GLOW opens on Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), reading for a part in an audition. She emotively delivers a powerful and dramatic monologue, at the end of which the casting director informs her that she had been reading the wrong part—the man’s part. They reset. The casting director leads her in. Ruth performs the women’s audition part:
(knock knock) Sorry to interrupt, your wife is on line two.
This opening scene sets the flavour for GLOW perfectly; the show is a delightfully nostalgia-hazed and also critical and shrewdly observant portrayal of the real-life women’s wrestling circuit of the same name—The Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling.
***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***
At beginning of the series, Ruth is an actress failing to land the few insubstantial roles which are thrown her way and struggling to afford rent. She receives notice of an open casting call, and promptly finds herself in a grotty gym with a huge wrestling ring in the centre, auditioning in front of director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) for the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, the new, self-indulgent fantasy television show being made and funded by rich LA man-child Bash (Chris Lowell).
First off, GLOW is very digestible and accessible, and not to mention gorgeously styled, dripping with 1980s nostalgia. There are 10 short episodes in its pilot season—around 30 minutes each—and whilst addressing and discussing a wide range of women-centric issues throughout, they are peppered in amongst comedic moments, action-packed sequences of actual wrestling, and an overarching storyline about the betrayal of a best friend. New mother and ex-soap actress Debbie (Betty Gilpin) experiences a moment of realisation mid-season that wrestling is just a soap opera with fighting, and that’s a pretty decent summation of GLOW itself, too.
GLOW does a very smart metadrama move. It was typical of the ’80s wrestling scene to enforce and capitalise heavily on stereotypes for wrestlers’ characters, and this is reflected in the wrestling personas the women adopt in the show. In turn, the cast themselves are at once complex and unabashed and imperfect (an actual humanised portrayal of women, hurrah!), yet they each embody a “type” of woman and play to the beat of their wrestling counterparts. The ladies who play heel characters (villains) are heel characters themselves; the ladies who play faces (heroes) are also faces—it’s a bit mindbending, but it works perfectly and it reinforces the self-awareness that I love so much that exists within the essential makeup of the show. GLOW presents a diverse troupe of women, yet you feel as though you know somebody like each of them. They are a bunch of struggling-for-work actors—“outcasts”, really, all imperfect—who rally together in the sisterhood that they develop and drive the project with their energy, passion and resilience. GLOW explores sisterhood, camaraderie, and a sense of belonging in a really gorgeous way.
There are countless wonderful moments where, in traditional narratives, female characters would typically be written in a very patriarchally-prescribed way, yet GLOW specifically does the very opposite. When Rhonda (Kate Nash) starts sleeping with the director, Sam, she is unsubtle and unembarrassed and shares the information freely. Sam’s response is “awh shit, she’s more into me than I am her, I’m going to have to break up with her, she’s going to be heartbroken”, yet later in the same episode it is Rhonda who casually and unemotionally calls things off immediately after period sex, bluntly telling him he’s just a lot more boring than she thought he would be.
In episode 1, Ruth sleeps with her best friend Debbie’s husband Mark (Rich Sommer) for the second time, and Debbie promptly finds out. This betrayal and the strained relationship between the two friends is a driver throughout the series, and whilst Ruth is jeered and teased as a homewrecker by her castmates for the first few rehearsals, she is not played or portrayed as “the slut” or “the other woman”. GLOW presents her as a woman having a shitty time who made a shitty decision, which is precisely what she was in that moment. Equally, Debbie’s rage is parcelled out evenly between the two of them rather than levelled chiefly at Ruth, as is the general cliché for this type of storyline; in fact, as the series progresses, Debbie begins to forgive Ruth before she forgives Mark.
When, late in the series, Ruth discovers she’s pregnant with Mark’s child, she makes the decision to have an abortion. There is no moral dilemma in play. Her character is not wracked with guilt or indecisiveness, or overcome with a sudden motherly instinct; she decides, she does it, that’s it. Sam accompanies her to the clinic, in his oddly paternal directorial capacity, but the decision was autonomous and definitive and is questioned only by the medical professional conducting the procedure, as part of a set of routine questions. It’s interesting and refreshing to have abortion treated in this way in a TV show, and these are just a few highlights from GLOW‘s showreel of well-handled plot points.
I loved the way that GLOW presented the problematic nature of women’s wrestling (actually, women’s anything) in the 80s. It was incredibly heavily sexualised, the aforementioned stereotypes were often racist and/or tasteless [Ruth as Soviet ‘Zoya the Destroyer’ fighting Debbie’s all-American ‘Liberty Belle’; Carmen (Britney Young) as Peruvian ‘Macchu Picchu’, a direct reference to her size and inaccurate reference to her heritage; Arthie (Sunita Mani) as ‘Beirut the Mad Bomber’, again an inaccurate reference to her heritage; the list goes on], and of course, it was obliged to play up to the male gaze in order to appease its viewers and funders. As Ruth says at the open of the pilot episode, “there just aren’t [decent, substantial] roles like this for women right now”.
Many reviews and thinkpieces on the show have questioned whether these women being exploited or empowered through this league, and the show continually grapples with this question in a deliberately ambiguous manner. What GLOW does well is to portray these traits of the industry, but with just enough tinge of 2017-lens that you can feel its criticism of that behaviour. During round 2 of the auditions, Sam comments that Cherry’s (Sydelle Noel) acting “resumé gets a little thin after 1979”, to which she fires back with “movies get a little white after 1979”. During an icebreaker session during which Melrose (Jackie Tohn) plays the coquettish, heavily sexualised card, Sam retorts “okay. I dig it. I like the whole “please objectify me” vibe.” GLOW is very self-aware of the sexism and racism and general dodgy standards it is portraying. The show also does well to illustrate the impressive level of very real and very genuine strength, dedication, resilience and athleticism required by the women in order to be able to perform the moves that they do. Both the show and the characters within take their job seriously and do not underplay the work they are doing.
Season 1 of GLOW feels like a fabulous set-up for subsequent series. My main criticism of the show is that it felt like it tried to do too much all at once. Backstory and subplots were lightly explored in tandem with the main character-story arc of Ruth and Debbie and the driving storyline of the show being put into production, but with just over 5 hours of screentime throughout the entire series there just wasn’t enough time to see these tangential storylines through to completion in satisfactory way or to explore them in great enough depth. There feels like there is a lot more that can still be done with all of this set-up, which is an exciting prospect for a second season.
That said, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts and GLOW is ultimately a story about female empowerment, pushing the limits of your comfort zone, and never giving up.