Fight and flight: how Glow continues to show women at their best and worst

In the third season of Netflix’s consistently entertaining comedy series about female wrestlers, characters are allowed to be messy in and out of the ring

In the opening scene of season three of Glow, the Netflix comedy about a group of misfit actors who end up becoming female wrestlers, an interviewer speaks with the co-leads Debbie and Ruth about their show’s exciting move to Las Vegas. Both women are dressed as their respective wrestling personas, Liberty Bell, the beautiful all-American girl defending the USA and Zoya the Destroyer, her slinky nemesis from Soviet Russia. True to their parts, Liberty Bell delightedly extols the wonders of Vegas while Zoya complains that the glitzy town is a revolting display of capitalism. Then, as the interview turns to launch of the Challenger space shuttle, happening in real time, something terrible happens: Ruth goes deeper and deeper into her exaggerated role criticizing American imperialism and decrying the Challenger, without realizing that, live on TV to a shocked and dismayed audience, the space shuttle has entirely broken apart.

Based on a real 80s wrestling group, the fictionalized world of Glow has always managed to be delightfully tacky, rather than bleakly depressing, even as characters contend with everything from poverty to health issues to insidious racism and scathing sexism. Unlike a show like Stranger Things, which inspires a kind of pure-hearted nostalgia, Glow’s ambitions have always been more akin to Mad Men; both shows have the intent to captivate viewers while also inducing them to cringe at a past that maybe isn’t quite so distant as we’d like to believe it is.

The opening scene clearly illustrates how beneath the glossy veneer of big hair and tight leotards, Glow is a show that is first and foremost about disappointment. In particular, it explores how a second chance at love, a career, really any dream at all, doesn’t necessarily result in a happy ending. The world of Vegas seems utterly enthralling at first, with its gold-colored furniture and walls, leggy showgirls and non-stop all-you-can-eat buffets. Eventually, however, all of these pleasures lose their initial appeal, as we begin to see all the things that our ensemble cast truly hungers for.

Certainly, disappointment abounds in lots of antihero sagas, from the aforementioned Mad Men to shows like Breaking Bad and BoJack Horseman. But what makes Glow stand out is its deep fascination with the pleasures and pitfalls of female ambition specifically. Each member of Glow is at a different stage of her life and while the large ensemble cast doesn’t allow for an in-depth look at each individual character, we do get a smorgasbord of plots centering on women who yearn to excel. In particular, this season delves more deeply into a few specific characters and what drives them: we see Cherry consider motherhood and learn more about how Arthie sees her own sexuality. Likewise, season three devotes a lot of time to unpacking Sheila’s character, as we see her take an acting class and meet a mentor who inspires her to think about what she is trying to find by wearing the wolf costume she loves.

There are other compelling character arcs too, such as Sam’s relationship with his daughter, who is also yearning to be a screenwriter. Still, the heart of Glow has always been the relationship between Ruth and Debbie, and their struggle for power and recognition in a world that doesn’t take them seriously. In season three, their characters are even more fully realized, as Ruth throws herself into Glow, even as she slowly starts to realize that she ultimately wants more than to be on a female wrestling team. Likewise, Debbie struggles to balance her work as a producer and actor with being a devoted mom. Though scenes where Debbie is cast aside or underestimated by powerful men are painful, the focus on Ruth and Debbie’s ever-evolving friendship offers a respite from the sexist indignities of the world around them. While the characters they play may be two-dimensional, one of the pleasures of seeing Ruth and Debbie’s journey is that they aren’t flattened into tropes at all. They are complicated women who aren’t afraid to be confrontational, least of all with each other, and their devotion to Glow is often less about sisterhood than personal drive, which causes a number of compelling new conflicts.

Glow is at its best when it resists moralizing and, instead, allows viewers to see the painful absurdity of its shocking stock characters through the contrast with the real women who play them. In one thrilling scene, we see characters break free from their original given wrestling personas, adopting other characters instead. This decision breathes new life into their performances and allows the women to have fun with their roles, as well as offering them a little more perspective about what they are doing when they enter the ring.

In contrast, some of the weakest moments of this season are ones that try to wrap issues of identity up neatly. In one particularly cloying moment, a camping trip teaches characters a very special lesson that ends in a group hug. At times like these, Glow is too on-the-nose and attempts to really spell out something that could be explored more deeply through simply giving more time to individual characters that we’ve yet to see fully developed. The same goes for the way that the series sometimes tries to pack in too many plot lines. As in other ensemble shows, the sheer number of characters can be exciting and engaging, but also incredibly limiting. A storyline this season that tackles one character’s disordered eating, for example, is portrayed with nuance and sensitivity, but is never fully explored, leaving the viewer to wonder exactly how it fits into the character’s story.

Still, at a time when the “unlikeable female character” has become something of its own trope, Glow’s wide array of female characters are endearing precisely because they hit such a wide range of notes. The parts they play may be stifling, but the true joy of watching Glow is the thrill of seeing a diverse group of women exult in the sheer physicality of their bodies, knowing that every body slam they endure is an opportunity to get back up.

  • Glow returns to Netflix on 9 August


Arielle Bernstein

The GuardianTramp

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