“GLOW” Does a Lot of Things Right, Just Not Queer Representation

Spoilers below for the first season of GLOW.

Ah, the 1980s, when clothes and hair and music were hella dope but women were given the same courtesy as plants in Hollywood. Then along came women’s wrestling to shake television and gender roles way the fuck up.

I had really high hopes for GLOW. And I did love it. The women are physically and mentally strong as hell and come in all shapes and sizes. The men cry. The opening theme song is Patty Smyth’s “The Warrior,” a delicious love power-anthem that is somehow way too appropriate for a neon animated wrestling montage. That said, when you consider that GLOW was created and helmed by none other than Jenji Kohan of Weeds and OITNB fame, you’d think that the introduction of a complex and openly queer character is a no-brainer, but no such luck here.

The show first centers around fresh-faced, doe-eyed, unlikely terrible person Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie playing a role that had to have been offered to Rachel Bloom too). Ruth is a starving actor and hardcore theater nerd. The show later evolves into an ensemble that manages to paint the one ambiguously lesbian character in broad strokes of the weak link, at best; and the background player, at worst.

Ruth is broke and has a hard time getting booked for anything because she’s not new and fresh enough. Oh and also because she purposely reads the wrong sides in auditions in hopes that the casting director will see that she can perform the shit out of meaty roles just as well as any man. And she can, but they’re just not having it.

Ruth falls into wrestling by way of an audition pitched to her as an “experimental” project in (gasp) THE VALLEY. If you don’t live in LA, The Valley is gross and hot and they shoot a whole lot of porn there. She’s glad to keep most of her clothes on for this gig and toils to prove herself.

Ruth treats wrestling like a “real” acting job even though she isn’t initially convinced that GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling) involves any real acting. She even goes as far as researching her character Zoya The Destroya by tagging along to a Russian-Jewish bris with the manager of their dorm/motel, The Dusty Spur. He has a girlfriend no one’s ever seen and looks at the punkhunky pizza guy like this:

Standup comedian Marc Maron is perfect as the abrasive, coked up, philandering director of the show. He fancies himself an auteur and when he isn’t denigrating Ruth he’s ignoring her. But she eventually grows on him and he reveals an empathetic and dependable side during a traumatic life event for Ruth.

Ruth’s BFF Debbie (Betty Gilpin) lives in Pasadena and is a tall, blonde soap actress who was written off her show after getting pregnant. Debbie also joins the team accidentally. When she finds out Ruth has been having a short-lived affair with her husband, Mark, she shows up at the gym and kick’s Ruth’s ass with flair and panache, leading Sam to track her down and beg her to join with the alluring promise of artistic freedom.

The rest of the assembled team:

Arthie (Mad Bomber Of Beiruit) is an Indian-American pre-med student who is very protective of the team and quick to offer a diagnosis or advice. In one scene she tries to give everyone pads to save them from Toxic Shock Syndrome, and the ensuing period talk is frank and funny instead of shameful/gross/embarrassing, which is very refreshing.

Cherry (Junk Chain) is an ex-stuntwoman and the no-nonsense pack leader who is consistently killing it with the rompers. She’s also about her business and keeping old fling Sam in line while managing a very healthy and communicative relationship with her stuntman husband Keith. Cherry gets offered a role in a new buddy cop show and has to quickly decide whether it’s worth abandoning the team she helped build.

Carmen (Machu Picchu) is a lovable gentle giant. She’s also wrestling royalty and has massive stage fright that she only overcomes after gaining her father’s acceptance of and respect for women wrestlers.

Dawn and Stacy (The Beatdown Biddies) are a pair of hairdressers from The Beverly Center whose characters are two cranky old Jewish women. They’re queens of slapstick and love to get high and crank call the other women.

Jenny (Fortune Cookie) is a wry Cambodian-American social butterfly who plays a very generic Chinese martial artist and Communist in the ring. She’s also in charge of costumes for the crew and spearheads a birthday party for the reluctant Sheila to help her feel included and accepted.

Justine (Scab) is a shy, 19-year-old punk and film geek who seems to have a crush on Sam but is actually his daughter from a one night stand. She falls for a pizza guy/poor man’s Billy Idol named Billy Offal. By the way, Offal is the intestines and other weird cuts of an animal like the tail and liver that you can get from a butcher shop.

Melanie Rosen (Melrose) is a Jewish-American Princess with a short fuse and a wallet full of daddy’s cash. Her special skill is that she’s not boring, “I can wake up in the morning with nothing to do, and just BE in a Van Halen video by the end of the day.”

