I’m a 35-year-old male with a family of my own. The TV shows I watch tend to have a flavor of mystery, sci-fi, comedy, action, and adventurous bravado — from Lost, 24, Friends, The X-Files, and recent romps such as Timeless and Ministerio del Tiempo. My usual preference was in a balanced ensemble, never one that’s dominated by women. I wasn’t big into the chick-flicks and shows tailored for the fairer sex. Alias, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, Orange is the New Black, Real Housewives of <insert city here> were not my cup of tea. It is what it is. But when Netflix released GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling last year and its second season this past June, I fell in love with it. This is because of my love of pro wrestling for the past three decades.
I’m from the Philippines. We don’t have a big independent wrestling scene unlike the US or the UK or Japan. We have a promotion nowadays wherein someone lit himself on fire (but that’s a story for another time). Point is, being that I was halfway across the world from where the wrestling scene was huge, I only caught it during the weekends and more often than not, it was on a month-long delay. In the 80s, it was the talk of the town from kids to adults. Everyone knew who Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and “Nature Boy” Ric Flair were. I still vividly remember watching Andre hammer Hogan with clubbing ax-handles, with the latter writhing in pain. I was screaming at the TV for Hogan to get up, meanwhile, my grandmother, rest her soul, was crying when she saw the valiant hero in dire straits.
That was wrestling for me – it was the drama, the comedy, the over-the-top caricatures, the cheesiness, the edginess, and the in-ring action. I carried those fond memories growing up as a fan in the 80s all the way to my teens in the 90s. Back then, tape trading was a hobby amongst fans. In the west, most folks traded the rare tapes since Blockbuster and Mom-and-Pop neighborhood video stores had all the mainstream pay-per-views. In the Philippines, those mainstream VHS tapes of pay-per-views were already hard to find. I remember feeling like I won the lottery when I found a tape of Summerslam 1994 – the one with Bret Hart vs. his brother Owen Hart in a Steel Cage Match.
I also recalled hearing about GLOW back then. Even though years had passed since the show ended, it gained a cult-like following in the US. That news eventually reached Philippine shores and it was a topic of conversation among my fellow Pinoy wrestling fans. I should probably mention that most of us were teens, and as anyone would know, teen boys love to look at pretty ladies. I never did find a tape of GLOW, but I do know that if my parents caught me watching it, I’d probably get grounded since I was watching women in skin-tight leotards and one-piece aerobics spandex.
GLOW was indeed a cult-like phenomenon decades ago. It started with a casting call for women, and they came in droves to the audition hoping to make it big in Hollywood. It was a platform to stardom in those days when simply getting on TV turned one into a guaranteed celebrity. It was also during pro wrestling’s heyday – the glitz and glamor of the 80s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Era. Big, muscled, sweaty men were rolling around in their underwear, but why can’t women do that as well?
Much like wrestling in those days, it relied on stereotypes. Some were tame in comparison to the more extreme and downright offensive ones. The real GLOW had characters such as “Palestina” and “Little Egypt,” women who looked Middle Eastern or Arabic. A female of Samoan descent was called “Little Fiji,” and a Latina was billed as “Spanish Red.” She loves tequila because of course, she does! The Caucasian women were an assortment of caricatures. The attractive and athletic ones were known as “Hollywood” and “Tina Ferrari,” while others were lathered in beauty cream, wearing robes and hair clips to form “The Housewives.”
Wrestling, in those days, was simple. “You are what you look like” and it played on racial profiling that was indicative of the society and the fan base. The Iron Shiek and Nikolai Volkoff hated America because they were evil foreigners, and Jimmy Snuka looked like a Polynesian chieftain. GLOW followed the formula to create personas for the ladies.
The Netflix show which fictionalizes certain characters and events also does the same. Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) and Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) are best friends turned bitter enemies in life, and so they are the perfect foil for one another in the wrestling ring. The director of the show, Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) provided them their characters based on their looks. Since Ruth’s face was “weird” she became “Zoya the Destroya” an evil Russian, the antagonist of ideal Americana. Meanwhile, in Sam’s own words, because Debbie “was blonde and had big boobs,” she became “Liberty Belle,” the All-American girl-next-door who loves apple pie. Their feud transcends their in-ring performances which, to any wrestling promoter and pundit, makes matches even better because there was an added level of realism.
