Summary: A struggling actress turns to pro-wrestling for her shot at an “unorthodox” role.
Surprise- I’m a huge fan of pro-wrestling. More specifically, I’m a huge fan of women’s pro-wrestling. I’ve been slacking a bit recently, but I’ve always made time to catch up a bit on it more or less. There’s been a surge in the support of what women wrestlers can do and it’s not unusual to hear the names Charlotte, Sasha, and Becky when talking about today’s top talent. Before them, before the emergence of Ronda Rousey, before Gail and Trish, before Lita, Jacqueline, we had the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, better known as GLOW.
Now we have the Netflix series, loosely based on the origins of the organization. From the same team that brings us the most-of-the-times-awesome, sometimes-eye-roll-worthy Orange is the New Black, GLOW brings us a ragtag group of ladies who are just trying to find themselves in crazy show business: an aspiring actress, a bored party girl, a mildly successful former soap actress whose housewife life is falling apart, a well-respected stuntwoman, the only daughter in a legendary wrestling family, a wolf lady, etc. There’s also Sam, the struggling director played by the excellent Mark Maron, and Bash, his trust-fund funded lifelong fanboy producer whose other favorite hobby is cocaine.
I was interested for obvious reasons. 1, Feminism. 2, breaking kayfabe is always fun (wrestling term for going off script, to put it mildly). 3, seeing people call matches. 4, people (wrestlers) explaining wrestling to non-viewers in a way they might understand aka my life for most of middle school, most of high school, and a bit of my adult life. (Luckily I’m at that age where people generally understand how a fan’s mind works or at least the surge of the nerd and I’m also in a location where entertainment and storytelling- bad or good- is, like, the thing. Thanks LA!) After a promising pilot and three more episodes into the season, I wasn’t sure if I was interested anymore.
The thing about GLOW is that… well, I’m not sure if there was enough wrestling. I’m not sure if there was enough of anything, really: what stands out is the show’s overall lack of focus. For a show based on a women’s wrestling organization, there really isn’t a lot of either until maybe midway through the season. In the first half of the season, the two main stories are about Sam and Bash getting GLOW on the air and the fallout between friends, Ruth and Debbie. Instead of being the environment, wrestling takes a backseat and the show becomes disjointed. It’s like the show was interested in making a show about Hollywood, production, womanhood, sisterhood, (in that order) etc. with wrestling as a backdrop instead of the reverse order. As a result, the characters and episodes come off as puzzle pieces that just don’t fit until last minute concepts and deus-ex-machinas decide to show up to the party.
I kind of get it: generally speaking, I think women in any major sport minus tennis and the occasional Olympic Games is still an ungraspable concept for some people. I mean, just recently, the WNBA got little to no coverage of their response to the national anthem controversy, while the NFL and NBA took over headlines. Beyond that, while wrestling is a popular source of entertainment, the business and industry itself also unexplainable for a lot of people. Women in wrestling is an even more foreign concept- Pamela Anderson-type valets of the 90’s come to mind for most people. (See picture: This was a cover for a legit WWF “Divas” special in 2001 featuring zero matches. We’ve come a long way.) Properly introducing people to all of these at the same time is a challenge- but I can’t care about a show getting on the air if I don’t care about the character, dynamics, and subject matter.
The show starts out on the right track. Like OITNB, the show’s main character (with a familiar background and a flaw or many) is used to introduce us to the world of this show- in this case, wrestling. However, the OITNB ensemble formula doesn’t exactly work here for the sole reason that there are too many characters who are unfamiliar with the subject matter of wrestling. Don’t read this the wrong way- we get a diverse cast and a wonderful celebration of different women, but we are presented with a group of women all, pun intended, learning the ropes and environment. There’s no Red or Healey to walk us through this one. We as an audience should be learning the moves, the pacing, and the components of wrestling with the characters. The more interesting characters whose backgrounds can actually help provide the wrestling-centric exposition are pushed aside. Instead of Carmen, the young woman who has grown up in the shadows of her wrestler father and brothers, we get a bunch of scenes overwhelmingly devoted to Sam and Bash struggling with funding and trying to get the show on the air. Instead of Cherry, the talented black stuntwoman who is entrusted with coaching actually learn how to coach, time is given to the party girl who doesn’t really have much of a character arc by the end of the season. The bit of what is presented to us is from Bash, who I found to be more irritating than endearing with .89 redeeming qualities. The main character Ruth, who like OITNB’s Piper starts off as unlikeable, fades into the background in early episodes- which is a shame, since her character is not only (actually) likeable by the end, but a good interpretation of an outsider who studies the content, grows to love it, and learns to understand how shows are run. (Alison Brie knocks it out of the park and her character needs to be front and center properly.)
