On 'GLOW,' racism feels like a prop
Updated: Mar 26, 2019
The Netflix pro-wrestling comedy GLOW is propelled by the range of its characters. With an ensemble cast of diverse women and one presumably queer man, the show offers various explorations of identity that enhance its plot with each episode, a model similar to Netflix’s other female-packed juggernaut Orange Is The New Black.
The show within the show - Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling - thrives on stereotypes via the women’s wrestling personas which include a Russian villain, a British brainiac and a pair of grumpy, old ladies. The crueler ones are assigned to the women of color who embody cartoonish versions of America’s racial anxieties: Tamme (Kia Stevens), a plus-sized, Black woman, plays a jobless, single mother named Welfare Queen. Arthie (Sunita Manti), an Indian-American woman, plays a terrorist named Beirut the Mad Bomber. And Jenny (Ellen Wong), of Cambodian descent, is a martial artist named Fortune Cookie. The show’s designated hero/fan favorite is Debbie’s (Betty Gilpin) character Liberty Belle, a blonde, Southern bombshell positioned to defeat the aforementioned wrestlers in the program’s final matches, restoring the country’s white, Christian values. These repugnant tropes are necessary for the show’s survival and ultimately the women’s livelihoods. Or at least that’s what the show’s white, male producers Bash Howard (Chris Lowell) and Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) relay to them.
GLOW does a good job of illustrating the moral costs of entertaining white America and commodifying ignorance, a practice with more insidious tactics today. Unfortunately, the show barely wants to examine the consequences for the women who take part. For the most part, the women are able to reckon with the absurdity of their characters, utilizing comedy and relying on flamboyance as a means for self-preservation. And over time, the satisfaction gained from mastering their derogatory personas outweighs the emotional freight that comes with them. Nonetheless, the treatment of the series’ racial minorities, in particular, feels like a perpetual losing game.
“Mother Of All Matches,” season two’s bottle episode, attempts to neatly resolve this dilemma. In the episode, Tamme visits her son Ernest at Stanford University for a parents’ weekend. As they walk through the campus, Tamme is approached by a man who recognizes her as Welfare Queen and asks for a picture. Ernest is taken back, unaware of his mother’s current gig, and she is forced explain her contentious alter ego. Understandably, Ernest strongly objects to his mother portraying such a harmful stereotype on television, calling it a “minstrel” performance. Tamme tries to ease his concern, stating that everyone on the show is offensive. But he demands to see a live taping of the show for himself.
The taping Ernest attends features a square-off between Welfare Queen and Liberty Belle, with Liberty Belle as the predetermined winner. Tamme confidently performs her outsized, offensive bit much to her son’s chagrin and the ire of G.L.O.W.’s white studio audience until Liberty Belle enters the ring to claim her title. With the crowd on her side, Liberty Belle takes her victory celebration too far, chanting “get a job!” at Welfare Queen, along with the audience, until she runs off stage crying. We see tears well up in Ernest’s eyes. And as a black woman watching another black woman, albeit fictional, experience that level of humiliation, the scene made me cry, too.
Unfortunately, GLOW doesn’t spend enough time empathizing with that pain. Neither does Debbie who took part in the inflicting. The episode ends with Welfare Queen returning to the ring to defeat Liberty Belle. Although she’s just been degraded by a room full of white people, Tamme is able to achieve physical dominance over her opponent which makes for a happy medium. And while Earnest isn’t fully on board with his mother’s job, he’s able to accept this meager win as a compromise for her dehumanization.
If there’s one point GLOW drives home, it’s that compartmentalization is a necessary component of women’s pro wrestling, particularly in the ‘80s. But GLOW’s creators Liz Flahive and Carly Menschand don’t allow women of color enough space to analyze what that means for them and their respective communities. Even in the “Mother Of All Matches” episode, the show insinuates that all the women are carrying equal weight in a sometimes rewarding, sometimes degrading job by posturing Debbie’s struggles with work and motherhood alongside Tamme’s. Essentially, everyone on the show is struggling to find a voice in a whacky profession. But doing so while embodying a legacy of hate is more difficult to reckon with.
It reminded me of a quote from Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette where discusses what it means to be self-deprecating in your art when you “already exist in the margins.” She describes it as “putting [herself] down in order to speak, to seek permission to speak.” For Tamme and the show’s other women of color, they each have to experience indignity before they can reveal their strength. And that strength feels confined to a physical performance.
In sum, GLOW’s approach to realism doesn’t feel totally earned. Racism is utilized as a prop that exists inside the realms of the pro wrestling world rather than a lived experience for its minorities inside and outside the ring. I like GLOW and its style of cumulative storytelling. And I don’t doubt that the series will get better with each season. I just wish it cared about its black and brown characters as much as I do.