Come for the Gorgeous Ladies, Stay for the Wrestling

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.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

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.

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John Oliver tells it like it is. Photo: Imgur

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.

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The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Photo: Huffpost

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.

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The cast of GLOW (Netflix). Photo: Deadline

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.

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Ruth (Alison Brie) describes the power of wrestling. Photo: Netflix

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.

Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits

During WWII, Allied secret agents were tested to their limits. The best way to foster empathy for the hardships they faced is to undergo them yourself – just ask the contestants on Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits.

By Serena Ypelaar

The only people who know what World War II was really like are the ones who lived through it. Army, navy, air force, nurses, medical corps, civilians … and spies. Everyone living between 1939 and 1945 had a diverse experience of one of the largest global conflicts in history, and for someone like myself, that experience is nearly unfathomable.

Nearly.

We have historical records and witness testimony to illustrate the war to those of us who hadn’t yet been born or were too young to remember anything. The mass genocide of Jewish people and the horrors suffered at the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis have left lasting scars. But the Allies defeated the Axis powers in 1945, restoring peace.

A few of the contestants on Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits. From left: instructor Nicky Moffat, Samy Ali, Debbey Clitheroe, Alastair Stanley, and Magda Thomas. Photo: Polygon

At the heart of the war effort was Britain, who dispatched secret agents from Allied countries throughout occupied Europe to bring down enemy forces and top-ranking Nazi officials. In 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton created the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an espionage organization. SOE agents faced countless tests and challenges both in training and in the field, challenges we can scarce imagine – until last year, when the Netflix/BBC miniseries Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits premiered.

A unique reality show, Churchill’s Secret Agents focuses not on interpersonal drama, backstabbing, or creative skill, but rather, on suitability to become an SOE operative as per the 1940s standards. Supervised by Nicky Moffat, the British army’s highest ranking woman before her resignation in 2012, Lt. Col. Adrian Weale, commanding officer, and Mike Rennie, military psychologist, the show is essentially a training simulation for the 14 recruits hoping to be selected as SOE agents. As an exercise in empathy, it’s incredibly effective – it offers not only the recruits, but the audience, with fascinating (and sometimes shocking) insights into the life of an SOE spy. I’ve watched the five-episode series three times already; I loved seeing how each recruit navigates each test, and who excels at what.

SOE Historian Rod Bailey consults on the show.
Photo: Popsugar

The show is diversely cast, which in this case is historically authentic. The SOE recruited both men and women from various walks of life to blend in behind enemy lines. Their main concerns were talent and aptitude. On the show, the new recruits include Rohini Bajaj, a doctor; 21-year-old maths graduate Alastair Stanley; Polish-born translator Madga Thomas; ex-military Rob Copsey, who lost his leg serving in Rwanda, grandmother and drama teacher Debbey Clitheroe; paralegal Will Beresford-Davies, and research scientist Lizzie Jeffreys, among others of varying professions, cultural backgrounds, and ages.

Recruits Rohini Bajaj, Rob Copsey, Lizzie Jeffreys, and Will Beresford-Davies. Photo: The Guardian

The series seems to offer the best of both worlds, too – each training exercise is contextualized with documentary-style footage including narration about the SOE’s impact on the war effort, specific missions that succeeded and failed, and prominent agents who were later recognized for their service.

Reality shows can be an invaluable method of historical interpretation; what better way to understand history than to see it recreated, and even more importantly, to interact with it? As a spectator, I fortunately don’t have to scale a mountainside in the pouring rain, but I can still appreciate the emotional and physical strength needed as I watch the recruits attempt it. For the contestants themselves, their understanding is even more immersive, as they literally have to participate in the testing process and challenges.

Recruits receive training (and are later tested) on hand to hand combat, firearms and explosives, stealth, disguise, interrogation, lockpicking, physical tasks such as scaling walls/cliffs and crawling under barbed wire, and Morse code/transmission.

The first of five episodes is shown here. You can stream the show on Netflix or watch the entire series on YouTube.

It’s hard to pin down the best part of the show, as I’ve already outlined its benefits for historical appreciation. However, I think Churchill’s Secret Agents‘ biggest strength lies in its emotional impact. If you’ve read The Mindful Rambler enough, you’ll know that I’m a big crier, but suffice it to say that this overview of the Resistance and the efforts of those who fought against injustice had me welling up. Not only that, but the fact that these modern-day people of varying backgrounds could complete the rigorous training pretty much floored me. It made me realize that we can exceed our limits if we resolve to, and we can do what’s necessary to fight for good, even if it’s difficult.

