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Content warning for discussion of racial stereotypes and sexual assault.
Mild spoilers for the first half of GLOW season two.
I adored the first season of GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling), Netflix’ 80s-set comedy about a low-rent, ladies-only pro wrestling show. It was funny and often sweet, with lovable characters, wacky antics, and just enough commentary on the pervasive racism and sexism of the art form (and the era, not that much is different in those departments today).
But season two, which I’m just about halfway through at this point, packs a much harder punch.
All of the characters are back: Ruth, the irrepressible “serious actress” who plays the Evil KGB Agent Zoya; Debbie, the former soap star who plays the All-American Liberty Belle, Sheila the She-Wolf, Britannia, the world’s “smartest woman.” There’s Tamme, a black woman who plays the “Welfare Queen,” on par for the most offensive racial stereotype with Beirut, whose entire character is that she’s a Middle-Eastern Terrorist. Or Jenny, who plays a ninja named “Fortune Cookie." Despite her character and name, she's neither Japanese nor Chinese, but is in fact Cambodian.
In fact, most of the women of color on the show play stereotypical characters that make them wildly uncomfortable.
That’s the thing: in the first season, there was plenty of discussion about the stereotypes and how they’d play on the stage. Were they mere fodder for the cultural machine that reinforces those tropes, or were they biting, brilliant commentary, as the show’s director, Sam, (an incorrigible asshole and giant sexist in his own right) maintains? But season two, thus far, has a much, much keener idea of how damaging and shitty those caricatures are, especially if there’s no actual commentary being presented. And if the world accepts them so readily as reality.
One scene in an early episode cements this. Tamme has been keeping her new job a secret from her son, a successful engineering student at Stanford University. She’s so proud of him that she runs around in a Stanford sweatshirt, and drives hours and hours to visit him on parents’ weekend. When a fan blows her cover, he demands to see the show, so he appears for a taping of a big match between The Welfare Queen and Liberty Belle—setup, of course, for the All-American white girl to kick ass and demand that the Queen get a low-wage job.
It’s excruciating. Tamme, who, at many points during the series, explains (to herself as much as to others) that her character is an over-the-top, offensive stereotype meant to be commentary, is mortified. Her son, who has to deal with white students who mistake him for the other black dude who looks nothing like him in the program, is almost in tears, particularly by the end of the match where Liberty Belle brings out an apron and a broom, and leads the audience in a chant of “get a job!”
A lot of weight is also given to the ladies’ struggles to make it in a hyper-masculine world—not just with pro wrestling, but with the Hollywood machine. Debbie, a successful star whose home life is falling apart, has been made a producer, and she goes above and beyond, everyday, to make the men respect her. They don’t, not even a little.
She is hardened by her experiences.
In one of the most difficult episodes to watch of the early season, she responds to the most #MeToo scene with excruciating, heartbreaking anger. Briefly, Ruth was propositioned and groped by a high-level producer. She runs away, and the show is endangered. Instead of sympathizing with her friend and colleague for being literally assaulted, she chastises her for not playing along, blaming her for the show’s troubles.
When Ruth tearfully declares that it’s not right, Debbie goes into the most heartbreaking speech in all of the show (thus far!), speaking to the power differential between men and women in Hollywood that we're only just beginning to confront in 2018. The life of an actress in 1985, even a successful one, was dire. The speech is especially poignant for how contemporary it would still be today.
I have several episodes to go in the series, but I appreciate the increased focus on the lives of its characters and just how fucked their worlds are, thanks to systemic oppression. GLOW never shied away from the issues, exactly, and it still has plenty of wild sight gags and humor and outrageous antics. But it’s showing, with increased urgency, just how much it cares about these women and their struggles.