With the release of season 3 of Netflix’s GLOW, we take a moment to reflect on professional wrestling, the art of storytelling, and empowered women.
This may come as a surprise to some who know me, but I used to watch professional wrestling as a kid. Every Monday and Friday night, my brother and I would sit down in front of the TV to watch a rotating cast of burly men (and occasionally women! Trish Stratus FTW) fight each other inside the ring and out. For nine-year-old me, it was the height of entertainment. A Stone Cold Steve Austin action figure sat next to Barbie in my closet and when the show pulled off moments of magic—like the Undertaker rising from the dead in a glorious comeback—I was absolutely blown away, eyes glued to the screen.
Somewhere along the way, however, my passion for WWE faded and I almost forgot that episode of my childhood. Then I watched GLOW on Netflix and remembered why I used to love wrestling so much. Set in the 80s, GLOW follows a group of oddball women who come together to form the first all-female wrestling show. Here was wrestling presented to me as I remembered it. Not as the butt of a joke. Not as “fake” fighting. Not as mere “soap opera for men.” In fact, GLOW’s particular iteration of wrestling includes very few men at all.
GLOW, which stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, was an actual all-female wrestling show that originally ran from 1986 to 1990. It was ridiculous and over-the-top, with storylines about good and evil and walking stereotypes for characters. It had comic interludes and rapping and sketches. It was the modern day equivalent of vaudeville, entertaining millions with theatrics and a sense of humour.
You might wonder why a show centred around people fighting each other would incorporate song and dance and tomfoolery. Well, while wrestling is now a billion-dollar industry, it actually began in side shows, carnivals, and vaudeville theatres. Wrestling is not just fighting dressed up with spandex and costumes but a form of performance art in its own right. Characters are larger than life, with designated “faces” (the heroes who garner our sympathy) and “heels” (the villains we love to hate) as well as storylines taking place inside and outside the ring to drive conflict. But while the wrestling is for show, that doesn’t make it any less impressive. It’s true that the outcomes are fixed and the moves are rehearsed. But the athleticism is real. It takes immense strength and ability to make wrestling look real, limit injuries, and throw your body around over and over, night after night.
The magic of GLOW is that it understands that wrestling is more than just play-acting fights. It’s also just plain fun. The real heart of wrestling, as GLOW proves, is its capacity for humour and creative storytelling. Although GLOW starts with a focus on Alison Brie’s Ruth Wilder, it quickly turns into an ensemble piece, showcasing a diverse cast of brilliant and funny women. And that’s what GLOW, both the original wrestling show and the Netflix show it inspired, is really about: a bunch of women empowering themselves and each other through wrestling.
In the penultimate episode of GLOW’s first season, the ladies attend a fancy gala, pretending to be recovering drug addicts in order to raise funds for their strange and struggling wrestling show. One by one, they make a show of speechifying to the rich crowd. But when it’s Ruth’s turn to take the stage, she breaks through to something real, admitting to a room full of strangers that she’s made mistakes, big ones, including sleeping with her best friend’s husband.
But then I found wrestling. And it saved me. Coming to the gym every day and seeing these women struggle to use their bodies and learn something new and . . . we did. And it’s a better feeling than drugs.
Like the best art, wrestling has the capacity to save. Not in the way a doctor might save a patient, but in the way that only art can—by showing us that we are not alone. GLOW is a TV show that embodies the spirit of pro wrestling. It has comedy and drama and characters you want to root for. And, of course, gorgeous ladies who come together, learn something new, and struggle to use their bodies in ways no one expected of them.