I don’t know if I could really navigate such difficult training on such a short timeline – but I like to think that if it was needed, I would try my hardest.

Frontier: As Intersectional as Feminism Can Be in the 1770s

Netflix and Discovery series Frontier explores the pluralistic conflicts defining Canada’s fur trade in the late 18th century. How does Frontier treat women’s history in a time where their social roles were especially limited?

Warning: this article contains light spoilers about character development and thematic events depicted in Frontier

By Serena Ypelaar

Last week we discussed how Netflix and Discovery series Frontier interprets the history of the fur trade in Canada during the late 18th century. Since it’s International Women’s Day, I’m back with Part II of the Frontier series, this time to talk about women’s roles in the show.

As you probably know if you’re into history or women’s studies (or if you’re aware of women’s rights movements such as intersectional feminism), women’s social roles were extremely restricted. Women couldn’t usually hold property and were usually made to marry to secure their future. With Indigenous women in North America, things were a bit different – certain Indigenous communities are matrilineal, meaning that women hold leadership positions rather than men. Indigenous groups still had/have gender-specific roles, but colonization marked a grim turn for women. Indigenous women were in many cases sold or “offered” to settlers as “country wives”, many being forced into non-consensual marriages.

Sokanon (Jessica Matten) dedicates her time to helping other women fight the effects of colonialism, such as forced marriages. The show tacitly parallels today’s ongoing issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Photo: Hypable

So with these often traumatic complexities in mind, how does Frontier interpret women’s history? With a great degree of respect and nuance, I’m happy to say.

Chaulk (Kathryn Wilder) poses as a man to survive on her own. Photo: TVMaze

Frontier explores new world realities for women in the 1770s without disempowering them. Characters with no income such as Clenna Dolan (Lyla Porter-Follows) and Chaulk (Kathryn Wilder) must adapt to survive, latching onto benefactors who prove to be manipulative; but they both demonstrate resilience and resourcefulness. I won’t drop a big spoiler, but there is one particular character whom I was indignant to see killed off before all her potential had been exercised. Yet for the most part in Frontier, we’re shown so many unique women with examples of strength and vulnerability (which are not mutually exclusive traits, I might add).

Prolific Indigenous actress Tantoo Cardinal plays Kamenna, chief of the Cree Lake Walkers who are integral trade partners to some of the fur traders. Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) runs her own company after the death of her husband, and she is a shrewd and calculating businesswoman. Josephette (Karen LeBlanc) steers the Brown Bros.’ company better than they do.

Clockwise from left: Kamenna (Tantoo Cardinal), Josephette (Karen LeBlanc), Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath), Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle).

Likewise, Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle) owns a Fort James tavern and uses intelligence as a form of power; she also literally wears the pants. I admit I underestimated her barmaid, Mary (Breanne Hill), thinking she’d be vapid as is often the case, but she proves to be fierce as heck, going so far as to attack and kill rapists who try to sexually assault women and girls in the tavern. Sokanon (Jessica Matten) also goes on a personal quest to save Indigenous women from being forcibly married off, and she and Mary join ranks (sisterhood!) to achieve their honourable cause.

Mary (Breanne Hill) and Sokanon (Matten) fight to escape a Christian convent preparing North American women, many of them Indigenous, to marry European settlers. Photo: FatherSonHolyGore

Some viewers might say “how are these roles accurate?” but if you honestly believe that women have taken centuries of oppression lying down and didn’t fight back, you’re mistaken. Frontier could go even further to establish their female characters’ nuanced experiences, but to the show’s credit it portrays women’s entrepreneurial talent, compassion, integrity, and ambition.

I said this last week and I’ll say it again – Frontier is by no means perfect. Nor is any interpretation of history, when you think about it, but the bigger question to consider is: does it treat the subject matter responsibly? As a woman who loves history, I feel that Frontier does.

Frontier: Harping on about Canadian History

Starring Jason Momoa, Frontier explores the pluralistic conflicts defining Canada’s fur trade in the late 18th century. From a historical and ethical perspective, how does Frontier’s cultural authenticity stack up?

Warning: this article contains light spoilers about events depicted in Frontier

By Serena Ypelaar

It’s often said that there are two sides to a story.

But that’s not true: there are many sides to a story, and Frontier proves it’s possible (though difficult) to tell them.

I’ve been waiting to write about Frontier since before The Mindful Rambler was founded. Anyone who knows me knows I have an enduring love for early Canadian history … and in 2016, Discovery Channel and Netflix miraculously created a television show about it! This is Part I of your Frontier article series.

