There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in Netflix’s buzzy new GLOW (a.k.a. Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling)—out on June 23—that sums up the beauty of the show, and indeed of women’s entertainment wrestling itself.
From Orange Is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan, GLOW’s gritty and glittery show within a show, loosely based on an actual TV wrestling series than ran in the 1980s, follows an unlikely band of out-of-work actresses, wannabe socialites and misfits brought together by a washed-up director and a trust-fund kid to create live televised wrestling entertainment.
With their upstart league looking down for the count before it’s even gotten off the mat, Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), who plays wrestling persona all-American “Liberty Bell,” turns to Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), her Cold War nemesis “Zoya the Destroyer,” and finally admits the truth.
“I actually like wrestling—it’s like I’m back in my body. It doesn’t belong to Randy or Mark,” Debbie says, referring to her infant son and husband. “I’m like… using for it me, and I feel like a goddamn superhero.”
The moment is pure magic, because it shows—beneath the staged theatrics, the big hair, and all that spandex—how women’s entertainment wrestling comes down to women realizing their real, raw physical strength in a male-dominated arena.
I know this because I actually studied the self-proclaimed Divas of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) in university—but I decided to run the scene by a woman who understands the sport better than almost anyone else: Trish Stratus.
“I’ve actually uttered those exact same words,” Stratus tells me, when I describe Debbie’s realization to the WWE Hall of Famer and seven-time WWE Women’s Champion. “Once I started wrestling, it didn’t take long for me to realize how empowering it could be.”
Stratus entered the ring for the World Wrestling Federation (later rebranded as World Wrestling Entertainment) in March 2000, setting into motion a record-breaking career that would culminate in her induction to the WWE Hall of Fame at 37—at the time, the youngest person ever to be inducted. The Toronto-based superstar—and FLARE cover girl (June 2003)—can’t wait to binge-watch GLOW.
A lighthearted premise with strong characters
The first episode of GLOW is striking if for no other reason than just three out of its 16 stars are men—and they’re caricatures compared to their refreshingly fully realized female counterparts.
GLOW’s premise may be lighthearted; the characters are anything but. Actresses turned amateur wrestlers confront overt sexism and deep-seated racism while realizing their own awesome strength in the ring. Or, as B-movie director Sam Sylvia puts it in his pitch: “They’re going to be wrestling with their own female stereotypes, metaphorically, and I think that’s something that will resonate with female audiences.” But don’t worry, he says, to the lukewarm producer, it’ll be “hot yet family-friendly… Porn you can watch with your kids… finally.”
Wrestling fans may be familiar with the tropes and stereotypes that litter the sport, but they are still quite jarring to see—and GLOW makes that painfully obvious.
Cambodian immigrant Jenny (Ellen Wong) is dubbed “Fortune Cookie” as her wrestling pseudonym by tone-deaf investor Sebastian Howard. Arthie (Sunita Mani) immediately becomes the most hated woman in the ring thanks to her ill-advised “Lebanese terrorist” persona “Beirut.” And the main event of the first fight night sees Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) and Tamee (Kia Stevens) assume the names “Junk Chain” and “Welfare Queen” to battle two white-hooded supremacists in a deeply awkward tag-team match.
“Wrestling’s all about type,” says Sebastian. “You mean, stereotype,” says Arthie.
And later, when Tamee questions the director about her offensive stage name, he replies, “That’s the genius of it. It’s a sort of f-ck you to the Republican Party, and their welfare reform and race-baiting shit.”
When I ask Stratus about the scene, she thinks back to the Wrestlemanias she grew up watching from in Richmond Hill, Ont., which featured Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
“It was definitely a different time back then, but there’s still stereotyping like that going on in wrestling today,” she says. “It just goes to show you how character-based and cartoony it can be. You’d never act like that in real life, and wrestling fans, who are smart fans, get that. I don’t want to say what we did was never distasteful, because it was at times, but it was always done to get a reaction from the crowd—not to present a way to act in real life.”
Breaking bones and stereotypes… for the most part
In Stratus’s heyday, smashing stereotypes was her bread and butter. Before her time, most women in wrestling were strictly eye candy. She was part of a wave of women—including Chyna (Joan Laurer), Sable (Rena Lesnar), Lita (Amy Dumas), Jacqueline (Jacqueline DeLois Moore), Ivory (Lisa Moretti) and Gail Kim (Gail Kim-Irvine), among many others—who changed all that.