Reggie Walsh (Vicky The Viking) is a literal Olympic athlete who rarely appears onscreen and her first line is “I throw things.” Her name is fucking Reggie. Not Regina. Not Gina. She’s the strong silent type with a crushing handshake and is it too much to ask to make her a lesbian instead of an ambiguously gay lady with the personality of a dry mop? Season two maybe? The women of GLOW seem like a really close knit family, but Reggie is mostly silent and on the outskirts.

Rhonda (Brittanica) is hot, homeless and English without a self conscious bone in her body (aside from Sam’s…I’m sorry it was a joke I couldn’t pass up). She falls for Sam but their relationship is a bust because he’s too jaded to realize that she wants him for more than just professional gain. Rhonda’s nerd props all come from Sam’s dresser drawers. She also makes up a very corny theme song for the group. When an amused Sam asks if she’s rapping, she replies with, “I’m speak singing like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady”.

Sebastian “Bash” is 25, the group’s financier and considers himself a patron of the arts. He’s a surprisingly likable rich douchebag who refuses to grow up until his mom freezes his trust fund. His vision of the team as colorful stereotypes wins over Sam’s dystopian future theme (also featuring lesbian mutants): “When I said I wanted something different I mean how like Ms. Pac Man is different from Pac Man.”

Sheila (The She-Wolf) is unintentionally in character 24/7 and has the best headshot on earth. She knows that people think she’s crazy but she doesn’t actually believe that she’s a wolf; she just feels most comfortable expressing herself as one.

Tammé (Welfare Queen) has concerns about her character because of how patently offensive it is. Her son goes to Stanford and she doesn’t want to embarrass him with her first real acting role. We never meet Tammé’s son, but the second season would be a great opportunity to explore the dynamics of their relationship in the face of this performance. The players all know that this is meant to be social satire, but will viewers and audience members who want to believe those stereotypes see it that way?

Debbie doesn’t take wrestling seriously until Carmen convinces her to check out a live match. In that moment she has an epiphany and realizes that wrestling is very literally just a soap opera on steroids. This leads to her eventually agreeing to be the face to Ruth’s annoying but earnest heel as they train under the tutelage of Carmen’s brothers and are forced to trust each other professionally, if not personally.

When the coffers run dry and their venue for the big match falls through at the last minute, Bash has them crash his mother’s fundraiser as speakers from Wrestlers Against Drugs (a totally made up organization). At the fundraiser, Justine comes clean with Sam and Debbie confesses that she loves wrestling more than marriage because it’s the only place where she feels true bodily autonomy.

When it comes to the grand finale, everyone shines, including Reggie (for the first time all season). The producers’ erstwhile careless handling of harmful stereotypes also wrecks havoc when racist (“economically anxious”) audience members hurl insults and full beer cans at an already apprehensive Arthie when she emerges in character as The Mad Bomber.

Of course this same crowd eats up Debbie’s All-American “Jesus and Apple Pie and Make America Great Again” persona. All-American means white American, as evidenced by the crowd’s vitriolic response to Welfare Queen snatching Liberty Belle’s crown with a nod to the disenfranchised in a sleight-of-hand twist orchestrated by Sam. It’s worth asking yourself who you root for in this final scene that posits blackness as the villain to America’s hero.

All things considered, the show is fun and engaging enough to make me want to give pro wrestling a chance, which I’ve never wanted to do in my entire life. It’s also fantastic about featuring a variation of ages and body types and cultural/ethnic backgrounds with zero shame attached. GLOW does so many things right, but if the show is aiming for true diversity and female empowerment, rendering queer women as either mythical mutants, ambiguous, or invisible is definitely not that way to accomplish that goal.


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Faith Choyce is a writer, comedian, and cat whisperer who can be found on Twitter, Facebook, Patreon, and faithchoyce.com.

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41 Comments

  1. – I like how the Ruth/Mark/Debbie thing isn’t a love triangle, but rather the show uses Mark to inform both Ruth and Debbie’s worlds. After the first half of the first episode, Ruth never interacts with Mark again.
    – While every character plays something of a stereotype, they also show several of the women’s reactions to being saddled with those stereotypes, and how they come to grips with them.
    – If you’re into wrestling, then you’ll recognize several of the people in the show. Carmen’s brothers, Tammé, Ironhorse, and the guy hired to teach them wrestling are all actual wrestlers.

