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In GLOW, Who Gets To Be Empowered?

The show’s second season highlights inequalities among the wrestlers.

Erica Parise / Netflix

GLOW’s second season opens with Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) posing for a photo to mark the day she and her costars on the women’s wrestling circuit begin filming. For Ruth, this is a solemn moment; Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling has represented her path toward a bigger sort of life, the only one available to her, or so she believes. When her fellow wrestlers see her posing, they try to get into the picture themselves. This collective celebration of a new beginning is as it should be: Ruth came to GLOW alienated, sexually self-destructive, and utterly broke at the beginning of the first season, and found not only professional sustenance, but also a lifeline—friends.

Distributed by Netflix, this celebration of ‘80s wrestling camp premiered last summer, a welcome shock of hair-sprayed insolence, pink lamé, and feminine power. By the start of season two, GLOW’s cast has developed the sort of intimacy particular to those who are abruptly thrown together and tasked with creating art, all the while wading through one another’s idiosyncrasies and prejudices. By now, they’ve been bundled two by two into The Dusty Spur motel in Van Nuys where, like a gaggle of boarders, they cohabit while working on the show. The job entails intense physical familiarity: While sparring in the ring, the women render themselves absolutely vulnerable, trusting one another to safeguard their bodies. And on a less delicate note, nearly every cast member, at one time or another, rams the face of a coworker into her crotch.

Boundaries fizzle accordingly, yielding a vast spectrum of tender gestures. Afflicted by a stubborn case of constipation, Melrose (Jackie Tohn) entreats roommate Jenny Chen (Ellen Wong) to administer an enema, which she does—in exchange for Melrose’s most prized jacket (frankly, that seems fair). When Ruth must make a trip to the emergency room, her companions cluster in the waiting room, glowering at the suspicious nurses, dosing Ruth with Valium and Klonopin with grandmotherly attention, and swiping blankets and pillows from other patients to ensure their friend every possible comfort (“I think he’s dead anyway,” says Sheila of a nearby patient, all the while plumping stolen pillows behind Ruth’s head).

Because the show is not wholly preoccupied with the wrestlers’ relationships, we aren’t witnesses to the little particulars of each friendship the way we are in Broad City or during the most compelling moments of Orange Is the New Black. The exception is the relationship between Ruth and GLOW’s apple pie American star, Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), alias Liberty Belle. Despite the showrunners’ evident—and crucial—concern with diverse racial and sexual dynamics, these two women remain planted at the narrative center, as the show parses the relics of sororal trust that was broken when Ruth slept with Debbie’s husband. GLOW encircles this tangle, reminding us that neither woman is willing to abandon the other, but illuminating reconciliation as a wretched, and sometimes impossible trudge.

The friendships both Ruth and Debbie engage with the rest of the cast are markedly uneven. They tend to list against the women of color—particularly Carmen Wade (Britney Young), Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel), and Tammé Dawson (Kia Stevens), whose work in the ring is GLOW’s lifeblood. GLOW is a spectacle of women’s empowerment, but the show makes clear, in this business not all women are empowered equally.

Early in the season, Debbie becomes a GLOW producer after negotiating a contract far more advantageous than the ones given to her cast members, much to the chagrin of director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) and Bash Howard (Chris Lowell)—a rich boy who bankrolls the series as a passion project. Accordingly, Sam and Bash try to circumvent her by arranging meetings when Debbie, who has recently become a single mother, must return home to fulfill various maternal duties. She counters by insisting that they meet over dinner at her house in Pasadena—a savvy, domestically cozy plan. Sam later tells Bash he’s ditching, and Bash, ever the puppy, follows suit. “Women,” he scoffs. “It’s like, first they want a room of their own. And then they want a seat at the table. And then they even want us to come and eat at that table, even when that table is way out in Pasadena. And I’m like, ‘what happened to the room?’”

