Wrestling with Women's Relationships in GLOW
The dramedy GLOW opens on an audition room in 1985. Alison Brie’s character, Ruth, reads an intense, confrontational monologue and then thanks the female casting director, saying, “There are not roles like this for women right now." "You were reading the man’s part,” responds the casting director.
A lack of dynamic female parts, not to mention Ruth’s inability to be cast in even the two-dimensional parts that are available to her, is part of why she falls into women’s wrestling.
Created and produced by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, alongside Orange Is The New Black’s Jenji Kohan, GLOW is a Netflix original series based on a late Cold War-era women’s wrestling league that mimicked the scripted spectacles of male wrestlers popular at the time. In a greedy, last ditch, effort to capitalize on wrestling and eroticism, a washed-up director, Sam (played by Marc Maron), and entitled young producer Bash, (played by Chris Lowell), create a new show, “GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.” Hand picked to fight on TV, the eponymous Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling are repeatedly neglected by their male director and producer, as the men embark on escapades fueled by cocaine and self-deprecation. Nevertheless, the wrestlers, hesitant to return to their bland roles as tired mothers, obedient daughters, and actresses performing empty parts, elect to take over their own training. This plot point is steeped in nostalgia: it’s like A League of Their Own but with more body-slamming. GLOW goes far beyond the theatrics of wrestling, delivering a story about women creating art without, or even in spite of, the men presumably in charge of that art.
Alongside a hodgepodge of aspiring actresses, athletes, and even hairdressers, Ruth learns wrestling is more about artistry and narrative than macho stunts (though Brie notably performs all her own). GLOW’s ensemble is essentially a female wrestling interpretation of A Chorus Line. The women who stumble into the wrestling show, filled with as much hope, desperation, and monotony as Ruth, do not simply to take over men’s parts, but redefine their own.
The result is enchanting. GLOW’s characters are deliciously complicated, each a villain in some way but humanized by redeeming storylines. The women begrudgingly agree to producer Bash’s insistence that the wrestlers embody popular stereotypes associated with their appearances, not out of a desire to conform, but out of an awareness that even if they are exemplifying prejudice, they are still performing in the only physically empowering roles available to women in 1985. The wrestlers are unable to claim full creative power over the show, and instead, capitalize on the limited creative liberty they are afforded. Due to this empowered desperation, the women adhere to the offensive characters assigned by the director, and a stout black welfare queen, an Arab terrorist, a glasses-wearing bookworm, a Russian communist, and a narcissistically entitled princess wrestle on the show-within-a-show.
The prima donna gracing GLOW’s stage (or ring) is not just any narcissistically entitled princess, she is a Jewish American Princess. While other characters are clearly performing their stereotypes only in the ring, the boundaries between performed stereotype, internalized misogyny, and anti-semitism felt much less clear in the character of Melrose. But Melrose (played by Jackie Tohn), who refuses to go by her real name, Melanie Rosen, is a refreshing change from the shallow Jewesses we’re often expected to accept. While she does fill the limited space stereotype allows for—she is unapologetically loud, wealthy, and sarcastic—she is also, surprisingly complex. Between offering her co-stars rides in her limo and spotting her peers 50 dollar bills like they’re spare tampons, only to insist they reimburse her, Melrose is desperate for friendship and terrified of rejection. She is both apprehensive of, and lost without, strong leadership. And she is actively juxtaposed with the skepticism of Jews in America of the time. Through the circumstances of Melrose’s character, and each character on the show, we’re offered women who are more than their archetypes. This results in an ensemble that is multifaceted and compelling.
Due to the show’s slow-moving storyline and intense focus on character development, criticisms of GLOW will scrutinize the pressure on the leading characters, rather than dramatic events, to move the plot. To me, this strategy exemplifies the power of GLOW. Just as the characters themselves are left to curate the wrestling show in which they’ve been cast, so too do these same characters form the structure of the entire Netflix show. In relying on its complicated and imperfect female ensemble to move the plot both through dramatic wrestling montages and more subtle interpersonal interactions, GLOW shows that female relationships themselves are valuable plot points.
While the mere existence of dynamic female parts should not be celebrated as the final product in the fight for female representation, these dexterous characters are refreshingly intense. A show need not have explicit revolutionary themes to be recognized for what it is: delightful. GLOW offers a mosaic of realistic female friendships, rivalries, and experiences. It is both amusingly theatrical and alluringly subtle, a true representation of female relationships. Bring on Season Two.
How to cite this page
Sara Lebow. "Wrestling with Women's Relationships in GLOW." 27 June 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 16, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/wrestling-with-womens-relationships-in-glow>.