Inspired by the real-life “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” that was briefly popular in the 1980s, GLOW is not a biography, but a fictionalized behind-the-scenes comedy. Alison Brie stars as Ruth, a struggling actress who latches onto professional wrestling as her last best shot at making it. Betty Gilpin (Nurse Jackie) joins her as Debbie, Ruth’s best friend and a former soap star who has given up acting for domestic bliss in Pasadena. At the beginning of episode one, it seems like GLOW will be Ruth’s journey to success in a time when Hollywood was an even worse place for women than it is now. By the end of the episode, though, it’s clear that GLOW is so much more.
GLOW is VERY funny, coming from Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, veterans of Nurse Jackie, Weeds, and Orange is the New Black (OITNB creator Jenji Kohan is an executive producer). But it hits some heavy themes, too, particularly stereotypes and abortion. Professional wrestling relies on stereotypes, and though Sam, a washed-up exploitation director, starts out with complicated backstories and characterizations for the women, he quickly abandons them in favor of garish, easy to parse stereotypes.
Arthie Premkumar (Sunita Mani) plays “Beirut the Mad Bomber”, even though she isn’t Lebanese, and Jenny Chey (Ellen Wong, aka Knives Chau all grown up) is “Fortune Cookie”, a Chinese stereotype—Jenny is Cambodian. Ruth plays a heel, “Zoya the Destroyer”, a Cold War Soviet stereotype, and Debbie is her all-American rival, the Southern-accented “Liberty Bell”. And the two black women in the troupe, Tamme and Cherry, play “The Welfare Queen” and “Junk Chain”, respectively.
There is always a contrast presented for the stereotypes being used—Ruth goes to a Russian family celebration which shows how garish and offensive her portrayal of Zoya really is—and instances showing how stereotypes can do damage in real life. It’s just wrestling, it’s all for fun, but Tamme has a son at Stanford and she’s worried about him being mocked, or worse, because his mother is “The Welfare Queen” on TV. The stereotypes the women play in the ring only highlight how truly reductive and awful they are, but GLOW also doesn’t offer any easy answers. We’re just left with the image of Arthie, shaking and scared after a violent audience interaction.
The abortion subplot is equally complex, as Ruth discovers an affair with Debbie’s husband has left her pregnant. Not only is it bad timing for her career, but she doesn’t want to do any more damage to Debbie. So she gets an abortion, and while it’s presented as a straightforward choice and Ruth is not a traumatized victim of the procedure, she’s also not doing cartwheels in the parking lot. GLOW shows it for what it is—a choice. Ruth is confident in her decision, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Brie does a wonderful piece of expressive acting as the episode fades out on Ruth undergoing the procedure, finding comfort in a ceiling tile painted like the sky.
Similarly, there’s no easy fix for Ruth and Debbie. Their friendship is permanently altered by Ruth’s actions, and the show is fixated more on their relationship than Debbie’s marriage. Wrestling and getting to defeat “Zoya” in the ring gives Debbie an outlet for her anger, but she and Ruth are still not okay by the final episode. But you can see both women growing and coming into their own throughout the season, as wrestling provides them each with a much-needed outlet. Debbie has a physical release for her anger, and Ruth finally has the creative outlet she’s longed for, but they no longer have the comfort of each other.
So they find new comforts. For Debbie, it’s working again and having a life outside the home. And for Ruth, it’s finding her confidence when she embraces being a heel. At first, Ruth is disappointed to not be the lead, and the way she collapses inward as Debbie—statuesque, blonde Debbie who has known more success than Ruth ever has—takes over as the protagonist of the show is all you need to know about how she could sleep with her best friend’s husband. But as she slowly learns to love being a villain, Ruth starts carrying herself taller and starts integrating into the group and takes over as a kind of production manager when the wheels start coming off in the later episodes.
GLOW is fun and funny, and it gets the Eighties right, leading with authenticity and not nostalgia, and there’s a killer soundtrack. The acting is great, particularly Gilpin, Brie, and Maron, and you don’t have to like wrestling to get into the journey of the women learning to be wrestlers. But what really makes GLOW great is how assured it is with its difficult themes, and how intersectional its feminism is. It’s a feminist wrestling comedy about a group of varied and complex women trying to figure out how to live in a world that doesn’t always want or value them, basically a Pat Benatar power ballad come to life as a television show.