It ain't easy being a woman in Hollywood. This is true now, and it was especially true back in the '80s, when most actresses had to settle for playing "the love interest" (if they were under 30) or "the mom" (if they were barely over 30) in most mainstream films. Sure, there were exceptions to the rule, like Ripley in Aliens or Sarah Conner in The Terminator, but they were just that -- the exceptions. Despite a lot of forward thinking roles for women in entertainment in the liberated '70s (Wonder Woman, Charlie's Angels, Bionic Woman, everything with Pam Grier in it), by the time the Reagan era rolled around, the big boys in Hollywood decided that all of those cool properties starring ladies were just a fad, and women had to get used to just being "the chick" in male driven media again.
The new Netflix series GLOW puts us square in the middle of 1985, and in the heart of a time when this attitude towards women was pervasive. Created by Orange is the New Black's Carly Mensch, along with Liz Flahive, GLOW has a lot of that show's charm and wit, and just like that series, this one also lives and dies by its incredible cast of women, chiefly Alison Brie, formerly of Community and Mad Men. Brie plays Ruth Wilder, an actress from the Midwest who is struggling to make it in the movie business. She has $84 dollars in her bank account, and has to call home to beg her parents to float her some more cash so she doesn't get evicted.
None of the auditions she goes on pan out for Ruth, who wants a chance to play the meaty roles men get to play by default, as women are largely segregated to playing a receptionist. Ruth's agent finally tells her of a casting call looking for "unconventional" women. Although Brie is the cute girl-next-door type if there ever was one, just the mere fact that she looked like a normal person and not like an MTV super model posing on top of a car was considered "unconventional" back then.
The casting call is for an all women's wrestling show, or GLOW: The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. The whole thing is run by Sam, a low budget movie director, played by comedian and podcaster Marc Maron, and his "yuppie scum"/born with a silver spoon producer (Chris Lowell). Both Maron and Lowell's characters could fall easily into shitty, sexist cliches, and frankly, they kind of are those stereotypes. Nevertheless, they both bring a real humanity to their characters. Much like some of the characters from Orange is the New Black, you alternate between despising them and liking them, sometimes within the same scene.
Ruth is a serious actress, but Ruth also needs to eat, so she dives into the whole wrestling thing like it was Shakespeare. That alone makes for some priceless scenes from Alison Brie, but again, much like Orange is the New Black, this show is truly made by its ensemble cast of women, who are diverse and wonderful. Pro wrestling in the '80s had zero problem reducing people to an ethnic or body size stereotype for the sake of creating a buffoonish character, and the women of GLOW rise to the challenge of playing these ladies as real human beings. And although these women recognize degrading stereotypes when they see them, they also want stardom badly, and are totally willing to go there if need be.
How degrading and offensive were these stereotypical characters they had to create? The Asian woman in the group is forced to play a Chinese character named "Fortune Cookie", the woman of Indian descent winds up playing a Lebanese terrorist called "Beirut", and an older, plus size African-America woman actually performs under the name "Welfare Queen." Younger viewers may find this appalling and ridiculous, as they should, but it was exactly the kind of stereotypical characters created by pro wrestling at the time. None of this is much of a stretch, sadly.
While the entire supporting cast is incredible, the standouts are Britney Young as Carmen, who plays the daughter of a wrestling icon who is trying to follow in her family's footsteps despite their objections, and Betty Gilpin as Debbie, Ruth's best friend, who is a former soap opera star who gave up acting for a posh life as a wife and mother in suburbia. Debbie winds up as a part of GLOW while in the middle of huge life crisis, but I'll leave what that crisis is exactly as a surprise for the viewer. Also a stand out is former stunt woman Cherry, played by Sydelle Noel, who becomes the group's coach on top of being one of the series stars.
Much like Netflix's signature series Stranger Things, this show also has a ton of fun with the period setting, from the music choices to the extreme hairstyles. As someone who was a kid in the '80s, I'm an easy target for this kind of nostalgia, as I genuinely love--but also recognize as tacky and awful--a lot of the pop culture of this decade. While the extremeness of the style and fashion almost fall into a "80s Theme Party" look versus the real thing, pro wrestling really was the extreme, cliched version of every '80s trend, so it works. As someone who did watch the real GLOW show on Saturday mornings as a kid, I can't say they overdid it. This is really what it looked like.
This is where I take a moment to remind everyone reading this that aside from the name and basic premise, this series has nothing to so with the real GLOW or its rise in popularity on weekend afternoon television. That series ran from 1986-1990, and was the brainchild of a former Hollywood director. And that's pretty much where the similarities end. The new GLOW takes place in Los Angeles, for example, and the real GLOW was in Las Vegas. Not to mention, the women come up with totally different personas than the real GLOW ladies. If you are interested in the rise and fall of the real Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, there is a great documentary out about it. But this show is not that.
GLOW works as a dramedy in much the same way Orange is the New Black does, even if it's not as smart as the earlier show is when its firing on all cylinders. But hey, it's a show about wrestling in the end, and not the injustices of the American prison system, so you'll cut it some slack for not being quite as deep. This is the kind of show you'll have a blast watching, and is also compelling enough that you will likely binge the whole thing a weekend. And isn't that the mark of a truly great Netflix series?
4 out of 5 clothes-lining burritos
GLOW begins streaming its 10 episode first season on Friday, June 23 on Netflix.
Are you excited about this latest trip back to the '80s on Netflix? Be sure to leave us your thoughts down below in the comments.