    PS – Here’s the intro which is fabulously Retrowave.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOKqf1Xsgww

  2. Thanks for the write-up! It was cool to be able to process what I had watched with a review.

    All things considered, I didn’t HATE this show. It’s funny at times, but I didn’t have that urge to stop and rewatch any of the scenes like I usually do with shows that I like. Typically there’s at least one interaction that is so magical and captivating that I have to go back to watch it again. (That train scene in The Get Down where the girls start singing and inadvertently come up with the show’s big hit is a great example.)

    Also I’m not sure if this was just how the 80s were, but even though the show was in color, it still felt super drab and colorless… like the equivalent of smoke-stained walls in an office building. Can you tell I didn’t like this show?

    Anyway, the men were boring and for every scene where they showed glimpses of empathy and vulnerability, there were ten more scenes where they said or did something disgusting/misogynistic/both. (Except for Cherry’s husband, Keith. He was fucking awesome.)

    I think I’ll watch the second season just to see what Cherry does and if SOMEBODY, ANYBODY goes gay for anyone else. Then it might be a little better. ARE YOU LISTENING, JENJI?

  3. I definitely pegged Carmen as the low key lesbian after she couldn’t stop staring at Kate Nash’s boobs in the scene where they put on lotion together. Maybe we’ll get two queer ladies??! I can only hope. I enjoyed this show a lot, and it looks to me like some of the more problematic elements of the story may have been put it place to (hopefully) set up S2 to explore why and how those aspects affect the lives of the women we’ve grown to love (or love to hate, haha). I’ll definitely be tuning in for next season – I’m already anxious to see where the showrunners take things!

  4. I’m not a fan of wrestling and although I was around 4 years old during real GLOW I have no memory of it. Neither do my parents (I asked yesterday). But I thought I would give GLOW a try with little to no expectations just hoping it wasn’t embarrassing. And I was pleasantly surprised! I loved it and finished it in just a few days. I hope there is a season 2 because I want more!

    I know queer representation is necessary, but I honestly don’t need it in GLOW right now. I like getting to know the women and watching the friendships form. Later on it would be nice, but I’m happy just watching the women kick ass for now.

    My favorite character by far is Carmen. She is adorable and lovable and I Hope she has a chance to shine even brighter in a second season. The only character I didn’t like was Ruth. I could not stand her for the majority of the show. Once she had her wrestling persona, though, she improved and I enjoyed her in the finale. But everything up to that point made me cringe.

    After I finished GLOW, Netflix recommended a 2012 documentary about the real women of GLOW and it was fascinating. It made me a tiny bit sad, but it was great to hear about the real experience. Anyway, I am definitely a fan of the show, if not actual wrestling 🙂

  5. For all it’s faults (and there are definitely were plenty) I LOVED this show. I binged it in two days, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I’m still holding out hope that in season 2, Debbie will ditch Mark the Asshole once and for all, and she and Ruth will realize they are actually in love with each other and just using Mark as an outlet for their unresolved sexual tension. But I’d also be cool with Reggie being a lesbian. Or CARMEN! Carmen is the best. It’s weird that in a group of 14 women, none of them are queer, though I did absolutely appreciate the diversity of backgrounds and body types and skin tones.

    I think one of the things the show did really well was in differentiating the characters from their wrestling personas. Because GLOW is based on the actual G.L.O.W. tv show from the 80’s, the stereotypical and offensive wrestling personas were kind of inevitable, but I think the show was great at contrasting those stereotypes with the actual women playing them. We get to know Arthie as Arthie – the pre-med student, Justine’s roommate, with the grandma who loves wrestling – before her Mad Bomber persona is revealed, and we know that’s not really her at all. I loved the part where Bash handed her the machine gun and her face just FELL. Same with Carmen, and Cherry, and Jenny. It helps to show that these wrestling personas were just that – stereotypes, and nothing to do with the actual women behind them.

    That being said, I’m not black, or Asian, or Indian, so I can’t really comment on how offensive some of those stereotypes were to folks watching. However, I AM Jewish, and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about Mel Rose as the Jewish American Princess, and the Russian bris. I know I laughed at both. I know I recognized both as people and events I know from real life (that Streisand performance, oh my god!) But two things are still bothering me, and they aren’t wrestling personas meant to be over the top stereotypes.