Set in the late 18th century in what is now Canada, Frontier centres on locations such as Hudson Bay, James Bay, Montréal, Fort James, and the wilderness. Indigenous peoples have lived on the land since time immemorial, long before European settlers arrived – a fact which is starkly portrayed in the series. The show stars Jason Momoa (also Executive Producer) as Declan Harp, a half-Cree, half-Irish trader who, for deeply personal reasons, seeks to destroy the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)’s oppressive monopoly on the fur trade.

Jason Momoa plays Declan Harp, a half-Cree, half-Irish fur trader on a mission to topple the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly. Photo: ScreenerTV

There’s a plethora of “New World” films/shows out there, many of which are inevitably framed from the perspective of newly arrived colonial settlers. But it’s not inevitable to tell the story that way. Frontier is an example of what happens when you incorporate multiple perspectives and, crucially, spend time on authenticity. Though its storytelling and pacing is less than perfect, Frontier‘s diversity and inclusion is noteworthy and fairly well-done.

Indigenous and pluralistic representation

Today, Canada is populated by diverse cultural and linguistic groups, which was also the case during the 1770s. Frontier showrunners Brad Peyton, Rob Blackie, and Peter Blackie take care not to fall into the trap of depicting Indigenous peoples as one and the same – throughout its three seasons, we’ve seen Cree, Haudenosaunee, Métis, Inuit, and more nations – acknowledging that they do not comprise just one singular culture or identity.

Whenever I talk about Frontier and Jason Momoa playing an Indigenous man, people often ask “but isn’t he Hawaiian?”

“Yes, Momoa is part Native Hawaiian, but he’s also part Native American on his mother’s side,” I say. You’d be surprised how skeptically people react to that answer. There’s a definite issue with saying someone is not “_________ enough” to identify with their heritage (I know from experience, as a mixed individual). To say that anyone who is part First Nations, part Inuit, etc. isn’t “Indigenous enough” is akin to telling a mixed English/Scottish Canadian that they aren’t allowed to identify as Scottish. People who are part Indigenous are Indigenous and have a right to their culture.

Momoa is heavily invested in sharing the experiences of Indigenous peoples in North America. Though working in London at the time, he was vocal during the #NoDAPL protest in North Dakota in 2016; he also starred in Road to Paloma (2014), which exposes the systematic dangers to Indigenous women in the United States. And now, on Frontier, he’s helping portray Canadian history from an Indigenous vantage point. Momoa’s Instagram posts demonstrate how he advocates for Canadian history as I’ve never seen in another American. Momoa’s work in Frontier contributes to the preservation of Canadian history from multiple perspectives.

Frontier also emphasizes linguistic diversity. Métis/Saulteaux-Cree actress Jessica Matten, who plays Harp’s sister-in-law Sokanon, learned two specific Indigenous languages for the show:

I’m mainly speaking Swampy Cree and also Ojibway to reflect Sokanon’s eclectic upbringing, born an Ojibway woman but raised amongst Métis, Cree, Scottish, French people on Turtle Island [North America]

Jessica Matten, Instagram post

Matten also provided creative direction in depicting the sale of Indigenous women to white settlers (as “country wives”).  The portrayal of these realities mirrors today’s issues with missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Brother- and sister-in-law Harp (Momoa) and Sokanon (Jessica Matten). Photo: Edmonton Journal

In early North America, intermarriage also occurred and is portrayed in Frontier, another nod to authentic representation. Irish settler O’Reilly’s wife is Haudenosaunee (married under frankly sinister circumstances), and Sokanon and Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron)’s budding yet troubled romance reflects the effects of the influx of fur traders on traditional lands. Nevertheless, Indigenous women – and almost all the women on the show – are depicted not as helpless victims but as clever and resourceful fighters. Frontier doesn’t shy away from the HBC’s violent behaviour that caused lasting trauma and grief for Indigenous peoples either, as depicted in the opening of season three, when the HBC is shown raiding and assaulting a Métis village.

Even amidst the fur trading companies, pluralism is the name of the game. There’s Declan Harp’s Métis-fronted Black Wolf Company, working directly against the HBC. The Scottish Brown brothers (Allan Hawco, also Executive Producer, and Michael Patric) rival Carruthers & Co., managed formidably by Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) after her husband’s death. Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle) and Cobbs Pond (Greg Bryk) are Americans established in Montreal, and Michael Smyth, an impoverished Irish stowaway, joins Harp’s company. Englishman Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong), a fictitious governor of the HBC, is merciless and is given no leeway – on Frontier, the HBC is held accountable for its historical misdeeds.