My main gripe with the show is that they don’t have us follow these women learning and accomplishing in this foreign territory. I would say the ratio of wrestling scenes vs non-wrestling is at 30/70. There’s such a lack of immersion into the wrestling territory and we don’t see how the characters grow and develop from their work. By the end when the women pull off their show, I don’t feel their sense of achievement or pride. Wrestling is about action first, dialogue second. Writers, you can’t just tell people “These women have been training for so long and now they know how to wrestle!” Show me. We see them learning three basic moves, as well as practicing their lines and characters, but there’s no context to craft of a match or how to progress a match to make a character likeable by the live crowds. There’s no insight on last minute calls or changes to the ringwork. We get maybe one or two instances of Ruth saying, “Throw me. It’ll looks great,” but it doesn’t explain how Ruth learned to call a match or how she knew this would turn the crowd in the direction she wanted. There’s a moment in Carmen’s match where her empowerment revolves around a victory rather than the work put in- the result is that the match feels like an actual competitive match, rather than something she accomplished with practice and dedication. And there’s a ton of terminology that just never goes explained- work, heel, face- I’d be curious to know if non-wrestling fans were able to pick up on these or have the same sentiments. (Anyone? Anyone?) The most interesting scenes- where Debbie finally watches and understands what wrestling is or where we actually see the women learning ringwork- come too few or far too late. It’s not until the later episodes where we see Ruth and Debbie attempting to perfect more complicated moves and the work that goes into making a body slam look authentic. These are the kinds of scenes that would make us celebrate the characters as people and ring performers.
Further, the show’s intended theme is somewhat blurry until mid-season and therefore doesn’t quite succeed by the end of the season- the last three episodes are very strong but with little payoff due to the uneven build up. The show’s main theme is using wrestling as empowerment to become comfortable with one’s identity. We get a wonderful line at the end about how Debbie felt lost and found herself again with her in-ring work, but we didn’t really get to see anything leading to this moment and so the sentiment is lost. The first few episodes touch on it through the women conceptualizing their ring characters (more or less shades of themselves or stereotypes)- but overall, identity in wrestling is presented as gimmicky and exaggerated. Which, yes, I get, because that’s what wrestling back in the day was, but the show doesn’t take the opportunity to expand beyond that. While the group of women progresses in their work believing this is what they should be doing in the genre, we get a few lines about, “But don’t we want to be something more?” and then it kind of floats away into nothing rather than reiterating itself into a message. I don’t get to see Debbie trying something in practice and feeling proud. I don’t see a build of Cherry’s confidence as she coaches and teaches the others. We never get a deep dive into the wrestling world from an outsider’s perspective- instead, it feels just ankle deep. I don’t see these women discovering the unexpected physical and mental empowerment that comes from learning this form of entertainment.
And maybe it’s supposed to be unexpected for us, as well… but what makes storytelling so powerful is that we follow characters on their journeys and are invested in their emotions. One only needs to watch an episode of NXT’s Breaking Ground to understand. I want people watching GLOW to feel the same emotions us fans did when we watched Sasha and Bayley headline the Barclay’s Center or when Shawn Michaels retired. While I appreciate the light GLOW has shone on the wrestling community and the difficulty of the business, I want people to understand wrestling as a product and wrestlers as talented, hardworking people. GLOW- I think you can be something more and I want you to be something more.
If you’re interested in what makes wrestling so fascinating to us day-to-day fans, I highly recommend finding the first season of NXT’s Breaking Ground, which will walk you through Subject of the Week’s industry history, Lita’s autobiography (she came in as an outsider), Edge’s autobiography (lifelong fan), or anything by Mick Foley (because, duh). Wrestlers are fans of their own product and will patiently walk you through it.