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GLOW Serves Up Liberation in Lycra

The women of wrestling grapple with their bodies and forge their own destinies.

Focus Features

Less than five minutes into GLOW, an electric new Netflix series about a scrappy women’s wrestling circuit set in mid-1980s Los Angeles, we see the two lead actresses—Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, playing classic brunette-blond best-frenemy foils—swiveling their hips around in pastel leotards. They are in a high-impact aerobics class, that glossy, spandex-forward fitness trend that swept through a decade focused on perky self-improvement. We know everything we need to know about the two characters from this scene. Ruth (Brie) is a serious wannabe-actress with a mousy shag haircut, who laments the lack of meaty roles for women in Hollywood and arrives to class in a schlubby sweatshirt. Debbie (Gilpin) is a former soap star who just had a baby and left the glitz business, but her starlet tendencies remain; she wears makeup to sweat in, and shiny tan tights underneath her striped suspendered-leotard (then the height of athleisure couture).

They clench their glutes in time to the beats of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and flash big smiles at one another, getting high together on the ‘80s opiate of bodily betterment in legwarmers. And then, something changes. Debbie starts to lactate, and clenches her breasts in giggly embarrassment. Ruth peels off her sweatshirt and hands it over, a goofy sororal rescue in time with the synth beats. Suddenly, the absurdity of aerobics, with its emphasis on attaining one’s pert, perfect form, becomes the punchline. In the middle of all this neon, gauzy posturing, something real has happened. Bodies are unpredictable and often hilarious, even when strapped into metallic lycra.

That scene sets the tone for GLOW, which tells a fictional story about the real life Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, an all-female circuit launched in 1986 and which originally ran on cable television for four seasons. Creators Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive took their inspiration from a 2011 documentary film about G.L.O.W. directed by Brett Whitcomb, but have added a winking, playful energy to the material to make their nostalgia exercise feel distinctly modern. Glancing back 30 years, Mensch and Flahive paint the puffed-hair, zebra-print clad group of women who dared step into the ring as self-aware custodians of their own image. These women of wrestling may have been labeled as gorgeous and given a pepto-pink stage to bounce around in as they took on stereotypical personae like the all-American Liberty Bell or a fur-coat wearing, Reagan-hating Welfare Queen, but they were present for—and conspiring in—every aspect of their high-camp creation. GLOW begins where the aerobics class ends—bodily reality and suppressed giggles crashing through the haze of Aqua Net.

While watching the season, I couldn’t help but think of another of its deep foundational texts, a romantic comedy about aerobics called Perfect starring Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta, which opened in June of 1985. That film was, contrary to its marketing, very far from perfect. And it was not a hit. Perfect flopped at the box office, losing over $8 million. It has since been named one of the 100 worst movies ever made by the Golden Raspberry committee, though Quentin Tarantino has openly expressed his love for it (make of that what you will).

Perfect is, ostensibly, about a cynical Rolling Stone reporter from New York (played by an apple-cheeked Travolta) who is sent out to Los Angeles to investigate high-stakes drug trafficking. During the assignment, someone gives Travolta a tip that at a health club in Santa Monica, a bubbly dance-fitness instructor (Curtis) is absolutely slaying at her job; her classes sell out in a giant, bi-level studio where she gyrates on a parapet in lilac legwarmers. That studio, much like the one seen early on in GLOW, is a sweatbox full of teased hair and sexual teasing, as men in tiny gym shorts and women in thongs thrust their hips at one another to hair band anthems. Travolta’s character sees right away that the place is a trend-piece gold mine. And so, he does what (ruthless) reporters do: He writes a tell-all article claiming that “Fitness Clubs are the Singles Bars of the 80s,” completely ignoring basic journalistic ethics in the process. In the piece, he calls one woman the “the most used piece of equipment in the gym” based on a bit of overheard gossip, essentially ruining her life in the pages of a national magazine. But no matter! In the end, he woos Curtis and gets the girl in lycra.

Perfect, like GLOW, was a dramatization of real-life events. The movie was based on an actual series of articles about the Los Angeles Sports Connection gym that ran in Rolling Stone by Aaron Latham (who also wrote the film’s script). In the Rolling Stone articles, as in the film, Latham detailed the sexual exploits of a Sports Connection regular and striving actress named Leslie Borkin, whom he characterized as haphazardly tossing herself at men and making out in public with body-building bohunks on the trunk of a black Mustang in the gym parking lot. Borkin, who admitted to her actions but hated the way they were presented, later appeared in Perfect in an attempt to salvage her career—but she couldn’t even land a role as herself. Laraine Newman played her, and Borkin, relegated to a glorified extra, only got one line (“Most people join to work out”).

