Wrestling With Stereotypes: Why G.L.O.W. Shines in a Crowded TV Arena

GLOW is actually about representation and the media. Photo: Netflix

I was honestly surprised at how much I liked the Netflix series, GLOW. On the surface it fits right into a common TV narrative that I thought I never wanted to see again. The usual premise goes something like this: a young, white, middle-class woman is trying to Make It in The Industry. Sometimes she’s trying to be a writer in New York City (the Dunham-Bushnell strain). But more often she’s in California, and even more often, Los Angeles.

But wait, the thing is, unlike say Mary Tyler Moore (who was based in some fictional place called “Minneapolis”) or other old-fashioned career gals, she’s a mess. She’s self-absorbed and petty. She smokes too much weed. She’s a bad friend, and an even worse girlfriend. It’s progressive tho because why do only guys get to be messy and sexy at the same time hashtag feminism? Sometimes the premise is done well, and you get Girls. Sometimes it’s meh and you get Love or You’re the Worst. Sometimes it’s done badly and you get Girlboss (as I wrote about here).

Wit! Sequins! Teamwork! Pat Benatar! I dare you to resist./Netflix

I suspect the reason there are so many of these is similar to why my high school notebooks are full of short stories about sarcastic, mildly depressed teenage girls who are brunette, 5’ 3 1/2” tall, and have names like Rachel Goldberg. Writers in Los Angeles keep being like, hey, you know what’s interesting? Me!

In any case, I was pretty sure I never wanted to see this done again. Then GLOW – the story of a young, white, middle-class, struggling actress who is selfish, arrogant and a truly awful friend (Alison Brie) –  came along and hooked me. Maybe it’s just that the writing is sharp, the setting – a women’s wrestling show in the mid-1980s – is irresistibly fun, and the casting is inspired, but I think there’s more going on.

“GLOW is really a show about representation, with all its paradoxes and messiness.”

The aforementioned shows are often (rightly) critiqued for their representation – or lack thereof – of race; their persistent centering of white femininity over other narratives. They’re less frequently critiqued on the basis of class, but that piece really wears me out too. The trouble with giving women their turn at being “complicated” hot-messes is that the stakes of being a mess are different. (White) men have more margin for error. It’s easy to imagine how they could miss work, have drug habits, be womanizing man-children, and still get second and third and fourth chances, possibly a promotion, possibly be elected president.

If you want to write a messy, narcissistic flake of a woman it’s only charming and “interesting” if wealth affords her some of that margin. A poor woman who behaves that way isn’t complex, she’s trashy. So really, these are shows about the privilege of being messy. GLOW is no exception. Except it is. Because, while certainly not perfect, at its heart, GLOW is really a show about representation, with all its paradoxes and messiness.

Britney Young as Carmen Wade/”Machu Picchu” quietly steals every scene she’s in./Netflix

Marc Maron plays Sam Sylvia, the show’s grumpy director with a reluctant heart of gold. He’s a filmmaker struggling with how low he’ll go to fund his vision in a world that wants sex and schlock (and actually he kinda wants that too). Audiences love his works as B-movie, boobs and blood camp. But he claims they are “Art” – meta-narratives about power and sexism. His first script for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling is a convoluted post-apocalyptic sci-fi where women rule the world and fight a monster called Kuntar (pronounced with a short “u”).

This is quickly rejected for a simpler idea: each woman becomes a caricature based on her race and class. So there’s “Fortune Cookie” and “Machu Picchu,” etc., as well as white characters like “Melrose,” the spoiled party girl, and the star, blonde-haired, blue-eyed “Liberty Belle.”

Sylvia objects at first, but not very strongly. Later he describes the show to a sponsor and says, “they’re literally wrestling with their own stereotypes.” When the character dubbed “Welfare Queen” (the wonderful Kia Stevens, who has a pro-wrestling background) expresses discomfort at her role, Maron declares “It’s commentary on an existing stereotype. It’s a ‘fuck you’ to the Republican party and their welfare reform and race-baiting shit.” Stevens’ response is perfect: “But will the audience know that?”

“GLOW calls attention to self-reflexivity, but doesn’t rest on it or let it stand in for critique.”

Representation is one of the central concepts in the field of cultural studies. It refers to how we make meaning through language, images, stories, etc. The meanings we share constitute our culture. It seems simple, but it’s really important. Because, as Stuart Hall pointed out, objects or concepts don’t have meaning until they are represented. And how they are represented shapes our understanding of their value. So, representation both reflects (re presents) and reproduces culture. It’s hard to just do one or the other. For example, in a visual storytelling medium it’s hard to critique violence without also reproducing a voyeuristic pleasure in seeing it, thus perpetuating a violent culture. Likewise, it’s hard to critique the sexualization and exploitation of women without also showing them in shiny, tight leotards.

Satirical or meta narratives like the ones referenced in GLOW are sometimes the most exploitative of all because they want to have their cake and eat it too. So, to look back a bit, a show like Ali G could appeal to two different audiences simultaneously: those who saw it as biting social commentary, and those thought foreigners and queers were hilarious. GLOW is interesting because it calls attention to that kind of self-reflexivity, but doesn’t rest on it or let it stand in for critique. Rather it does what all good studies of representation do: it interrogates the images it’s reproducing.

The show forces the viewer to confront the power relations behind the choices being made. Who benefits? Who gets hurt? What is innocent and what is not? There’s a moment in the final episode involving the character Arthie. When she gets in front of a real audience as a cartoonish “terrorist” stereotype, their hatred for her stops being campy fun. After the match, shaken, she says, “They really hated me.” Her partner responds that that’s a good thing though, right? But neither of them seem sure. It’s just a flash, but I’m hopeful season two will take time to explore this kind of thread further.

Sunita Mani as Arthie Premkumar/”Beirut the Mad Bomber” realizing that some stereotypes hurt more than others./Netflix

Season One’s Biggest Shortcoming? More Ensemble Please

Of course, the center of the story is still the same ole same ole. Imagine if instead of Alison Brie, the story focused on Sunita Mani? Maybe chronicling the misadventures of a complicated young South Asian woman, trying to make it as an actress? (yes, Netflix, you can have two) Actually, any one of the ensemble could easily have carried the show. Really, the underdevelopment of the ensemble cast is season one’s biggest shortcoming.

Hopefully this will be remedied in the next season, because the flashes we got were wonderful. In addition to the glimpses already referred to, there are class conflicts around the low-brow genre that the women are promoting. For example, Betty Gilpin’s character, a soap-star turned mom and housewife, turned “Liberty Belle,” at first refuses to take the show seriously. This seems like typical bourgeois suburban snobbery until an offhand remark from her husband (“you can take the girl out of the trailer park…”) hints that her disdain masks shame and fear of being outed as class-passing.

What really elevates this show is that, perhaps to an even greater extent than Orange is the New Black (Jenji Kohan is a creator on both), the ensemble isn’t just there to check off a diversity box, or shore up or guide or give life lessons to the white woman at the center. In fact, Brie grows by learning to step out of the spotlight and use her energy to help others shine. That’s the beautiful irony of GLOW. It’s a show about women fighting each other, based on preconceived notions of who they are. But in practice it only works if they collaborate, trust, and listen deeply to each other. GLOW demonstrates what so much TV refuses to acknowledge: collaboration – especially among women – can be more compelling than conflict.

Damn straight we’ll be invincible! …Shut up, I’m not crying. I’m singing Pat Benatar. You’re crying/Netflix

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more. Most of her work is about everyday fashion and consumer culture, with forays into pop culture, higher ed, and labor.