We all know that pro wrestling is not really sport, but an exercise in storytelling, right? The perilously tight spandex, the excessive ramming and slamming are just elements of the spectacle. And wrestling’s go-to plot is at the no frills end of narrative storytelling. It’s the simple story of good vs evil, or in pro wrestling parlance, ‘face’ vs ‘heel’.
In contrast, GLOW, a behind the scenes dramedy about a women’s pro wrestling TV franchise is layered and nuanced, with vulnerable, yet wilful characters who look as intriguing as they are interesting.
GLOW is fabulous entertainment with crisp, witty dialogue and unexpectedly affecting poignant moments, like the emotionally intimate scenes between sleazy director Sam and the protagonist Ruth. Yet GLOW avoids being too earnestly up its own arse by being fun and just downright silly most of the time.
GLOW is inspired by the 80s real life women’s wrestling franchise ‘Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling’. The Netflix series takes the idea and the setting, but populates the cast with a mish-mash of ‘unconventional’ women, many in un-TV like female shapes and sizes. The director of the show within the show is cocaine snorting Sam, played surprisingly well by Marc Maron of podcast WTF fame, who manages to pull off deconstructed sexy by elevating disheveled to new heights with rampant misogyny.
In fact, there’s a lot to simultaneously marvel and cringe at in GLOW. All the women are encouraged to create their pro wrestling personas and the stereotypes they’re pushed to adopt are offensively absurd–a Cambodian woman becomes Fortune Cookie, an Indian student recreates herself as a machine gun toting terrorist called Beirut. And wannabe serious actor Ruth becomes the ruthless Russian ‘heel’ to ‘face’ Liberty Belle, the all American busty blonde in a glitzy stars and stripes leotard.
But the genius of GLOW is in the way these women begin to shine as they learn to inhabit their crass alter egos. It’s thrilling to watch their empowerment as they write themselves into the pro wrestling storyline, becoming more authentically themselves as they embrace their stereotype infested stage characters.
There’s a bunch of feminist questions being explored right there–questions about the roles women are allowed to play in society, or the kinds of bodies they’re allowed to inhabit. Or how desperation and a devil may care attitude, a result of being down and out and on the fringes, can actually push people to be ‘their best selves’, to borrow from self helper extraordinaire Oprah. As Sam tells Ruth in one scene, ‘try not giving a fuck. There’s a lot of power in that.”
GLOW is subversive in the most delightful way because it challenges that middle class belief that there’s a smooth road to self actualisation. GLOW seems to be saying that life’s a right mess really, and there’s no such thing as a predictable plot line, the kind you can expect in the pro wrestling ring. Which doesn’t mean you can’t willfully take control of your own narrative, and this is what the glorious women of GLOW do with immense dignity, amid the crassness.
That’s why setting this series in the pro wrestling ring is so inspired. It highlights the vast difference between the reductionist, mind numbingly simple storytelling of pro wrestling with the complex shifts and multiple perspectives that animate GLOW’s carefully constructed arc. And it’s this aspect of the series that stood out for me as significant in this confusing era of Trump.
Back in the good old days when people still thought Trump was merely a bad joke, commentators pointed out that Trump’s boorish tactics were taken straight from the pro wrestling handbook. Tactics like name calling (‘Crooked Hillary’) have been so effective that some Trump’s opponents have been urged to also examine the pro wrestling formula for ideas on how to trump Trump. This New York Times video is scarily insightful and worth 2 minutes and 3 seconds of your life.
I suspect the key appeal of pro wrestling’s tactics is moral transparency. Everyone wants good to triumph over evil. Everyone wants a ‘heel’ to blame, in Trump’s case, immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, Obama. The pro wrestling formula offers a simple one size fits all answer to all humanity’s problems.
And let’s face it, hissing at the ‘heel’ and whooping at the ‘face’ just feels right. It’s the spectacle that attracts, which is what philosopher Roland Barthes pointed out in his essay on wrestling published in Mythologies:
‘This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time.’
What Barthes is articulating here is that unlike boxing, in which competitors hone their skills and pitch their physical and mental prowess against opponents, wrestling is about excitement, entertainment, popularity, showmanship. It’s is about playing the prescribed role, not playing for results. Wrestling is about the moment, which is the aspect Trump exploits so well.
He dominates the news cycle by bombarding the media space with outrageous utterances, demonstrating utter disregard for political rules. While other politicians are laying out their policies, Trump will metaphorically step outside the ring, pick up a chair and wack his opponent over the head with it.
But the problem with Trump’s strategy and pro wrestling is that there is no arc. What happens when the spectacle is over? The simplistic storyline might work for some, but from Shakespeare to Netflix, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that humans desire, even demand good stories.
If storytelling is to have any impact on our lives, to inspire us to ‘go high when they go low,’ then it has to reflect the complexity that is humanity. As storytellers, we need to complexify, not simplify. We need to offer narratives that raise questions, inspire discussion, incite honest debate, not preclude it as Trump does. That’s the only way we can find the safety of compromise and firm common ground. We need more storytelling like GLOW.
I’m already looking forward to Season 2. And I’m glad GLOW is about pro wrestling. The hair, the costumes and the occasional blood spilled in the ring make this series so much fun.
GLOW is an American series created by Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive; Executive Producer is Jenji Kohan of Orange is the New Black fame; Season 1 is being streamed on Netflix in Australia from June 23, 2017
Here are some great pics of the real life women of GLOW