What "GLOW" season 3 reveals about the working woman's gamble

Geena Davis' genius arc as a casino boss shows how women in power can support each other — and let each other down

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 15, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

Betty Gilpin and Geena Davis in "GLOW" (Ali Goldstein/Netflix)
Betty Gilpin and Geena Davis in "GLOW" (Ali Goldstein/Netflix)

Spoiler alert: Have you watched every season 3 episode of "GLOW"? No? Stop reading now or be spoiled.

It’s doubtful that Oscar winner Geena Davis would have signed on to the third season of “GLOW” for anything less than a showstopper role. And her character Sandy Devereaux St. Clair, entertainment director of the Fan-Tan Hotel and Casino, is exactly that. Davis doesn’t have a noticeably huge amount of screen time in these new episodes, mind you, but in Sandy she has created a paragon of grace, classic elegance and quiet power.

Her showstopper moment arrives at the apex of an AIDS charity gala in season 3’s ninth episode, “The Libertines,” at the end of an hour topped by Sandy stepping out in in full Bob Mackie-designed showgirl regalia, in her capacity as Las Vegas’ Showgirl of 1962.

This decadent surprise is an undeniable boss move for the 63-year-old Davis, and for her character. She’s a heavenly vision in feathers and rhinestones, her pasties perfectly applied but in no way hiding Sandy’s shapely bare bosom — one that demands to be celebrated, not concealed.

“You couldn’t look more gorgeous if you were 25 years younger,” coos the event’s host Bobby Barnes (Kevin Cahoon) to which Sandy snaps back with playful confidence, “F**k you.”

“No, seriously,” she continues, “I don’t mind getting older. Age has some very surprising benefits.” From there she launches into a performance of “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” from “Gigi.”

"GLOW," a series devoted to exploring aspects of female power and womanhood, eventually requires a character like Sandy to keep its narrative truthful and real. Throughout its three seasons the show centralizes the power of women's physiques and how their bodies are tied to their work.

The fictionalized Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, based on a syndicated series that aired between 1986 and 1990, challenges the troupe's members to pull off feats of strength and acrobatics to entertain audiences, regardless of the choreography's physical toll on their bodies.

Sandy represents a different breed of performer, the Las Vegas showgirl. Her former profession combines a dancer’s skill and precision with burlesque pageantry. And Sandy’s very presence presents a wordless conversation about femininity and feminism, since the world of the showgirl was created by men to please the eyes of men. Then again, so was GLOW.

But the toughest lesson of Season 3’s arc happens offstage, as the “GLOW” writers tease out an allegory for women in the workplace that culminates in a bittersweet, darkly honest ending.

“GLOW” balances its celebration of a woman’s power with acknowledging the obstacles to that power, recognizing that although the action in the ring can be scripted to appear equal, the world beyond the ropes shows no such fairness or understanding.  In order to seize any kind of power, let alone exercise it, the Ladies confront sexual harassment, industry sexism, racism and contend with discrimination against working mothers.

So what can a woman do but seize control of her destiny wherever and however that she can, and for as long as she can? This is the quiet, benevolent message Davis’ Sandy conveys to Debbie Eagan (the Emmy-nominated Betty Gilpin), aka Liberty Belle, who left a series regular role on a successful soap opera to stay at home and have a baby.

Sandy is a woman with a colorful career who began as a girl fresh off the bus from the Midwest, transformed into a showgirl by a guy to whom she shows great affection in public but in private, even as she mourns his death, calls “a creep and very short.” She represents the mid-career woman who toughs it out in a man’s world, played the game their way and against the odds managed to get to a place of control.

But she also paid a price to get there: In the same makeshift eulogy for her benefactor and mentor which Sandy recites in the casino's lobby, she casually tells the crowd that he taught her how to do high kicks, how to smile, and “how to put Vaseline on my nipples so they always looked amazing.” She also mentions that the man’s daughters wouldn’t let her speak at the “real” funeral.

This being an avowedly feminist series, Sandy doesn’t wield her power to keep other women down but lifts them up in the hope of adding power to the overall sisterhood. She’s the anti-Miranda Priestly, a wise woman in business who wants to hold the door open for other women in business, Debbie in particular.

Though Sandy’s fiefdom is small, one must recognize that in the 1980s, being a woman in a management position at a Vegas casino was likely a rarity. Even in modern times, only one in 10 of the top positions at  U.S. companies are held by women, according to 2016-2017 statistics compiled by Pew Research Center. And the higher you climb on the corporate ladder, the few women you’ll find, with only 5.1% serving as chief executives of S&P 1500 companies.

Davis’s Sandy is a particularly welcome figure in this era of re-evaluating the messages women are receiving in the workforce, from the numerous studies about the reasons why women turn on each other in the workplace and would rather work for men than other women, to the repudiation of Sheryl Sandberg’s flawed “Lean In” style of career feminism and other career manual advice urging women to neutralize their gender.

You don't have to look far to find anecdotes about career women who are admonished for their appearance. On Wednesday, for instance, an excerpt from MSNBC correspondent Mariana Atencio's new memoir revealed that prior to attending  the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner with her network's team, one of its female managers called her up and, according to Atencio, advised her, “Please don’t look too Latina.”

For working women over 50, the workplace survival guides are even more brutal. Not only do a number of articles advise older women to announce their ambitions loudly and make themselves indispensable at every turn but, as this Forbes article sums up,  also appear as attractive as possible. "Because at the end of the day, as we age as women, our performance counts but so does a youthful and attractive appearance. That’s the double whammy!”

