Man up, ladies! How "GLOW" exposes "manliness" as an elaborate, fragile front

For all its spandex and elastic values, “GLOW” illuminates the ridiculous, intricate stage show that is masculinity

Published July 7, 2017 7:00PM (EDT)

Betty Gilpin and Alison Brie in "Glow"   (Netflix/Erica Parise)
Betty Gilpin and Alison Brie in "Glow" (Netflix/Erica Parise)

“You were reading the man’s part,” deadpans a bespectacled casting agent to Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) in the opening of "GLOW,” Netflix’s summer dramedy about televised women’s wrestling. And so, to the sound of synth keyboards, the gender-bending unitard-a-thon begins — 14 women over 10 fizzy episodes that climax in a cloud of grit and glitter.

From the makers of “Nurse Jackie” and “Orange Is the New Black,” the series has been lauded as “blessedly its own thing” by the New York Times and as “smart, funny, and subversive” by the Atlantic — half Lite-Brite ’80s Los Angeles, half brazen send-up of industry sexism. Fed up with few roles for “unconventional women” — which, considering Brie’s appearance, is a hoot on its own — Ruth consents to audition for an “experimental project” in the Valley, joining dozens of other “unconventionals” chatting nervously on bleachers in an unmarked gym. They are white, black, Asian; one is dressed like a wolf. All are waiting for a shot at fame. “What I’m interested in are real parts,” Ruth tells the casting agent a few scenes earlier (crouching to spot the agent's color-blocked pumps from a ladies restroom stall), “not secretaries telling powerful men their wives are on line 2.”

Of course, “real” is a persnickety term for any realm, let alone pro wrestling. And much of the show’s success is predicated on whether we agree that GLOW personae like Machu Picchu, Fortune Cookie, Beirut and Welfare Queen could be preferable to the bland peripheral feminine roles on offer in 1985. As Rachel Aroesti recently put it, “Tonally, ‘GLOW’ is a slippery operator. . . . showcas[ing] those outrageous wrestling characters and the similarly outrageous sexism faced by the women playing them with a discombobulating combination of censure and dumb glee.” There are also the general, fairly obvious questions that orbit around the show’s message: Is learning how to “cunt punch” an opponent (or appear to do so) a legitimate bid for power? Is it progress to embody the racist and nationalist stereotypes common to the wrestling circuit, simply because men have already? And is it feminist to do so when many in the audience see girl-on-girl fights as a foil for foreplay?

I’m not going to directly tackle (or drop-kick or power-slam) these queries, not only because others have capably done so, but because the “is it feminist?” enterprise can frankly get a bit tired, conducive to online catfights no less showy than those the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling stage in the ring. A more relevant question for “GLOW” — especially in a year when a toxic masculinity was literally inaugurated — might be how the show both exposes and parodies the tropes of manliness as an elaborate, fragile front. If “ladies,” across age and race and size, can throw down after a few months of ardent (if unorthodox) training, what does that say for the men who have done the same? Or for the men whose choke holds on political power seem ever more absurdly theatrical?

In the ring, to “man up” is as suspect as ever, at least as proof of virility. As Libby Hill argued in a 2014 essay comparing the art of drag to WWE's “Monday Night Raw,” “Most of these men are simultaneously oiled up and watered down with images meticulously fashioned, worked and then reworked. Wrestlers are coiffed and costumed and spray-tanned and chiseled within an inch of their lives.” (The term “raw”? Evidently a glaring irony.) Beyond the outlandish narratives of drag and wrestling, Hill continues, “is the fact that what audiences are responding to, the art being perfected, is that of perceived gender.” From this vantage, “GLOW” reads less as nostalgic throwback and more as a campy critique of essentialist norms; via the ribald aggression of televised wrestling, masculinity “perfected” is as artificial as pornography or beauty pageants.

Anyone who’s even briefly dabbled in Judith Butler (the gateway drug to gender performance theory) or enjoyed a drag king show knows that to some extent — perhaps even to the fullest and most fabulous — gendered expression relies on the success of performative acts that are, thankfully, almost never absolute. As Hill writes, “While there yet exists a pressure to ‘be a man’ or ‘be ladylike,’ those ideas are a moving target at best, as increasingly our modern era sees the hoary old gender archetypes as just that: out of date and out of sync.”

And wrestling’s audience need not be exclusively, or even primarily, male. Cut to Episode 5, when semi-retired actress Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), reticent star of the GLOW brigade (dubbed “Lady Liberty,” princess of patriotism), attends her first men’s wrestling match. As working-class hero Steel Horse (played by actual WWE wrestler Alex Riley) faces rival Mr. Monopoly, their melodramatic back story is explained, and Debbie finally gets what the fuss is about. “This whole thing is a soap opera!” she gasps, leaping in awe as his tee splits from his He-Man chest. “I understand how to do that!” When she meets the stallion in his dressing room after, not only is he fawnishly polite, he’s fan-boying all over the new mom and former soap star: “You’re Laura Morgan, from ‘Paradise Cove’ . . . that’s where we get all our best ideas from!” The brute is a ruse, even if the body is not.