Irish trader Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron), Harp’s protegée, with Sokanon (Matten). Photo: Rotten Tomatoes

The show flounders in its portrayal of Black loyalists in Canada, however. Charleston (Demetrius Grosse) flees from enslavement in the United States and falls in with Harp, but he is (SPOILER ALERT) the first to die in an overseas voyage – a typical trope in Hollywood movies (Black Dude Dies First trope). The two Black characters only play supporting roles; Josephette (Karen LeBlanc) is a close associate of Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) but eventually takes on the bulk of the company management when Elizabeth’s new husband Douglas Brown (Allan Hawco) drives it into the ground. If Josephette were given a larger role, her character could thrive in the limelight. 

A new Frontier for Canadian history

While Frontier is undeniably flawed, both in a storytelling/pacing sense and an accuracy sense, I think its merits outweigh its detractors. It illustrates (and popularizes) a long-distant era of Canadian history and emphasizes the facets of the fur trade economy. Most importantly, without glorifying colonialism, it depicts the conflicting interests of the different individuals and groups trying to live off the land – and in some cases, exploit it. It features Indigenous languages, celebrates women’s autonomy*, and inspires awe – there was a lot going on in the Hudson’s Bay region.

Warts and all, Frontier proves that Canadian history is by no means boring.

This article is part of a larger series discussing storytelling in the television show Frontier. As a mainstream adaptation of early Canadian history available worldwide, Frontier examines the pluralistic past and colonial legacies that still shape Canada today. Read the rest of the series here.

*Stay tuned for next week’s post!

I Hope It’s a Funny Depression

As the stigma around mental illness lessens, more and more comedies have begun to tackle the subject. We take a look at how humour can be a powerful way to express the inexpressible darkness of depression.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Why are funny people so sad? Sounds like the setup to a joke, but it’s a serious question.  Some studies have shown a link between stand-up comedy and depression, with one study suggesting comedians are more likely to have “psychotic traits” associated with schizophrenia and manic depression. There have certainly been a number of high-profile comedians who have struggled with mental illness or succumbed to it. Even putting those cases aside, many comedians find humour in really dark or serious material, pushing the boundary of what’s funny. Is it that naturally funny people are somehow more susceptible to mental illness? Or is there something about dark subject matter that lends itself to comedy?

I can’t speak to the accuracy of those studies and I’m definitely not suggesting that mental illness is a prerequisite to being funny or being an artist. But I can speak to my own experience. I was anxious and depressed for a long time, including most of high school. But if you took a look through my yearbook, you’d see that almost everyone, friend and acquaintance alike, echoed the same thing: I was really funny. That was, apparently, the lasting impression I left on people during one of the darkest periods of my life. So how do we reconcile laughter with loneliness and self-loathing?

There’s a theory of humour which states that humour comes from incongruity. That is, things are funny when they upend our expectations. And what could be more incongruous than a sad clown? A funny person who’s really broken inside?

Maybe it’s that unexpectedness that has led more and more comedies to depict mental illness. One of the best representations of depression I’ve ever seen, in fact, comes from a sitcom. You’re the Worst is about Jimmy and Gretchen, two self-destructive and, by all standards, awful people who fall in love and attempt to navigate a relationship. In its second season, though, You’re the Worst did something few comedies have tried, let alone in such a nuanced way. Gretchen, we find out, is clinically depressed. Rather than shy away from it, the show explored the reality of depression and of loving someone who can’t be “fixed,” and it did so in a way that was real and heartfelt without sacrificing its humour. That’s an extremely delicate balancing act.

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Gretchen (Aya Cash) day drinks, lashes out, and eventually opens up about being depressed in You’re the Worst. Photo: IMDb

You’re the Worst isn’t the only show to walk that tightrope in recent years. Bojack Horseman, an animated comedy series about a once-celebrated but now-disgraced TV star (who is also horse-man), gets similarly real about mental illness. As does the brilliant musical-comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which mines its protagonist’s mental illness as as source of comedy without ever reducing her to a punchline because of it. Even a blog like Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, published as a book in 2013, used humour and crude MS paint drawings to explore depression. Maybe that’s not enough to qualify as a trend, but I think there’s something potent about the combination of humour and darkness. There’s power in laughing at the things that haunt us.

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Mental illness is nuanced and requires equally nuanced representation (from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Photo: Giphy

So why is comedy such an apt vehicle through which to express sadness? I don’t really have an answer. But art is often about connecting with the experiences of others in ways that are transcendent and ineffable. Maybe encountering this particular experience through comedy can help us understand it better or just lessen the burden. Maybe it’s simply about finding light in something unbearably dark.