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GLOW’s Radical Message About Loving Problematic Art

Photo: Erica Parise/Netflix

In the first season of Netflix’s GLOW, the show-within-the-show’s trust-fund producer Bash Howard (Chris Lowell) explains that pro wrestling is all about archetypes, except what he really means to say is broad stereotypes. Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, he explains, depends on characters that conform to and reinforce existing cultural ideas: the tall blonde is the all-American hero, the short brunette is the Russian villain, the girl who dresses like a she-wolf is a She-Wolf. Meanwhile, the show’s women of color are expected to assume roles that play into the most offensive assumptions about their race. Cambodian-American Jenny Chey (Ellen Wong) plays Fortune Cookie, an exaggerated martial artist. Indian-American Arthie Premkumar (Sunita Mani) plays a Middle Eastern terrorist named Beirut the Mad Bomber. Tammé Dawson (Kia Stevens), a black single mother, plays Welfare Queen, a lumbering Reaganite nightmare. “It’s not a judgment,” Bash insists. “It’s just what I and the entire world see with our eyes.”

From the beginning, GLOW creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch strove to examine how the original women’s wrestling show — the one that actually aired in the ’80s and inspired the Netflix series — walked a fine line between empowerment and exploitation. The series’ high-camp style often sexualized or otherwise objectified the wrestlers, a blatant appeal to a predominantly male demographic. On the other hand, the in-ring routines were great showcases for the actresses, and their strong physical expression gained a loyal following among women. The performatively positive and culturally negative elements of the original G.L.O.W. fed into each other. In a Rolling Stone interview last year, Mensch explains that they wanted to tackle that porous boundary between entertainment and minstrelsy. “That tension was something we never wanted to resolve,” she says. “We wanted to keep it alive and use it as the motor for a lot of our storytelling.”

The Netflix series’ first season cleverly kept that tension in the background, preferring to play up the characters’ willful participation and how it functioned as a makeshift support group for wayward, aimless people. But GLOW did tackle the issue in a couple of key moments. Tammé expressed her concerns with the offensive nature of the Welfare Queen character to director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), who assuaged her fears by relying on his discomfiting work in low-budget exploitation horror films and asserting that it’s racial commentary. (“It’s sort of a fuck you to the Republican Party and their welfare reform and race-baiting shit!” he exclaimed.) Meanwhile, when Arthie made her debut as Beirut the Mad Bomber, it prompted a group of racists to hurl insults and a beer can at her. In a brief post-match scene, a shaken Arthie noted that the audience really hated her in the ring. The offhanded way GLOW’s first season addressed the elephant in the room made it that much more poignant: First and foremost, the show must go on, but that doesn’t mean that the pervasive discomfort with these gimmicks suddenly vanishes or isn’t reflected upon privately.

In the second season, however, GLOW moves that political tension into the foreground. Though it was inevitable that the series would eventually confront the elephant in the room, the execution underscores the series’ nonjudgmental, open-minded approach to its characters’ relationship with politics. In Arthie’s case, she tries to transform her Beirut character into a literal phoenix rising from the ashes, only to have her idea stolen by Stacey and Dawn (Kimmy Gatewood and Rebekka Johnson) who want to shed their “Biddie” wrestling personas. She eventually finds some satisfaction by crafting a sympathetic backstory for Beirut and choreographing an intimate dance routine with the openly gay stripper turned wrestler Yolanda (Shakira Barrera). Archie’s small onscreen victory leads to a burgeoning romantic relationship with Yolanda and some minor agency over the caricature assigned to her. Late in the season, she reveals to Sam that she failed out of medical school, presumably because of her commitment to G.L.O.W. and a character she openly despises; a show that actively treats her ethnicity with contempt makes her happier than complying with her parents’ expectations that she become a doctor. Catharsis arrives in the strangest of forms.

The season also dedicates almost an entire episode to the myriad complications of playing a racist stereotype, with Welfare Queen as its focus. When Tammé visits her son Ernest (Eli Goree) at Stanford University for parents’ weekend in “Mother of All Matches,” a white middle-aged fan recognizes her as her wrestling persona. Ernest, believing that his mother still worked as a coordinator on Family Feud, initially expresses outrage at a stranger calling his mother a “welfare queen,” which eventually evolves into concern that a white director is taking advantage of his black mother for a mostly white audience. “It’s a wrestling show. I’m not the only offensive character,” Tammé protests. “Everyone’s offensive.” This line of reasoning doesn’t exactly wash with a young black college student whose classmates regularly mix him up with the other, lighter-skinned black kid in his engineering class.

Tammé’s initial embarrassment pales in comparison to her full-body humiliation when Ernest actually watches her wrestle. GLOW previously established Welfare Queen as a powerful, popular heel, a character that the audience looks forward to reveling in her lazy and contemptuous attitude. That popularity allowed Tammé, an actress who mostly did extra work on Knots Landing and Gimme a Break!, a chance to actually have a role for once, one that even has something of a following. Welfare Queen buttresses culturally harmful ideas about African-Americans, but Tammé’s performance has intentionality beyond the trappings of her character, including but not limited to literally throwing a white princess across a ring.

Unfortunately, Tammé’s nuanced understanding of her role in G.L.O.W. falls away when she sees her son’s ashamed and enraged expression as the crowd chants, “Get a job!” after Welfare Queen loses to Liberty Belle. Episode directors Mark A. Burley and John Cameron Mitchell draw out her loss for maximum secondhand embarrassment, focusing on the uncomfortable parallel close-ups between Stevens and Goree amid the collective fervor. Liberty Belle pours fuel onto the fire by claiming Welfare Queen has “many, many kids,” but because of the “hope in her heart,” she has decided to help her rival get an entry-level position at a fast-food restaurant. The irony is chilling: The woman playing Welfare Queen has held multiple jobs and raised a child all on her own, a feat that the woman playing Liberty Belle will never come close to accomplish. But what the crowd sees is good versus evil across the nation’s worst impulses writ large — a white American princess proudly shaming a lazy, unemployed black woman. It sends Tammé running out of the ring in tears.

Even after all that, Ernest still takes pride in his mother. He takes offense with the character, but he also admits it’s thrilling to see her exhibit such powerful physical and emotional strength. It’s telling that credited writer Kim Rosenstock doesn’t end the episode with Debbie, Bash, or any of the other actresses learning about the ills of racism (after all, the participants acknowledge the racism, it’s just a part of the act), or vowing to change the Welfare Queen character, or anything resembling a woke fantasy. The status quo remains unchanged. Welfare Queen lives on. But there’s a tacit acknowledgment by a mother and a son of some beauty amid the messy complications, without allowing one to negate the other.

By wholly refusing to resolve these thorny sociopolitical conflicts, GLOW has become a potent text about embracing problematic art. At a basic level, the show-within-the-show amounts to “G-rated, girl-on-girl in a one piece” (according to Yolanda), but it’s also a vehicle for a group of women to reclaim their strength and forge familial bonds. It’s a show that routinely trafficks in racial stereotypes that engage with its audience’s nastiest assumptions, and yet it also provides a stage for those same marginalized voices to be seen at all. Obviously, the original G.L.O.W. is not the ceiling for female or racial representation — the existence of Netflix’s GLOW is clear evidence of that fact — but its blind spots shouldn’t warrant blanket dismissal either. Flahive and Mensch have not only crafted a comedy about finding value where you would least expect, but also about championing that value, warts and all.

GLOW’s Radical Message About Problematic Art