Other members of the cast include Rhonda “Britannica” Richardson (singer Kate Nash) as a brilliant scientist who gives up her brain to bring life to the man of her dreams, Sheila “The She-Wolf” (Gayle Rankin) a lady who envisions herself as her canine spirit animal, Arthie “Beirut the Mad Bomber” Premkumar (Sunita Mani) who plays a terrorist to her chagrin all because the director wanted to capitalize on the public outcry with the hijacking of TWA Flight 847, Jenny “Fortune Cookie” Chey (Ellen Wong) a spry Cambodian who plays a katana-wielding ninja, and Cherry “Junkchain” Bang (Sydelle Noel) a tough-as-nails black woman who pushes the team to their physical limits. Oh, and she also turns into a voodoo practitioner named “Black Magic” because of stereotypes.
Perhaps no other members of the cast impressed me more than Carmen “Machu Picchu” Wade (Britney Young) a Latina woman who comes from a wrestling family, and Tammé “The Welfare Queen” Dawson (Kia Stevens). In Carmen’s case, it’s because her story arc shows cameos of wrestling superstars Chavo Guerrero Jr., Carlito, and Brodus Clay, and emphasizes the traditions of wrestling families, protecting the business, protecting your own wrestling moves, and the roles that women play. In the latter’s case, however, it’s because Kia Stevens is actually a pro wrestler. In Japan and in Total Nonstop Action, she was known as “Awesome Kong.” In the WWE, she was known as “Kharma.” I’m familiar with her in-ring work, and she is truly a sight to behold. She’s downright intimidating and you know she can kick anyone’s ass regardless of their gender. Her performance in GLOW, from her comedic quips to an emotional turn in the “Mother of all Matches” episode in Season 2 accentuates how wonderful she is in the role.
The show relies on stereotypes, and the show does not pull punches with depictions of racism, sexism, and social issues not just in the wrestling industry, but in society as a whole. In one particular episode, Ruth gets molested by a network executive. She escapes his clutches only to be blamed by another female colleague who felt that she should’ve dangled the carrot more, and take one for the team in order to get the higher-ups on their side. In another arc, Debbie delves further into their contracts and renegotiates, eventually getting a bigger slice – this, of course, alludes to the questionable practices in wrestling from the ownership of characters to creative control. Meanwhile, Tammé also deals with the fallout of a wrestling match with her son seeing how offensive and disgusting her character was while the audience mercilessly boos her.
It also relies on the ladies’ looks and various comments from other characters and from fans. Wrestling, by and large, is a “looks-driven” industry. For the longest time, women were either a pretty face who could be a valet, or they were pretty and could wrestle. Other than that, you were physically imposing or you presented a caricature and could make for a great “heel” (bad guy), or you simply had the connections to stay on top. The show makes note of that several times not just from mentioning the physical attributes of its characters, but what the network execs think, as well as public perception leading to PSAs about safe sex.
It works because GLOW, in and of itself, does not only tell the journey of these characters but of women’s wrestling and pro wrestling in general. In its heyday during the 80s, you had powerful women such as Bull Nakano, Wendi Richter, Rockin’ Robin, and Alundra Blayze. You also had valets who became larger-than-life personas such as Sensational Sherri Martel and the demure Miss Elizabeth. Come the 90s and early-2000s, that all changed when pro wrestling tried to push the envelope.
The 90s and early-2000s were characterized by over-sexualization of women from Bra-and-Panties matches, Evening Gown matches, stripteases, girls made to crawl on their knees and bark like a dog, and even live sex celebrations. The Attitude Era was in full swing, and the WWE and WCW battled for ratings supremacy on Monday nights. Writers such as Vince Russo capitalized on gratuitous violence and sexual themes in order to please the rabid audience and to tip the balance in favor of the WWE. That tagline above, that’s from Sable who was best known for power-bombing her then-husband Marc Mero and showing her “puppies” (boobs) on live TV while only covered in pasties. WCW wrestlers even noted that when their segment would take a dive whenever Sable was on WWE TV because she drew the viewers.