    The first is Mel Rose, and her initial introduction to the group. There are absolutely Jewish women like Mel Rose in the world. I went to camp with a bunch of them. But even though it’s a true-to-life stereotype that many Jews recognize and acknowledge, it’s not exactly a positive portrayal of Jewish women, and it feeds into a lot of anti-semitic stereotypes that are really harmful to the Jewish community – like how Jews control the media, and the banks, and are parasites living off the wealth of the countries they inhabit but don’t really belong to.

    The second is the bris. The show acknowledges that most bris’ happen when child is a baby (traditionally, on the 8th day after birth). I don’t know, maybe the show thought it would be funnier for a grown man to have his penis cut? But (to my knowledge, and I’m absolutely no expert) when grown men are circumcised (as part of a conversion ceremony, or for whatever other reason) they are usually put under a local anesthesia at the very least. Some people consider circumcision to be inhumane, akin to female genital mutilation, and I do understand that. But that’s an inaccurate assessment of a procedure many, many non-jews undergo as well, for a variety of reasons. (As an aside, I quit watching Queer As Folk after season 1 episode 3 because the bris, and Brian’s reaction to it, pissed me off SO MUCH).

    But apart from those two things, I thought the show handled most of it’s more sensitive subject matter EXTREMELY well. I thought (SPOILERS!!!!!!!) that they handled Ruth’s abortion PERFECTLY. I was actually trying to think of another show where they’ve actually brought us into the examination room with the woman getting the abortion, and besides Doggett in OITNB, I couldn’t think of a single other show. That is pretty incredible the way Ruth didn’t even hesitate in making her decision, how Sam didn’t hesitate in helping her out. And oh my god, it made me understand even more how restrictive even the most basic abortion laws in the States operate to deter women from having abortions. Those questions the doctor was asking her made MY skin crawl. I can’t imagine how real women feel in that moment.

    So ANYWAY. Sorry for the ridiculously long comment. I had a LOT of feelings about this show. Feel free to discuss with me!

  6. I know it won’t happen for diversity and writing reasons but I want Cherry to take that buddy cop role, kill it and then come back for a guest appearance with the GLOW team instead of playing second fiddle to Ruth and Debbie forever.

    Also I didn’t get Billy Idol for Billy, I thought he looked like River Phoenix’s doppelgänger.

    And I should add while Jenji is the creator she mostly takes a backseat to her two lead writer. I think she’s credited with only one episode in the season.

  7. Ok I watched the first episode and just couldn’t get past the entire premise. I’m sure there are great female friendship moments etc, but like, the entire thing is based on a sexist storyline. I want to see great female characters acting in an empowered environment, not in some misogynist 80’s “ladies” wresting bubble. That’s what bugs me about OINTB, too – in the intial 3 seasons, there were amazing female characters, few male ones, great friendships etc etc. But it’s all taking part in an oppressive system. So while the characters and storylines might be great, I have to swallow the premise of the show first, and I’m just not into that anymore. Give me all the great women AND a premise or environment that isn’t oppressive in a gendered way.

      • It is, yes. I guess I don’t really want that normalized more than it already is; I want people to get used to seeing women in power, women who are not subjected to misogynistic behaviour, etc. Maybe it’s kind of idealistic but I think representation does matter and normalizes the way we think. I don’t think it’ s realistic to see shows with no oppression whatsoever – I don’t even know what that would look like – but the *gender-specific oppression* on tv just makes me angry. It seems like so many shows with interesting women have this deeply troubling misogynist premise – for example Unbreakable Kimmy Schmid being in a literally underground cult and experiencing probable sexual abuse; Jane the Virgin having an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy because of a doctor screwup.

        • Can you recommend any shows that don’t use some aspect of oppression in its premise? I’m trying to think of some and failing, though I’m not sure we see oppression in the same way, at least as it relates to storytelling in a show or movie. I see oppression as an element or plot device that adds dynamics to a show and gives some context for the conflicts that happen within it. Then, when the resolution comes it’s all the more sweet because of how the characters have overcome not only whatever obstacle was literally presented in the show, but also the oppressive framework it was built around.

          • No, I probably can’t name any that don’t use some aspect of oppression. I agree that it is/can be an element of storytelling, and not necessarily a bad one – there needs to be some conflict, right? Or else the show is pretty boring.

            For examples that are about women, or have several female characters, and don’t have gender-specific oppression as a main part of the plot…I’m thinking Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Fight (or what I’ve seen of it), The Good Wife to a certain extent, The Mindy Project, Grace and Frankie, Quantico, Homeland….I’m not saying these are good shows, just that they have decent female characters, and aren’t centered in an environment that is exceptionally misogynistically (?) oppressive. I mean, they’re also about wealthy people, which is a problem in itself.

