folds in upon itself…but all of these things make GLOW fun and funny and messy, and entertaining as hell. The gorgeous ladies of wrestling might be the collective wank job of a millionaire perv but their empowerment is personal and like Duchamp’s toilet, GLOW challenges traditional values in art – and in so doing has made itself an unavoidable POP art sensation.
Watch GLOW on Netflix. NOW.