Netflix’s GLOW entices viewers in all sorts of ways: Its star, Alison Brie, is a draw of her own; it’s one of the few shows created and written almost entirely by women; and it’s based on the bizarre true story of an ’80s wrestling league with its own avid fans. As a scripted series telling a story of its own, perhaps you wouldn’t expect the realities of pro wrestling to also appeal, yet GLOW very faithfully portrays how the WWE and other (now-defunct) pro-wrestling leagues operate and appeal to fans. It’s an immensely enjoyable touch for pro-wrestling fans who have to seek out rumors or wait for the occasional leak to get any glimpse behind the scenes of the WWE.
The fact that GLOW is so honest about pro wrestling shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch are big fans, and this accuracy gives the series an added layer of depth beyond the idiosyncratic origin story of Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. By giving us an unvarnished look at the wrestling business, GLOW reckons with the troublesome peculiarities of the medium’s entertainment value — including its violent, childish, and sexist tendencies. What exactly does the show get right? Here are the standouts.
The Drug Abuse
Given the ’80s Southern California setting, it’s no surprise that GLOW’s hammy, disgruntled director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) has a cocaine problem. Nevertheless, drug use proves to be a minor yet important point for the series, indicating the rampant presence of drugs in pro wrestling. This goes beyond the obvious steroid use, which still rears its ugly head today, as drugs have bubbled under the surface for decades. The most apparent widespread drug use on the wrestling circuit allegedly took place in the ’80s and ’90s, with a backstage video from the National Wrestling Association’s 1988 “The Great American Bash” offering the most direct evidence. Throughout the 2000s, one of the WWE’s biggest wrestlers, Kurt Angle, was hooked on painkillers. Beloved wrestler Eddie Guerrero died from heart failure in 2005, and steroid use may have played a part in his death. Roman Reigns, the WWE’s most prized star, was reportedly suspended last year for taking Adderall. While Sam’s cocaine use on GLOW is more about period setting, it’s a reminder of one of the darker facets of pro wrestling.
Fake Fights, Real Risks
Watching the WWE requires a serious commitment to suspended disbelief, as moves are comically and elaborately cooperative. GLOW understands this heightened theatricality, showing moves that are preplanned, practiced, and staged for appearance. This makes sense given that the show employs real-life pro wrestler Chavo Guerrero Jr. — nephew to the late Eddie Guerrero — to train and practice with cast members. That doesn’t mean moves don’t hurt, however, as GLOW best exemplifies with Debbie (Betty Gilpin) practicing body slams with Ruth (Alison Brie). The physicality and embellishment of wrestling are a big reason why it can be so entertaining: The grandiose performances are enjoyable, while the threat of real pain appeals to viewers’ primal sensibilities. In GLOW, as in pro wrestling, we get both.
The Racist Personas
The current title holder on WWE Smackdown is Raj Singh Dhesi, a Canadian man of Indian descent. His wrestling name, however, is Jinder Mahal, and he spends much of his time in the ring shouting about how he is the modern-day maharaja, that America is failing, and that he and his home country of India are on the rise. This kind of racial and nationalistic exploitation, as GLOW understands painfully well, is one of the most unsettling aspects of professional wrestling, having gone on for decades with far too many examples to list here. Many personas veer into blatant racism, from hypersexualized black wrestlers to villainized foreignness and jingoistic threats to America. In GLOW, this troubling pattern is shown through the personas of Kia Stevens’s “Welfare Queen,” Sunita Mani’s “Beirut the Mad Bomber” and Ellen Wong’s “Fortune Cookie” characters. They emphasize the worst of white America’s fears, embodying stereotypes that couldn’t be further from reality, yet nevertheless play big roles in pro wrestling.
The Rampant Sexism
In the very first episode of GLOW, Sam remarks during an audition that he enjoys one woman’s “objectify me” vibe. Even if such candor is lacking in today’s WWE, the sexist objectification and derision of women has long been a staple of pro wrestling. Viewers only need to take a brief look to see the remarkably antiquated ways in which women are treated, often as property or second-class citizens. Up until a few years ago, women wrestlers were dubbed “Divas,” performing in lingerie while having pillow fights, and used as arm candy for their male counterparts. The WWE has recently made strides toward equality, fielding talented women wrestlers who battle in legitimate matches for titles, and even featuring wrestlers who don’t fit typical oppressive body standards. But there are still a litany of issues: Just last month, a man stepped in to win one of the biggest women’s matches in WWE history (though this match was later redone). By honestly adhering to the source material, GLOW better depicts the complex and difficult realities faced by many women in pro wrestling who simply wish to compete.
Earnesty Is Villainy
Over-the-top sincerity attracts particularly strong derision in pro wrestling. Just look at Roman Reigns: The WWE treats him as the next coming of the Rock, given how often he’s pushed as a champion, but many fans loathe him for his incessant overcommitment as a badass do-gooder. Even wrestling superstar John Cena has his detractors, as fans tire of how he’s always the earnest hero. In GLOW, we see a similar cycle play out: Ruth perceives herself as doing her best, but her goody-two-shoes attitude immediately rockets her to playing the top baddie.
The Best Material Is Real Life
When Sam learns that Ruth had an affair with Debbie’s husband — and Debbie takes out her anger in front of everyone at GLOW — he immediately tries to play it into a story angle, pitching Ruth as a home-wrecking monster against Debbie’s hero. That cavalier attitude may seem shocking, yet the WWE has been known to mine drama from the lives of its wrestlers. One of the most infamous instances happened in 2005, when wrestlers Matt Hardy and Lita broke up after she cheated on him with another wrestler. The WWE swiftly made the real-life conflict into live TV, pinning popular wrestler Edge as the story line’s bad guy. More recently, John Cena has been incredibly vocal about not wanting to propose to his girlfriend, fellow wrestler Nikki Bella, until the WWE spun their relationship into a feud with the Miz and Maryse. The rivalry led to a couples showdown at this year’s Wrestlemania, in which Cena and Bella won, with Cena promptly popping the question right afterward. GLOW understands the ethical quandary of this kind of manipulation, yet as the series does with many ugly qualities of pro wrestling, it exploits Ruth and Debbie’s shattered friendship for dramatic gain.