The latter years also didn’t see women’s wrestling fare so well. Even though superstars such as Trish Stratus, Mickie James, Lita, Victoria, and Beth Phoenix had groundbreaking moments, the stigma of being a women’s wrestling, and a dreaded and demeaning segment, still loomed. Majority of women’s matches were so bad that they became considered bathroom breaks, and the term “Diva” and the title that encapsulated it, was much despised.
In recent years, this perception has changed. Women’s wrestling slowly but surely became the forefront of wrestling events. Bayley and Sasha Banks had amazing bouts and had even main-evented pay-per-views. Asuka had a winning streak that obliterated the old one set by Goldberg in the 90s for WCW. Women had their own Hell in a Cell match and even their own Royal Rumble. Ronda Rousey, the biggest female name in combat sports, also joined the WWE. Elsewhere, women were facing men in Intergender Matches, such as Ivelisse of Lucha Underground. In Japan, Joshi or women’s wrestling was still highly regarded. The “Women’s Revolution” was in full swing, and GLOW’s success also represents that.
GLOW is a celebration of women’s wrestling, from the glory days of the 80s which it depicts to its degrading downfall in the 90s which it alludes to. It’s also a celebration of how far women’s wrestling has turned around and especially denotes the empowerment of women and equal gender rights in society.
It works because the female cast has shown how dedicated they are to the craft. You see it in interviews, and how much they’ve trained to get the wrestling moves right as well as how they deliver promos. The women are strong-willed, independent, feisty, and sexy while they’re at it. It works because the male cast isn’t filled one-dimensional goofs. Sam Sylvia can be an insensitive asshole, and next thing you know, he’s a champion of women’s rights. Bash Howard (Chris Lowell) is a dumb, millionaire mama’s boy one moment, and the next, he’s just someone who’s been a fan all his life and wants to be part of the industry. There is no “Greek God with chiseled good looks who takes the female lead off her feet,” instead there’s just an Average Joe “Camera Guy” named Russell (Victor Quinaz).
It works because you’re essentially reliving your fandom. It’s a show made from scratch, starting from nothing, building its connections and its fan base, dealing with financial woes, syndication, public perception, and the like – just like the territories and independent promotions many of us have followed throughout the years. It works because showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch (Orange is the New Black, Nurse Jackie, Weeds) both know how to craft a wonderful product characterized by melodrama and personal issues, layered with girl power and “can do” team spirit, and set in the backdrop of the often seedy and dubious world of pro wrestling. It works because no matter how cheesy, cartoony, and disgusting pro wrestling might be, it’s still treated with respect given how certain cast members and consultants are either pro wrestlers or are big fans of the sport. Even Marc Maron himself stated how much of a fan he was when he met wrestlers through his podcast.
As a wrestling fan for the past three decades, GLOW has amazed and captivated me for both its seasons. Wrestling fans love it. The main wrestling subreddit, r/Squaredcircle, has been abuzz with news of the show. Meanwhile, it’s also been reported that male audiences, particularly gamers and comic book fans, love it. After all, Debbie/Liberty Belle did say that “wrestling is a soap opera,” but at the same time, it’s also got comic book plots where heroes and villains come to life to duke it out in a match.
I urge you to watch it if you haven’t yet. Though the third season has yet to be announced, it’s safe to say that it’s almost a lock. It might also be safe to say that things could take a darker turn. After all, since GLOW is a journey about pro wrestling’s growth and development, then we know that the 80s weren’t all the glitz and glamor, or the celebrity appearances and “say your prayers, eat your vitamins” routine. It was also one of the darkest eras in pro wrestling given the drug abuse, alcoholism, physical toll, and financial wastefulness which has ruined many performers in those days.
Will the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling meet a similar fate? Who knows. All I know is that it’s a show about women, but BY GOD ALMIGHTY this show will break a man in half thanks to how brilliantly done it is! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to do some more online-writin’, game-reviewin’, binge-watchin’… WOOOOOOO!