Stratus and co. participated in street fight-themed matches and steel-cage fights previously only the domain of male wrestlers. “I made the conscious decision to demonstrate different ways for women to act in the ring, with the hope it would help outside it,” she says. “I’d meet fans who would say, ‘I saw what you did out there and it changed my life.'”
“You might be thinking—hold up, you’re rolling around doing fake fighting, at times in a bikini, what are you talking about, Trish? How is that empowering? But women saw me making it a male-dominated world. It wasn’t about the characters I was performing, but what I was representing as a woman doing it.”
That’s not to say that Stratus’s time in the spotlight was free from controversy.
In one standout storyline, her character confronted WWE promoter Vince McMahon. He makes her beg for her job, forcing her to strip in front of the audience. She does, and watching her performance makes your heart sink—as it does time and again for our unlikely heroes during some of the more dodgy staged matches in GLOW.
“Everyone asks me about that moment,” says Stratus. “They can’t believe I was made to do that, but I was fully aware and made the choice to do what I did from the start. Vince and I knew my character needed to turn from a hated heel to a loveable babyface, and I needed the crowd on my side. I took it and took it and then finally stood up to Vince McMahon’s character on the grandest stage of all—Wrestlemania—and slapped him in the face. That’s when I took my power back and gave my character a fresh start.”
Stratus is referring to entertainment wrestling’s strict formula: “heels” (a.k.a. villains) fight “babyfaces” (a.k.a. heroes). Like Stratus’s performances, the women of GLOW really shine when they execute wrestling moves that push them outside their comfort zones. Quickly, they learn that while the action may be scripted, it’s definitely not fake. And “make-believe” doesn’t mean “pain-free.”
As Stratus explains: “People always say, ‘But it’s all fake, right?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, it’s scripted. We do feel real pain.’ When I was wrestling, I always tried to land safely and effectively, but things happen. I have missing teeth and knuckles—those weren’t part of the storylines, but we worked them in when they happened.”
For the heels of GLOW, like Ruth and Arthie, it’s about coming to terms with performing in front of an audience who truly hates their wrestling personas.
Stratus started out as a heel—and loved it. “People asked me how I handled a whole arena’s worth of people booing me, and here’s the thing: I knew whether I was doing a good job based on the decibel of the fans. I didn’t care whether it was cheering or booing, I was all about the volume of the crowd.”
Squashing frailty myths with big hair and even bigger moves
Countless moments in GLOW find women back flipping, body-slamming and diving from the top rope in a series of larger-than-life acrobatics. It’s pretty goddamn empowering—especially as it becomes clear that the wrestlers’ confidence comes not from how physically strong they are, but how strong they believe they are.
I ask Stratus if she had a moment like this—she has. Her first “bump” (when she hit the mat on her back) involved busting through a wooden table. “It was a euphoric moment,” she recalls, “I have no idea why, but it felt like, ‘Wow, what a rush.’ When I got back up and the crowd went wild I knew I’d earned the respect of both my co-workers because I nailed the move, and the fans, because they knew I was willing to go to the distance to entertain them.”
GLOW doesn’t shy away from the less gorgeous side of wrestling
Dingy motels, bro-y crowds, people convinced wrestling is stupid—GLOW shows us wrestling, warts and all. And it doesn’t dance around the ever-present issue about whether the spectacle is empowering or objectifying.
“There’s no way around it: you are looked at for your sex appeal,” says Stratus of some the more sexist storylines that played out in the ring during her time. But she’s happy to hear GLOW explores the grittier side of wrestling too: “I knew I had to do my due diligence in the ‘babe department’ before I could use the stage to demonstrate my athleticism.”
And then there’s the actual drama—on and off the mat. The main thrust of GLOW is the beef outside the ring between Debbie and Ruth. But that’s the one element that doesn’t quite ring true to Stratus.
One of her most famous feuds involved wrestler Lita with outrageous storylines that spanned years. But did they really hate each other?
“Put it this way,” Stratus laughs. “Lita is now my son’s godmother.”
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