So too is the macho persona of GLOW’s smarmy director Sam Sylvia (played with chain-smoking scruff by Marc Maron), whose outsize misogyny only calls attention to his crippling personal and professional ineptitude. A cuckold and former B-movie maker who can’t hit the ropes without falling on his ass, he snorts his way through the season with Sebastian “Bash” Howard (Chris Lowell), the hapless rich-kid producer with a closetful of Mackies and a secret love of wrestling. While Bash funnels Mommy’s money into bankrolling the project (and it’s clearly Mommy’s; Elizabeth Perkins’ frosty take on matriarch Birdie is perfect), Sam laments a fallen reputation that never existed in the first place. “There’s one ball you can’t castrate! That’s the mind!” Sylvia cries out to his estranged ex-wife, later earnestly typing a script that closes, “A man’s true ball is the mind.”

The line is hilarious, meant to prompt pity, but evinces a truth worth repeating: The testicle (or phallus, or whatever metonym is preferred) is a faulty metaphor to awkwardly advance a patriarchal agenda. So too are public displays of violence a macho charade to be interrogated, and as each GLOW member learns how to channel or present as her most feral, brutal, vindictive self, the result is something a lot more complicated, and interesting, than women just pretending to be men.

As former wrestler Heather Brandenburg recently claimed in the Guardian, “The unifying mission of female wrestlers is to defy expectations and use anger as an energy — for escapism, creativity and change.” That such anger might manifest itself in physical aggression is less pro-violence than reflective of the myth of women as peaceful, agreeable creatures burdened with civilizing the wild and primal man. As Debbie faces off former bestie Ruth, after discovering her affair with her husband, “I don’t want to talk to you. I want to kick your ass.” What woman hasn’t felt that way at some point? And is feeling so merely aping masculine behavior?

Aroesti’s main critique of “GLOW” rests on what she calls “the exasperating hashtag-empowerment vibe of the very concept of women’s wrestling (the idea that women doing anything at all = feminism),” in many ways suggesting that pro wrestling — for all its skill, training and grace — is the same as “anything at all,” a conflation that smacks of a classism smugly passed on for years. Wrestling’s lowbrow roots are something the show takes pains to expose and lampoon — dismissed as “silly” by both Deb’s Dockered dud of a husband and the well-heeled Reaganites raising funds for Birdie’s “Just Say No” campaign, as though the structural violence that enables their philanthropy is any less offensive than a public brawl. If anything, “GLOW” playfully celebrates the possibility where, outside the sex industry, women’s bodies can prove both a means of entertainment and economic solvency. “You know what the craziest part about this whole mess is?” Debbie shares in Episode 9. “I actually like wrestling. I don’t know, it’s like I’m back in my body. I . . . I’m using it for me and I feel like a goddamn superhero.”

Let’s face it. Decorum gets dour. And in today’s disquieting political climate, the spate of “Resistance Television” — as spot-on as shows like “OITNB” and “The Handmaid’s Tale" often are —can leave many a viewer enervated and depressed. Indulging in a buoyant “GLOW” binge might be dismissed as mere escapism, but could also offer a welcome respite from despair — what political theorist Jeffrey Green calls a necessary “solace” within the “shadow of unfairness” endured by ordinary citizens. “In the face of this shadow of unfairness haunting even the most progressive liberal-democratic states,” he writes, “it is not misguided — it is not irresponsible — to seek strategies for enduring the strains of political life.” Even if “GLOW” isn’t the wholly feminist show that some tout it to be, its critique of sexist norms within a retro jokey framework permit us to laugh at “the way things were” without forgetting how many reductive conceptions of gender persist to this day.

“How much acting will there be on the show?” asks Ruth the first episode, handing over her headshot. “As opposed to what?!” is Sam’s retort. Ten minutes into the last episode, moments prior to hosting GLOW’s debut, Bash pauses in front of a vanity and approaches a compact of glitter. Spreading it onto his fingers and gingerly onto his eyelids, the noise from the ballroom disappears. Seconds pass in silence. As he blinks and stares at his reflection, his face is both soft and serious — more confident, more manly, than it’s ever appeared before.

By Eileen G'Sell

Eileen G'Sell's cultural criticism and poetry have been featured in Flavorpill, Belt Magazine, DIAGRAM, the Boston Review, and Conduit, among other publications. She is Film & Media editor at The Rumpus and she teaches writing, film, and poetry at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Gender Gender Norms Glow Masculinity Netflix Toxic Masculinity Tv