'G.L.O.W.' Gives Women A Ringside Seat To a Feminist Uprising
By Jessica Quiroli
I can’t look away from Debbie Egan’s face.
The hold her every expression of pain, unhinged humor, desperation, heartache has on me is transcendentally powerful.
And in this moment, the final minutes of Season 2 of the Netflix original series “G.L.O.W.”’ she’s holding me so still that the only sensation I feel is my throat tightening, and a vague shakiness.
For that moment, standing before her ex-husband, Mark (Rich Sommer), and her infant son, Randy--Look. At. Her. Face.
Betty Gilpin is a brilliant revelation not just in that pivotal moment. She experiences so many different and complex emotions and situations, and plays them all to the hilt. Her utter embodiment of a woman on the verge makes taking my eyes off of her impossible. I felt her performance in my bones.
Every woman in the cast creates a unique energy. Each character carries a weight, expresses a desire to achieve, and represents something within each one of us, or, at least, someone we’re familiar with. Ruth, played pitch perfect by Alison Brie, stars as the central character who also offsets multiple key storylines. Her character is a mess, but knows it. She’s smart, but not particularly savvy, something she develops as time goes on when she's forced to up her game. She’s also the estranged best friend of Debbie--estranged due to extraordinary betrayals.
The dynamics between the two women is chemistry personified. Not only are they entirely different people, and opposites in how they live their lives, they’re also at constant personal odds over real-life pain. Lucky for viewers, and fictional fans in the seats, they bring that to their rivalry in the ring.
But, digging deeper, they represent an archetype. Debbie, the good wife and mother sacrifices a successful acting career, and her ambitions, in order to stay in her suburban home with Randy. Ruth’s single and struggling to find success in her career. She’s disconnected, uncertain, but ambitious and passionate, while battling wounding insecurities that lead to self-destructive actions.
The Netflix original series is set in the 80’s, but these women are as real and current today as in the era of big hair. In the age of the #MeToo movement, they feel urgently necessary.
There are direct forms of sexual politics and harassment, such as Ruth’s private meeting with an exec who wants a sexual encounter, and, perhaps, if she cooperates, there’s a possibility that could facilitate the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling surviving. Women’s experiences as easily abused sexual objects, overpowered throughout industries big and small are weaved into the fabric of every episode and, of course, the entire premise. The women in the ring didn’t choose GLOW, it chose them. But, eventually, a bond forms even between the most unlikely of sisters. That camaraderie is so much the essence of female kinship and solidarity, whether personal or professional, or both. What these women get isn’t what they showed up for. But, as is so common, women begin to unravel, reveal and fight in ways brand new to them.
There are important characters across the board: richly drawn with emotional depth and nuance. Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) is the leader the team needs: athletic, an experienced stunt woman, vocal, passionate and sharply instinctual. Her marriage to referee/actor Keith (Bashir Salahuddin) shows a healthy relationship between an African American couple, something television needs much more, and that includes all communities of color. Tamme, Welfare Queen in the ring, is superbly, poignantly portrayed by real-life wrestler Kia Stevens. While diversity is often discussed and not executed, the series will hopefully continue showcasing their talents, and increase their screen time. With creators Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive serving as executive producers, along with Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange is the New Black) and Tara Herrmann, the possibilities for the women of G.L.O.W. seem endless.
Let's talk about Marc Maron. As Sam Sylvia, he plays G.L.O.W.'s weathered director. His behaviors are sometimes sexist, but there’s some unraveling here, too. His attitude toward Ruth as a director, or Debbie as a producer is barely camouflaged insecurity that pulsates through his face and voice in every scene. And he’s honest in many moments about that, privately, outwardly and in ways that require some old fashioned women’s emotional labor in order to recognize the subtext. We can’t praise him for his treatment of Ruth and Debbie as enthusiastic creative partners. We can, however, recognize that he’s not trying to abuse anyone, even as his inclinations are hurtful; and he’s as complex as the women he’s working with. Is Ruth a hero? Is Debbie? Both women hurt each other, manipulate, tear down, judge and play power games. In male-speak, that’s being a cutthroat business man. When you peel the emotional layers of Sam, Debbie and Ruth, you don’t see hateful, selfish, immoral people. You’re looking in the face of desperation, desire, loss of self, unspoken or unrealized love, and hopefulness. It’s easy to be equally angry or disappointed in them, as you simultaneously root for them, cry for them and laugh at the moments they surrender to their emotional nuttiness, no longer hiding their cracks.
Finally, there’s a larger theme here that cuts deep, making G.L.O.W. even more timely.
Just as this retro sports show has exploded in popularity and honors (TEN Emmy nominations!), women’s sports is emerging on a bigger stage, but, more than that, women are fighting more publicly, and with tremendous support. Serena Williams came under attack by the French Tennis Federation for a bodysuit she wore to compete. The suit, designed to help her with postpartum blood clots, wasn’t the final word. She wore a tutu the next two times she took the court, sending a message, with acid humor, that you can’t control women’s bodies without a defiant act, and a ton of outrage across social media. The WNBA has been fighting for equality in pay and coverage, and, the most powerful moment in recent sports history happened when USA Olympic gymnasts came forward as sexual abuse survivors, outing former coach Larry Nassar for years of harm. These moments change the guard. Creators of television and film would be wise to commit to reflecting that in their art.
I imagine a day in the fictional G.L.O.W. universe, when Debbie and Ruth stand on a stage being honored for their contributions as women and performers. I envision them speaking publicly and forcefully about the need to take power from the sexist monsters who attempted to or actually did assault them, and so many other women, while stealing their dreams with no consequences. The subplots that touch on these charged issues of sexual objectification and powerlessness are retro AND current. Big hair and spandex have changed. Other things don’t.
This is our time. And G.L.O.W. fits right in.