“GLOW” is, first and foremost, an argument for not writing off a whole genre of entertainment.
The series is set in the San Fernando Valley, where a group of women have been cast to star in a knock-off of the World Wrestling Federation that’s in development for a local television station (the series-within-a-series and the Netflix show share a title with the real-life GLOW, which premiered in 1986) . The characters come to wrestling from different perspectives, not all of them complimentary to the sport.
Carmen Wade (Britney Young) grew up in a wrestling family and yearns to take to the ring in imitation of her father and brothers. Arthie Premkumar (Sunita Mani) is a passionate fan, as are her older relatives who only speak Hindi. For Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel), a talented stuntwoman, wrestling is just another gig. To Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), a down-on-her luck actress disgusted with the range of roles available to women, it’s an opportunity to play a part where she gets to be loud and dramatic and take up an enormous amount of space. Ruth’s former best friend Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) takes a job with GLOW in a fit of pique at Ruth, who slept with Debbie’s husband Mark (Rich Sommer), and because after being written off her soap opera, she is hungry for the spotlight again. Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), the show’s director, has signed on largely because the producer, Bash (Chris Lowell) has promised to finance Sam’s dream exploitation movie, a drama called “Mothers and Lovers,” if Sam can make GLOW a reality.
Despite their varying motivations and feelings about the dramatic potential of wrestling, “GLOW” argues that the spectacle is neither inherently foolish nor inherently valuable. Sometimes stories and characters work. Sometimes they don’t. The most driven characters find ways to tell the stories and create the characters they want within the conventions of the genre. And if you dismiss their work because it’s wrestling, you’re the one who is missing out.
Carmen, despite knowing the moves, is saddled with a thinly-developed character based mostly on her size and has to find a way to command a ring on pure charisma, despite the panic attacks that come from a lifetime of yearning. Cherry, frustrated with Sam and Bash’s stereotyping of her and Tammé Dawson (Kia Stevens), who plays a character called Welfare Queen, stages a clever — and wildly popular — blaxploitation revenge fantasy at GLOW’s first public match. Ruth, going method, experiments with characters (including one hilarious riff on an oppressed Jew stuck in the Soviet Union) and ultimately embraces her role as the show’s Soviet heel, Zoya the Destroyer. And Debbie, who finally figures out that wrestling uses soap opera storytelling, takes all the things that might have stereotyped her as a bimbo and turns them into the narrative weapons that make her the show’s Hulk Hogan equivalent, Liberty Belle. Sam even finds some momentary joy in the editing bay as he finalizes Liberty Belle’s definitive smackdown of Zoya: it may be trash, but it’s glorious trash, and he’s going to execute it with all the glitter and polish he can muster.
But as much as “GLOW” revels in showing us the craft of low culture, it’s also a warning about the possible difference between what an artist conceives and what an audience perceives.
“GLOW” illustrates that by spending much of the season in the hothouse of pre-production, especially once Sam and Bash move the women into a run-down motel where they can train together. In that isolated, sisterly space, they flirt with the pizza boy, sneak out to party, lounge by the pool, go roller-skating and dream up characters drawn in wildly broad strokes. It’s a safe space, in the non-pejorative sense of the term, an environment where the characters build trust and prepare to do challenging work.
But when they take that work out into the world in the season’s final episode, the response is more complicated than they anticipate. The audiences don’t share the artists’ context and in-jokes, their intent that their characters be seen as parodies.
Arthie, who is Indian, has always disliked her character, “Beirut the Mad Bomber,” but during training and while shooting promos, she could make clear that the character, who wears a leotard and a keffiyeh, was a joke. In the aftermath of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad’s hijacking of TWA Flight 847, though, the character doesn’t play that way. Arthie doesn’t even get to be a heel, drawing grudging sympathy with her magnetism; she’s just a hate object.
In a similar way, race inevitably inflects the way the audience responds to Zoya and to Welfare Queen as heels.
As designed by the actresses, both performances are equally camp: Welfare Queen has a magic remote control that guarantees she never has to leave the couch, while Zoya marches around in a fur hat and a heavy accent. But racism means that Zoya’s performance is legibly exaggerated to the audience in a way that Welfare Queen’s is not. However hot the Cold War was running in 1985, everyone knows that real Soviet agents don’t swan around with glitter on their faces. The idea that black women were exploiting government benefits and refusing to work, however, was something that all too many Americans believed. When Liberty Belle defeats Zoya for the first GLOW crown, it’s a silly win for America. When Welfare Queen snatches it away at the last possible moment, it’s a hugely charged moment, an invocation of line-skipping by the undeserving that resonates in contemporary politics 20 years later.
Are there choices the artists could have made differently? One measure of artistic success is the space between what an artist intended and what the audience perceived: the smaller the distance, the more successful the work. Maybe Sam could have pulled Arthie from the lineup, or let Cherry and Tammé (whose son is at Stanford) perform their beat-down of a pair of wrestlers dressed in Klan hoods on television, instead of just in a test run. But for Sam in particular, and for professional wrestling in general, stereotype and provocation are basic tools. Sometimes an audience’s inability to let go of their preconception and see what’s happening is about them. Ultimately, and no matter how much the trend is towards writers and directors endlessly explaining themselves, artists and their audiences are never going to share a brain. That they’ll see things differently is inevitable.
Art is risky, “GLOW” argues. That’s not a defense of sanding off its sharp edges, nor for using those edges cheaply. Instead, “GLOW” is a passionate brief for making weird, intense, exaggerated controversial art, and then refining it and making it an even more effective weapon. It’s a demand to read art closely, to love it passionately, to argue intensely about what it means and what it says. The ladies (and token gentlemen) of GLOW don’t leave real blood in the ring, but they are giving the audience pieces of their hearts.