        • oh ok, I see what you mean.

          i think there’s something to be said for showing these oppressive frameworks for what they are – some of us, for instance, hadn’t thought a lot about women in prison before the first season of OITNB – but when it crosses over to, like, oppression porn (OITNB s3, or any of Law and Order: SVU, or a myriad of other shows), that’s when I’m no longer comfortable with it.

          • Same.

            Sometimes I do have to be in a specific mood to watch a show where the oppressive framework is something the women must actively battle to overcome, but there’s great value in showing sympathetic, strong characters and highlighting how “the system” treats them vs. a procedural show where “the thing” that they are doing is the show, but overcoming oppression only happens on “very special” episodes because it’s largely a more subtle reflection of life in liberal/urban centers (where there’s still plenty of oppression, but you’re right in that the success or failure of the characters doesn’t necessarily depend on confronting and navigating it).

  8. I was at London Pride at the weekend and the women’s area was absolutely filled with promotion for GLOW – Netflix had bought up more space than all the community groups combined – and Diva magazine have been doing a lot of promotional stuff with the show. I’ve enjoyed GLOW a lot, but I feel very weird about how they seem to be so aggressively promoting the show among queer women when it doesn’t actually have any explicitly queer characters or storylines. It’s 2017, we shouldn’t have to put up with reading between the lines anymore – especially if you’re going to sell something to us so blatantly. It feels like they’re trying to just force a queer fanbase into existence.

    • Curious about how explicitly clear the marketing was, or whether they were just piggy-backing off of a female demographic. Because you’re right, particularly in light of cancelling prominent queer shows line Sense8 (I know, it was because of production cost), I side-eye waving the rainbow flag to drive our eyes to a non-queer/no-representation show as well.

  9. Reggie didn’t get an awful lot to do, but I liked her outrage that she didn’t get the lead role as the American patriot, given that she was an actual athlete who wore the red, white and blue in the Olympics. I do hope that she gets more to do in the next season.

  10. Has anyone else watched the documentary they have about the real GLOW on Netflix? I watched it last night and thought it was great. Interesting to see where the current show diverges and can see quite a few similarities with some of the personas. Also great to hear from the women who were in GLOW and how much they all seemed to love it (while acknowledging it was problematic).

  11. I’m looking forward to watching it. Everything I’ve read has informed and tempered the expectations my wife and I have. Even so, I’m deeply disappointed there’s no representation in a show screaming for multiple queer characters.

  12. Reggie is my type in the worst way (read: could probably beat me up but is low-key too awkward to do so), so if they don’t make her queer I will feel personally attacked.

    I also read Carmen as potentially bi, given her staring at Kate Nash’s boobs (same girl, same). She also has some chemistry with Bash, I thought — you don’t often see hot, rich Hollywood douchebags being genuinely sweet to women who aren’t conventionally attractive. I’ve seen a lot of people coding Bash as gay (because of that one scene in the finale), but I could see him being bi as well.

  13. I can’t help but find this review mildly offensive. There are no queer characters on this show and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Straight women can like sports and be butch and still like men. As a lesbian who plays sports, a lot of my friends fit that description. The show is funny and fresh and whatever you think of it is your opinion. Chastising the show and Jenji because it didn’t include queer or queer enough characters is ridiculous and offensive to creative license. Reggie isn’t on screen a lot because she isn’t a principal character and this is the shows first, may I add short, season. She gets equal screen time with most of the third tier supporting characters. Those characters will be fleshed out in later seasons. I hope Reggie isn’t gay, because that would just continue to support stereotypes queer and straight woman. If she is then I will welcome it, but right now she isn’t.

  14. I thought I’d mind more but so far I’m okay with Glow’s straightness. Probably cause nowadays there are other shows with queer representation I can turn to if I like? And I can’t help it I’m still a sucker for subtext. The first delicious femslash with Debbie/Ruth is out there already 🙂

  15. Looks like they’re going to take a go at queer rep in Season 2: http://deadline.com/2017/10/glow-netflix-shakira-barrera-season-2-cast-1202189159/
    “Shakira Barrera has entered the ring for Netflix’s GLOW, the 1980s-set female wrestling comedy that is now shooting its second season. She has joined the cast for the 10-episode Season 2 playing Yolanda aka Yo-Yo, a a Mexican American dancer/stripper and out-and-proud lesbian who joins the team.”

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