An abundance of hairspray, neon eye shadow and Roxette’s The Look blaring through the radio – welcome to the 1980s. Netflix’s latest comedy series GLOW, set in Los Angeles in 1985, tells the fictionalised story of the beginnings of a real-life league of women wrestlers.
Alison Brie (Community) stars as Ruth Wilder, a serious actor looking for work in Hollywood and getting nothing more than auditions for the role of an office secretary. Her casting director tells her that she’s the kind of woman directors say they’re looking for when they ask to cast “someone real,” but when they see what “real” is like, they look the other way. A deliberate mix-up at an audition and a washroom stakeout lead Ruth to Sam Sylvia’s league of unconventional women.
This is GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which was a real-life low-budget TV franchise and a product of the wrestlemania that defined the decade. Sam Sylvia, played remarkably by comedian Marc Maron, is a sexist, cocaine-snorting, chain-smoking, spent and bitter B-list director of movies with titles such as Blood Disco. Sylvia has been hired by a young rich wrestling enthusiast, Sebastian Howard (Chris Lowell), to produce a women’s wrestling TV show. Sylvia is the good-hearted jerk who gives out advice like “Try not giving a fuck: there’s a lot of power in that,” but goes ahead and does the opposite. He is a leader of the underdogs but is too crass to deliver a PG-13 worthy inspirational monologue. Sylvia and Sebastian select and train 12 women to fake body slams, run the ropes, throw a punch, kick in the gut, and scream for an audience hooked to larger than life characters fighting in costumes.
For Ruth and her 11 companions, this is the best they’ve got going for them. And they’re going to use this to create opportunities where none existed for women – in the ring. Once the casting is done, Sam scripts a post-apocalyptic, psychosexual, sci-fi drama. Bash convinces him to cut it down to characters with no back stories but a lot of stereotypes. So the Indian woman Arthie (Sunita Mani) becomes Beirut the terrorist, the Cambodian Jenny (Ellen Wong) becomes Fortune Cookie, Tamee (Kia Stevens) becomes Welfare Queen, Reggie (Marianna Palka) becomes Vicky the Viking, Rhonda (Kate Nash) takes on the character of Brittanica, the smartest woman in the world, Carmen (Britney Young) becomes Machu Picchu. Then there’s Sheila the She-wolf (Gayle Rankin).
Ruth seems like the most conventional. She is also a very committed actor, and thus struggles immensely with finding a character that feels right. Sam initially fires her, but let’s her stick around when her estranged best friend Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) chases her and wrestles with her in a fit of anger. Debbie has had a semi-successful career with a leading role in a soap opera, but her “difficult” attitude forced the writers to put her character in a year-long coma, then in a wheelchair, till dropped out to have a baby. GLOW is her comeback.
It is also revenge, as she enjoys how badly Sam treats Ruth and pits them against each other. Debbie is an American sweetheart, Liberty Bell fighting the good fight, and Ruth is a brutal representative of Communist Russia. Set in the Cold War years, their fight is to be the highlight of the TV show.
Though the women fight it out in the ring, the show does not play on catfights. Instead, GLOW is a story of friendship, sisterhood and a shared struggle to find your place in a world bent on forgetting you exist. The sport of wrestling isn’t about rivalry but about having faith in your partner. So these women train and practise together, share secrets, throw birthday parties for each other and watch out for each other in and outside the ring. They discuss miscarriages, abortion, extramarital affairs, and estranged kids. They create identities that subvert the dominant image of women on television in the ’80s.
Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and executive produced by Orange is the New Black’s Jenji Cohen, who has again assembled a wonderful ensemble of powerful female actors, GLOW is a throwback to movies about the adorable underdog misfit from the ’80s, set against a synth-heavy soundtrack. But in 2017, it is about a lot more.