Brie’s character in the Netflix show, Ruth Wilder, is a classically trained Hollywood hopeful who could have turned out like Borkin if she had never found G.L.O.W. One casting agent tells Ruth that she is only brought in to read as a quirky alternative to the more sparkly ingenues, proving to directors that they never wanted quirk to begin with. Nearing the end of her rope—and her bank account—Wilder sleeps with her pal Debbie’s husband (a schlubby wet blanket played by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer) and turns up at an oddball casting call for “unconventional girls” at a run-down athletic complex in the Valley.

There, she meets another Hollywood flunkee, the director Sam Sylvia (played by Marc Maron, whose cutting, nasal sarcasm works very much in his favor in the role), who can no longer find funding for his gory genre films. Sam has taken on the G.L.O.W. project—funded by a coked-out, wrestling-obsessed young millionaire in yacht rock clothing who spends freely with his Reaganite mother’s credit card—as a last-resort. This too, is a classic rom-com set-up, though Brie and Maron never become intimate during the show. Instead, they begin as rivals (Sam fires Ruth for being too “actressy” in her wrestling approach; at one point he nicknames her “Strindberg.” She keeps showing up to practice anyways) and end as professional conspirators. They both see themselves as outsider artists held down by the rigid commercial demands of the business. And while they both struggle to embrace G.L.O.W. as a creative outlet (Sam thinks it is beneath him, Ruth keeps trying to apply snobbish techniques from scene study class to a medium that rejects method acting), they also end up finding freedom there, on the campy, frayed edges of what Hollywood deems acceptable.

As Debbie, Betty Gilpin never plays her blonde as dumb, despite sporting a platinum bouffant that could double as a wallet. Though Sam convinces Debbie to join the G.L.O.W. team as the bankable headliner, Gilpin adds a layer of self-doubt and restraint to her performance that shows just how wounding the star system can be even to its leading ladies. Debbie was written off her soap (or rather, she was written into a coma, then replaced) for asking for more agency in her role. While she convinced herself that being a housewife was the solution to her show business woes, she also never felt quite comfortable out of the limelight. Her husband derides her for making trash television, but in the end, she decides to fight. It is either G.L.O.W. or obscurity, wrestling or sitting at home while the other women get to howl and snarl and get messy in the ring. Wrestling, as tacky as it may be, is Debbie’s lifeline, her chance to forge her own narrative out of shiny lamé.

GLOW may have grown out of the Perfect era, but it relates more directly to the baseball film A League of Her Own, which came out in July of 1992. As in that film, GLOW follows a gaggle of women with raw talent and the will to throw their bodies into a traditionally men’s sport, as they gradually break down the cynicism of a gruff, has-been male coach. And, as with that film, the main characters become Trojan horses, allowing for a prismatic look into the inner lives of women that may not always find representation on screen.

GLOW does one better: Because it is helmed by women (and executive produced by Jenji Kohan of Orange is the New Black), the supporting female characters are more diverse and finely drawn than those one encountered in the nineties. GLOW is full of bright new faces, from Jackie Tohn, who plays a Madonna wannabe who wrestles as “Melrose,” to Carmen Wade, who plays a gentle, timid daughter of a wrestling family who takes on an Incan fighting persona named “Machu Picchu.” In crass 80s fashion, a South Asian actress played by Sunita Mani is encouraged to take on a middle-eastern villain character named “Beirut the Bomber.” The show’s producers urge each woman to lean into unsubtle—and often blankly offensive—stereotypes to find their wrestling alter-ego, but over the course of the show, the group begins to embrace the potentially liberating power of playing into type. If they raise the audience’s expectations with cartoon personae, it only makes the surprising bodyslams all the more sweet. The show, as well as its characters, grapple with the freedom inherent in making low-brow entertainment. Garbage art may not be where the acclaim is, but in 1980s Hollywood, it was where a woman could gain the most control. And, it’s where she could put on a spectacular show.

Perfect is an artifact of its time. In it, the camera lingers a bit too long on Curtis’s gyrations, leering at her hip thrusts like an interloper in a locker room. In that film, women’s bodies are the main event, and also the butts (literally) of the joke. By contrast, GLOW is in on the joke; it winks at the caprice of big hair and hot pink scrunchies, of the idea that anyone ever thought they looked good in acid wash. But it also treats its women with big-hearted tenderness, allowing us to laugh with, and not at them, as they hurl their strong frames at one another in the ring. It is summer entertainment as confection—one made up of Van Halen bangers, day-glo suspenders, gauzy 80s vaseline lighting, shoulderpads, and women in stretch fabrics. It is not perfect, but it is pretty damn close.