Tammé, who performs as “Welfare Queen” in the ring—and is GLOW’s current defending champion—overhears Bash and Sam as they agree to abandon Debbie. She decides to show up for the dinner instead of them. What follows that evening is a conventional, but delicately executed scene in which two women from vastly disparate backgrounds break bread. When Tammé blithely mentions that she worked on an airline food assembly line for seven years, Debbie’s face twitches—a near-imperceptible gesture, but one naked in meaning. Debbie, the blonde bombshell with a notable soap opera credit on her resumé and a gleaming house in the suburbs—who waltzed onto GLOW’s set smug in her casting as its leading lady (and none too disappointed that her privileged status would rankle with Ruth)—has never considered that some of her castmates, particularly a working class, single mother like Tammé, have not always had the chance to do more genteel work.

Debbie complains to Tammé the tribulations of being outnumbered by Sam and Bash. “It turns out being a producer is … like your plastic crown,” she remarks. “Just because it’s shiny and you fought for it doesn’t make it worth more than a party favor.” Tammé is too gracious to suggest that, perhaps, becoming GLOW’s first champion was significant to her—that she interprets it as an achievement even if Debbie has no need for such paltry validations. To be sure, Debbie is contending with unbridled sexism, but as she laments her plight in the plush setting of her dining room she ignores the material advantages of her position—that her successful, white ex-husband Mark (Rich Sommer) has access to the executives who have empowered Debbie, even if that power seems, to her, illusory.

And of course, even illusions can create real effects. The other wrestlers immediately believe that Debbie wields more influence than them. “Does she get better lighting than us now that she’s a producer?” Jenny wonders aloud, as Liberty Belle bounces on their motel room television set, all perk and sparkle. “No, that’s just the internal glow that comes from power,” Melrose responds, with resigned acidity. Tammé, for her part, comforts Debbie despite the asymmetry of their positions. She would never have considered asking to be promoted as a producer, or so we can assume, for she recognizes the role to which she is circumscribed: the entertainment, a product to be sold by those who grip the reins.

Ruth, meanwhile, frets over her own position within the GLOW hierarchy because Sam is jealous of her director’s eye—and not above punishing her for imagined crimes against his authority. Together with the cast and one of the cameramen, she films a romp of a title sequence, and the network executives are delighted by it. Sam, on the other hand, condemns it as an act of insubordination. Yet he quickly forgives her. Although Sam’s moods and fragile ego are aggravating, they’re little more than fleeting obstacles for Ruth. Ultimately, she has his ear, and he regards her with affection that he doesn’t extend to the rest of the cast.

The showrunners illuminate this disparity between the treatment of Ruth and Debbie compared to the rest of the cast, and they gesture to its racist implications. Towards the season’s end, Sam has a brief exchange with Arthie (Sunita Mani), alias Beirut, whose efforts to recast her narrative—she currently performs as a Middle Eastern terrorist—are thwarted by two of the white cast members. She tells Sam that she failed out of medical school in the midst of working on GLOW. “You didn’t notice I always had books with me?” she asks him, perplexed. “No,” he replies flatly. “But I don’t really pay attention to all of you.” He’s nothing if not honest. Ruth is the only wrestler Sam designates as irreplaceable when in fact Carmen—the only cast member with a wrestling background—could harpoon the show’s success if ever she walked away.

Her loyalty to GLOW, and to Ruth and the rest of their teammates, means that she doesn’t. Like Tammé, she knows that her body—brown, unruly, unconventional in its charms—precludes her from demands on Sam’s time. Beloved by her teammates as a fussy, bright-eyed darling, Ruth—who, like Debbie, believes that “it’s never easy” for her—that her life is plagued by false starts and misadventure—basks in the glow of success, all the more luminous for the shadow at her back, where the underdogs of GLOW stand and patiently abide.

At the start of the season, Ruth, in a guileless effort to advocate for her coworkers, appeals to Sam. “We care about each other,” she avows. “We’re a team.” But Sam is determined to puncture Ruth’s dewey-eyed optimism at every turn. “Oh, you’re not really a team,” he sneers. “This isn’t basketball.” He invokes this comparison to underscore each cast member’s replaceability, but in fact, it resonates on an even more sinister register. GLOW brandishes the trappings of empowerment, but is at its core combative: One woman vanquishes another in a choreographed battle designed for a male viewer. Ornaments first, warriors only in fetishized pretense, they are, after all, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.