The Fierce, Not-So-Feminist Women’s Wrestling League That Inspired Netflix’s GLOW – Vanity Fair

In the 1980s, the Worldwide Wrestling Federation dominated airwaves and lunchboxes with caricatures and over-the-top theatrics. How could anyone hoping to compete in the ring of televised wrestling heighten the camp? By creating an all-female league that rapped. From 1986 to 1990, G.L.O.W., i.e. the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, delivered a dizzying combination of sex, violence, and comedy into American living rooms. Women with loud makeup and big hair tossed each other around, grunting and sweating in skimpy leotards. It aired on Saturday mornings.

“Empowerment versus exploitation: they were both there. That’s what makes it interesting,” says Liz Flahive. She and Carly Mensch are the co-creators and co-executive producers of GLOW, a Netflix series premiering June 23 that is inspired by the 80s phenomenon. It’s also executive produced by Orange Is the New Black maestro Jenji Kohan.

Flahive and Mensch are young (and lucky) enough to have worked only on series helmed solely or in part by women. They met as playwrights at the Ars Nova theater in New York and were staff writers together on Nurse Jackie, and have both put in time on other Kohan series as well. They developed the wrestling dramedy after watching the 2012 documentary GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and then going “down a rabbit hole,” as Flahive puts it, of old episodes. The result is a fictionalized making-of story. Alison Brie (Mad Men) and Betty Gilpin (American Gods) lead an ensemble cast as desperate actors who sign on to a dubious cable project along with a motley crew of outcasts.

Watching the ‘80s franchise, Mensch recalls responding to “this idea of a sisterhood of misfits going through something that they have never experienced before.” The original G.L.O.W. ladies were mostly actresses who had to learn how to wrestle—which is exactly what Flahive and Mensch asked of their cast. The women worked with trainers for weeks before shooting commenced. Doubles were rarely used; Brie did all of her own stunts. “They became incredibly close during training,” Flahive explains. “It was this great equalizer because they were all vulnerable, taking physical risks, and putting their safety in each other’s hands. That was before they even got a script.”

Similarly, the first few episodes of the new G.L.O.W. portray the characters learning to wrestle—which was important to Flahive and Mensch, since the ring personas their characters later inhabit are, depending on your persuasion, offensive, comedic, or generally confusing. But they’re also true to life: the 80s G.L.O.W. capitalized on every low-hanging cultural stereotype. In a grainy vintage clip available on YouTube, a character named Palestina, whose dress is terrorist-reminiscent, runs a finger across her neck while saying in a thick accent that she is “not afraid to kill.” Actually, she raps—and then the next wrestler raps, “I’m Spanish Red and I love tequila/When my blood gets hot, I’m even meaner.”

“There are things that are incredibly offensive in wrestling,” Flahive says, “and that was very interesting to us. We wanted to see our girls grapple with the stereotypes of the time and what they were being asked to deal with in the name of a job.” The actual women of G.L.O.W. certainly had to endure a more hostile environment than the GLOW set, which was overtly female-friendly—not only body-positive, but teeming with the cast and crew’s children. “If you are devoted to your work and devoted to your family, your kids are going to have to come to work and have dinner sometimes,” says Flahive.

“And men brought their kids too,” Mensch adds.

Theatrical wrestling characters are either “faces” or “heels”: good guys or bad guys. In G.L.O.W, the faces were blonde and associated with traditional Americana, such as farmers and flags. “Most of the stereotypes lie on the bad-guys side,” Mensch says. “We wanted to lean hard, to dive into the anxieties and stereotypes of the 80s.”

Mensch adds, “Kia Stevens is the only person in our entire cast who is actually a pro wrestler. She is a black woman who, [as a wrestler], has gone through all the different character humiliations one would expect . She helped us a lot with navigating what it means to play a heel, and whether to embrace it or fight against it.”

In episode four, Stevens’s character, Tamee, approaches the show’s director, Sam Silvia (played by Marc Maron), about her heel persona, Welfare Queen. “It’s offensive,” she implores.

Silvia—who has a long list of exploitation films under his belt, much like real-life original G.L.O.W. director Matt Cimber—replies, “That’s the genius of it…. It’s sort of a fuck you to the Republican Party, and their welfare reform and race-baiting shit.”

Then Tamee asks, “Yeah, but will other people know that?” Later, she and another African-American character devise a stunt for the ring that flips the race-baiting script in a spectacle of slapstick.

“Wrestling was funnier in 1985,” Mensch says, “which seems to be missing from today’s style. It was definitely theater, but there’s also that kind of vaudeville.” In the ‘80s, G.L.O.W. combined wrestling matches with music videos, comedy sketches, and the aforementioned raps, which were only ever awkward. “It was a weird mix,” Flahive says.

But was it feminist? “That’s a tangled knot that I definitely don’t want to tackle,” Mensch says. “The original G.L.O.W. was created by a man. That’s a huge difference.”

Still, Flahive says, “It was the first all-female wrestling show, period. That in and of itself is a thing.”

“They were incredibly powerful,” Mensch allows. “The male gaze, how it was shot, or decisions that were made: that was all happening alongside the fact that these were badass women doing very cool things. But we like that it’s messy, that it’s not completely clear how to feel about it.”

And the new GLOW, at least, helps tips the scales of power back toward the women. “There is something very different when you are one woman in a leotard, surrounded by men, than when you are 14 women in a female-forward environment wrestling in leotards.”

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The Fierce, Not-So-Feminist Women’s Wrestling League That Inspired Netflix’s GLOW – Vanity Fair

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