A few years ago, I found a flyer on the floor of a basement dance club in London. “EVE Pro Wrestling” it read, “the Riot Grrrls of wrestling.” This piqued my interest- I’d just watched the first season of Netflix’s GLOW and was interested in seeing a real-life equivalent. I dragged my friend with me to their next show. We turned down a dubious alley in Bethnal Green, and walked under a floral sheet with “Secret Girl Gang Clubhouse” written on it in thick black paint. We stood in a packed warehouse around a wrestling ring, and I felt more like I was at a punk show than a sporting event. A sign above the ring read, “pile drive a facist.” When the show began, I was amazed by how similar it was to GLOW: The posh, acid-tongued Jetta verbally sparred with the animalistic Kris Wolf during their fight, champion Charlie Morgan ran up the wall before body-slamming her opponent, and one pair even lept out of the ring and onto the floor right in front of us- the crowd had to part to make space. I’d never seen anything like it in my entire life. I thought wrestling was John Cena and the Rock and other big, strong men fighting in giant arenas. It was then that I began to understand the many faces of strength.
The phrase “strong female character” gets tossed around a lot, and the concept is often over-simplified to mean a badass, emotionless woman who can fight. That archetype can be harmless fun in certain contexts, but when audiences ask for more “strong” female characters, they want more than just a badass. What we’re often craving is complex characterization: women that can be strong, weak, funny, unsure, overwhelmed, happy, conflicted, etc. Netflix’s GLOW does this extremely well, through a diverse cast of characters that all has one thing in common: physical strength, or the pursuit of it.
GLOW’s brilliant focus on women’s realistic, multifaceted interior lives is unique enough, but what makes it singular is how these themes intersect with the characters’ physical strength. When the women learn to wrestle, it gives them ownership and autonomy over their bodies which, in turn, gives them more agency in general. Although this gives them power, it doesn’t have to come with the cold, badass stereotype (think Furiosa, Ripley, Katniss, Wonder Woman, and Black Widow). Instead, it provides each character with more autonomy and freedom to be themselves, whoever that is. Their physical strength directly correlates with their success in the wrestling world, which provides them with more stability, a career, friends, and confidence. GLOW understood what it really is to become a “strong” woman, in a complicated, fraught, and realistic way.
GLOW star Kate Nash (who plays Rhonda) said something on Lorraine that has always stuck with me. “For girls to be able to see women doing something with their bodies, that isn’t just about trying to look good- it’s trying to be powerful…learning about being stronger and taking up space…which is the opposite of what girls are usually taught, it’s such an empowering feeling.” Wrestling isn’t just any sport- it’s an intense and dangerous one. Bodies land hard, hits land, and routines have to be done perfectly. For the women in GLOW, wrestling is their ticket to a real life. They are an assortment of misfits, cast out and off their prescribed path for one reason or another. Wrestling helps each of them find some kind of strength, some part of themselves they didn’t know existed: Sheila the She-Wolf takes off her costume for the first time, shy Arthie explores her sexuality, and Ruth and Debbie learn to forgive each other. Although it’s often much more complicated than that- racist wrestling caricatures make many of the women feel unappreciated- the focus on women’s physical strength is uniquely important.
This is what I will miss most about GLOW, which was cancelled this summer. Plenty of shows focus on a variety of female characters (few with a cast as diverse as GLOW), but almost no other show really understands what a “strong female character” is. I’ve rarely ever seen media that depicts women’s bodies in such a way- valued for their strength, their ability, their power alone. GLOW focuses on human superpowers: the pile-drive, being a great mother, the bodyslam, staying true to yourself, the chokeslam, standing up to authority. Any of us can be an everyday Wonder Woman, and we don’t have to be from Themyscira to do it. I’ll miss watching GLOW to remind myself that I have all kinds of strength inside me- we all do.
When my friend and I got on the underground after the wrestling show, I felt too excited to sit down. We kept debriefing our favorite moments. I couldn’t stop punching the air in front of me- I told her that I wanted to learn those moves. I wanted to fight someone. She laughed- I’m an especially unathletic person. When I got home, I turned on WWE. It was fun, but didn’t quite give me the same feeling. I went on my phone and signed up for a kickboxing class, something I’d never done before. I jumped up and down on my bed, getting as high as possible and then letting my back hit the mattress. I imagined learning wrestling tricks, being able to handle slamming against a mat, being able to win a fight despite my lanky, awkward limbs. When WWE was over, I turned on GLOW. Alison Brie’s Ruth seems to look right at me when she says, “I’ve been acting pretty much my whole life, and it’s always just another audition, another meeting, another year of waiting for someone to give you permission to do the thing you wanna do. But finally I’m getting to do something, and it feels different, you know? I feel different. Strong. In control.”
Clare (she/her) majored in Media Studies at Vassar College, before moving to NYC to work as an assistant at NBC like the rom-com protagonist she is. She is also both a teenage film bro who just watched Fight Club and a middle-aged Nancy Meyers completist, depending on the day. Favourite movies include: Scott Pilgrim, Scream, The Social Network, The Princess Bride, Moonstruck, and Down With Love. You can find her on twitter @clarereyy or on letterboxd @clarerey.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Feminist Criticism, TV
I absolutely concur, GLOW is a landmark show and although I’ve only seen the debut season with my sister, I know it will always remain with me as a complete experience and being especially relevant as it is culled from a real life event. Thank you for eulogizing the show.