The Fan-Tan has its flaws — as Jenny "Fortune Cookie" Chey (Ellen Wong) points out, the entire place is a Orientalist nightmare — but the workplace Sandy has cultivated there doesn’t appear to be one of them. Her dogged devotion to keeping afloat the casino’s dated signature show Rhapsody, an old-school showgirl spectacle that employs tens of dancers, is one example of Sandy’s generosity.

And Sandy sees something of herself in Debbie, the sole woman executive producer on a show with an entirely female cast. When Debbie confides in Sandy about the difficulty of working in a career that ties success to physical appearance, the ex-showgirl commiserates with the wrestler, recalling that she spent her 40th birthday doing high kicks in a skimpy outfit.

Then Sandy advises Debbie, “You would be amazed at how much more is possible once you let that part go and pick up the reins. Plus you get to eat Haagen-Dazs!” For Sandy, Vegas offers plenty of opportunity if a woman is willing to look for the opportunities available and seize them when she can.

For Debbie, being in Vegas means choosing career over motherhood, the tug-of-war every working mother faces.

In the first season of “GLOW” Debbie realizes she gave away her power to a husband who was unfaithful — and worse, it was with her then-best friend Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie). Wrestling enables Debbie to reclaim her agency, starting with negotiating an executive producer credit on the show — an act of remarkable foresight, it turns out.

Where the first two seasons gently followed Ruth and Debbie as they reconfigure what was once a best friendship into an effective working partnership, these new episodes force her to evaluate what being an executive producer actually means. It also looks at what the men who can take this little performance company to the next level — namely Sam and producer Sebastian "Bash" Howard (Chris Lowell) — owe the women putting their bodies on the line.

The season’s major turn involves Bash pulling rank as the producer whose name is on the marquee, forcing GLOW to remain in Vegas when Sandy extends the show’s three-month run to a year. Forced to choose between returning to L.A. to be with her infant son Randy or keep working, Debbie remains in Vegas and brings Randy to the hotel.

No skin off Bash’s nose, since Debbie and Ruth do all the administrative work that keeps the show running (another story detail working women may find depressingly accurate) and the other girls help with child care when they can, while Bash and his new bride Rhonda (Kate Nash) have fun spending Bash’s money.

At the same time, juggling the annoyances of tending to an active toddler while acting as middle management, along with a nudge from Sandy to plan for her future, builds Debbie's confidence up to taking those reins to which Sandy had referred.

Debbie does this by turning the tables on men.

At this point the career empowerment of this particular “GLOW” storyline yields emotionally mixed results, because on Debbie's journey to taking control of her life, she crosses paths with a rich businessman she nicknames Tex (Toby Huss). He’s adoring and openhearted, and he sweeps her off her feet. However, when she offers sage but unsolicited advice about a deal he can’t close, lets her know in the nicest way possible that his business is none of her business, that he sees her role as looking pretty on his arm and making business dinners less boring.

“You understand that my work can get ugly and ruthless, and that I can get ugly and ruthless,” Tex tells Debbie gently, lovingly. “And I don’t want my girlfriend, or my future wife if that’s where any of this is headed, near any of that.” Tex seems to think he’s being chivalrous toward Debbie. The look on her face tells a different story. She’s not playing that role again.

So Debbie takes advantage of Bash in a moment of vulnerability and persuades him to steal an investment opportunity out from under Tex, one that will secure the financial stability of GLOW and give her actual power: She gets Bash to buy a small TV station in Los Angeles and install her as its president.

All she has to sacrifice is Liberty Belle, her romance with a rich man … and Sandy’s dream of keeping Rhapsody alive.

“GLOW” creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch wrote the episode in which this turn takes place, “A Very GLOW Christmas,” and they don’t sugarcoat the fallout from Debbie’s boss move. When she shares the news with Ruth, informing Ruth that she will be a director, casually mentioning that Ruth's acting aspirations will never pan out, Ruth pours ice water on her exuberance by reminding Debbie that they don't have the same dream.

Sandy is left sitting at a bar with a group of weeping showgirls she had to fire. Debbie followed her advice and made a plan for future success, and in doing so Bash reclaimed the $2 million investment he’d pledged to her production. Being a mentor doesn't always reap dividends.

Nevertheless, Debbie’s move is a rich table-setter for a potential fourth season of “GLOW," because Sandy’s fate hints at the dark underside of success. It doesn't let us forget that these are two women who stake their career and economic fortunes on steering men in positions of power to give them a seat at the table, and shows that doesn't always pan out.

“You know how it is,” Sandy tells Debbie earlier in the season as she quietly grieves for the man who hired her. “You hitch your wagon to a rich dreamer, the dreamer dies and you’re sitting on the side of the road with a bottle of gin … and a $4 million showgirl show to pull along.”

In that moment, Debbie really doesn’t know. The finale tells us that she’s about to find out, and moreover to have the choice of whether to be a generous, benevolent Sandy, or a successful but ruthless Tex.

What about our dear Las Vegas’ Showgirl of 1962? Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of Sandy and Davis, even though the lyrics in her gala performance of that “Gigi” proved untrue. “No more confusion,” Sandy croons in a sensual voice, “no morning-after surprise! No more self-delusion…”

And that’s the only part of the song she manages to get out before an unforeseen calamity cuts the showgirl’s number short.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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