How 'GLOW' pushes back on age-old stereotypes about women in media

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On the surface, the Netflix hit GLOW is a show about the making of a show — specifically, the 1980s TV show “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” (G.L.O.W.) that inspired the series. But beneath this plot lies a far more interesting exploration of women’s experiences in the entertainment industry, and in the world at large, in the 1980s through a modern lens. GLOW offers viewers a critique of what entertainment we consume, how we consume it, and how we in turn often consume and stereotype the women at the center of that entertainment.

Created by Carly Mensch (Weeds, Orange Is the New Black) and Liz Flahive (Nurse Jackie, Homeland), GLOW revolves around a diverse group of women, all of whom have no experience with wrestling, but all of whom want to be on TV. The protagonist, Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), is a struggling actress who sees in GLOW an opportunity to pursue her dreams. She does everything she can to inspire the indifferent director, Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), not to give up on the show, including collaborating with her ex-best friend Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) to make the show a success.

From the beginning, the show takes on themes like gender as a performance and questions sexist, racist, and classist stereotypes. The director is very clear about what he wants the show to be: namely girls, all of whom assume a stereotyped version of themselves in the ring, fighting each other in very tight clothes. The stereotypes the wrestlers enact in the ring reflect the same categories the entertainment industry (and society at large) impose on women on a daily basis. For example, personas like the “Welfare Queen” (Kia Stevens) and “Junk Chain” (Sydelle Noel) may be the blatantly offensive names of GLOW characters in the ring, but they are essentially the same characterizations that have been less obviously imposed on women of color characters in movies and TV shows for decades. Most of the actresses don’t question the exaggerated characters they’re asked to play because it seems they already expected this kind of treatment in the entertainment industry.

But not all of the actresses have such an accepting mindset about their characters. The moment Arthie Premkumar (Sunita Mani) puts on the costume for her wrestling persona — “Beirut,” a mad terrorist — she feels uncomfortable. Her discomfort only gets worse when, during her fight in the ring, the audience starts to react to her like she’s an actual terrorist. The crowd chants for her rival to “end” her and go wild with every punch she receives. They even go so far as to throw food and drinks in her direction — a reaction none of the other characters had gotten. Throughout Season 2, now armed with the understanding that most of the audience clearly can’t distinguish between her character and her real self, Arthie tries her best to break the stereotype of “Beirut” by exploring her other passions and making it clear that the stereotype she plays is just that.

Tammé Dawson (Kia Stevens), who plays the “Welfare Queen,” has a similar experience. Tammé is a single mother who worked hard her whole life to give her son, now a Stanford student, the best life and future she could. She appears initially to have fun with her character, but then her son comes to see a recording of the show in Season 2. He cries in response to the degrading persona his mother portrays, and Tammé starts to see how problematic it is to reiterate a demeaning stereotype of black women to an audience.

Both Arthie and Tammé eventually realize that by playing into the stereotypes already imposed on them in the entertainment industry and beyond, they are reinforcing those stereotypes to others and experience discomfort in their own lives. Accepting one’s own dehumanization, the plot suggests, is the dangerous consequence of the normalization of these stereotypes in our society.

Still, both characters stay on the show. By staying, they seem to reason, they can at least try to challenge the stereotypical characters as much as they can — especially knowing that should they leave, they would probably just be replaced with another girl willing to fill the void and keep portraying such negative representation.

In addition to exploring themes of discriminatory stereotypes and representation, GLOW also calls attention to the dichotomy of female competition vs. solidarity. The main characters of the show, Debbie and Ruth, must deal with an incident of infidelity that broke their friendship, and learn how to keep it apart from their work and ambitions that, at the time, were generally not available to women. The show allows viewers to understand both sides of the feud: We learn that Ruth slept with Debbie’s husband, Mark, while Debbie took care of her infant because she felt insecure about her career and Mark gave her attention. Debbie is rightfully devastated that her trust was broken by both her husband and her best friend, but begins to blame Ruth for every bad thing that happens in her life from that point on. This complex portrayal of both women lets the audience decide who is right or wrong — or even if neither is — and avoids stereotypes by also depicting the women putting aside their personal issues to make the show as successful as possible, reiterating the power of friendship and women supporting each other.

Even though their job is to literally fight each other, the women of GLOW form a supportive family though their experience. It doesn’t matter if someone made a terrible mistake in the past, like Ruth, or if they behave in a way society doesn’t understand, like Sheila the “She-wolf.” What matters most is their collective desire for the show to succeed, and to be the best versions of themselves. All in all, GLOW is a refreshing show that through drama and humor highlights exactly what's wrong with the entertainment industry, and how the rise of women within it has been a long time coming.

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Maria Carolina Treitler Paixão
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