The following contains spoilers for the first season of Netflix’s GLOW.
I was expecting GLOW to be an indictment of everything that was wrong with the wrestling industry in the ’80s—racism, nationalism, sexism—and how it carries over into today, but the camaraderie depicted between a rag tag bunch of women who make up the cast of G.L.O.W. within GLOW shows how out of touch modern portrayals of women’s wrestling are, in World Wrestling Entertainment specifically.
I’ve written about this before, examining the types of relationships shown between women on WWE programming through the lens of shine theory: the idea that ambitious, successful women surrounding themselves with other ambitious, successful women fosters more success, not jealousy and catfights as WWE would have you believe. And though GLOW’s first episode ends with exactly that, as daytime TV actor Debbie (the luminous Betty Gilpin) finds out her best friend and fellow actor Ruth (Alison Brie) has been sleeping with her husband in the middle of Ruth’s audition for G.L.O.W. and a beatdown ensues, it uses its following nine episodes to bring the rest of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling together, slowly mending Debbie and Ruth’s rift as it does.
WWE could stand to learn something from this type of storytelling: women developing friendships, professional alliances and looking out for each other in the workplace. Certainly this is what goes on behind the scenes of WWE’s women’s division, as we see on Total Divas and social media. Obviously there needs to be conflict in wrestling to get audiences invested in the story, and a woman sleeping with another woman’s husband is not only a clear violation of both shine theory and the rules of feminism but lazy storytelling in the vein of WWE. Perhaps a falling out over Debbie getting more prominent roles than Ruth, which is an underlying tension between the two, would have been less predictable and made more sense when Debbie comes to work at G.L.O.W. as their top babyface to Ruth’s burgeoning heel. Their initial beef aside, it’s clear how much Ruth, Debbie and the rest of the G.L.O.W. roster thrive on learning wrestling and creating something special with each other. Even where women in wrestling don’t get along, on screen or otherwise, it’s this undercurrent of professional respect—also present in Charlotte’s feud with Sasha Banks last year—that WWE could stand to take note of.
Another aspect of GLOW that blows WWE out of the water is that it puts its men in the backseat while women drive the story. Down-on-his-luck director Sam (Marc Maron) and rich, wrestling-obsessed producer Bash (Chris Lowell) have their own minor storylines, but they’re rarely more prominent than those of the female cast members. Launching the week of the controversial first ever women’s Money in the Bank ladder match, which culminated in a man retrieving the briefcase, GLOW starkly contrasts to WWE, which continues to get even the very basics of gender equality wrong.
And that might be where an argument for a women’s wrestling-only show on the WWE Network could be made. Though I would watch the shit out of a women’s wrestling only show, I personally believe WWE should put its money where its mouth is and carve out substantial time for women’s wrestling on the five hours of network television it has per week. GLOW shows how many different types of women can be given priority on a show dedicated exclusively to them.
GLOW frequents in racist stereotypes—pairing the two black women Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) and Tamee (Kia Stevens, better known in wrestling as Awesome Kong/Kharma) together has shades of Team B.A.D.; Ruth’s Soviet heel Zoya (a play on the original G.L.O.W.’s Col. Ninotchka) tags with walking Asian stereotype Fortune Cookie, played by Jenny (the sorely underrated Ellen Wong), in the finale. Unlike WWE, though, GLOW is always sure to inject it with social commentary. This commentary comes mostly from Sam, who fancies himself a bit of a barrier-pushing auteur, justifying Tamee’s character Welfare Queen as a “fuck you to the Republican Party, and their welfare reform and race-baiting shit.” But, like recent seasons of Orange is the New Black (which shares creator Jenji Kohan with GLOW), it does very little to dig deep into the racism, xenophobia, nationalism and sexism of wrestling. For example, Arthie (Sunita Mani), playing her Lebanese terrorist gimmick Beirut, is spat on and has things thrown at her in the ring by racists. Though she is visibly traumatised, GLOW doesn’t allow us to see how the aftermath affects her, and instead she celebrates in the ring with the rest of the cast in the finale. By offering one liners such as “it’s about the internal struggle about racism in America” and “they’re going to be wrestling with their own female stereotypes, and I think that’s something that’s really going to resonate with female audiences,” GLOW hopes the audience will figure out that it’s supposed to be satire on their own.
But, again, GLOW’s strongest element is its championing of women’s friendships, particularly Ruth and Debbie’s broken one. Despite Debbie’s best efforts to remain cold and aloof towards Ruth, she can’t help expressing excitement and satisfaction when they learn how to take bumps from Brodus Clay and Carlito in the requisite ’80s training montage. The scene in which Debbie finally “gets” that wrestling is a soap opera is magical to watch and represents how all wrestling fans feel. As a former soap actress herself, who quit acting to be a mother and wife, Debbie tells Ruth that she’s “back in my body and I’m using it for me. I feel like a goddamn superhero.” And Ruth’s speech at a fundraiser about how women’s wrestling helped her find purpose and heal from her friendship breakup was so heartwarming that it melted Bash’s mother, who relented and offered him the use of the family ballroom to film their pilot episode. These are the shining moments of GLOW and I wish WWE had more like them.
GLOW premiered the week that women got less than 4% of airtime during the third hour of Raw and the aforementioned ill-fated women’s MITB saw modest success. If WWE wants to redirect eyeballs from Netflix to the Network, they’re going to have to step up their game. That begins with depicting more women with more frequency in storylines that actually portray the depth and breadth of the female experience. Somehow I think we’re going to have to wait ‘til next season of GLOW for that…
Scarlett Harris is an Australian writer. You can read her previously published work at her website The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter at @ScarlettEHarris.