A Ring of Their Own

The wacky, warm, estrogen-heavy family of GLOW.

Five cast members of GLOW.
GLOW Netflix

GLOW, Netflix’s ’80s period series about female wrestlers, premiered last summer when I was on maternity leave. Already feeling more than slightly bovine, I would watch it and imagine myself a very contented ungulate grazing in her natural habitat, free to watch what she liked and only what she liked, in the amount that she pleased. I liked GLOW. I liked the summer-camp vibe of its female ensemble. I liked how it felt like summer more generally: warm, a little meandering, good company.

Watching the second season of GLOW, with the intent focus of a sun-deprived, poorly sighted mole rat— that, of course, is the animal I feel like when I’m a TV critic—only made me like it more. GLOW has the narrative propulsion of a romance, but without any romance, only the fractured friendship between its two leads, Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin). One of GLOW’s preferred moves, in fact, is to take something that usually involves men—be it romance, wrestling, ’80s sports underdogs, large dramatic ensembles— and make it work without them, or with just a few of them. (Structurally speaking, GLOW and A League of Their Own match up very well, and Marc Maron, who plays surly director Sam Silva, is in the Tom Hanks role.)

The first season found Ruth, an eager, earnest actress who was never cast in anything, getting the best part of her life in the local TV show GLOW, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, the brainchild of a goofy billionaire Bash Howard (Chris Lowell). She joined a rag-tag, racially diverse group of women—non-actors and other struggling thespians—who were now being asked to embrace the stereotypes that had so often kept them from being respected in the first place. Behind the scenes of the show within the show, the Gorgeous Ladies are an inclusive female-centric community, but they sell themselves to the outside world by playing on oversimplified archetypes and the appeal of the catfight. The women of GLOW use their ethnicities, races, body types, and high-strung brunette theater kid energy to vamp in the ring as, among other things, a welfare queen, an old lady, a terrorist, and a communist—all of whom will eventually be bested by Liberty Bell, Debbie’s buxom, blond, flag-wearing, very white avatar of jingoistic America.

Their in-ring roles reduce complicated women to simplified cartoons. In this way the wrestling personas are the exact opposite of the roles on Netflix’s GLOW, which are the kind of rich, meaty, more-than-just-likeable parts that actresses always wish they could find. Gilpin’s Debbie is first among equals. As the show began, Debbie, a mother and wife, had been wronged by her best friend Ruth, who had slept with her husband; they then acted out this good girl–bad girl dynamic in the ring. But marriages and friendships are complicated, and Debbie is more than just a wronged party. Debbie, we learn, often feels good by feeling better than the other women around her; but she’s having a hard time—lonely, angry and going through a divorce as she is—feeling better than anyone. So she isolates herself from her female colleagues while getting iced out by her male ones. She’s irritated and impatient and mean and funny and, occasionally, very sympathetic, and Gilpin plays it straight, not looking to sweeten any of Debbie’s sour notes.

One of the best fights of the season (and despite GLOW’s best efforts, I still don’t care very much for wrestling) takes place between Liberty Bell and “The Welfare Queen,” aka Tamme (real wrestler Kia Stevens), the only other mother in the cast. Debbie and Tamme are friends, or at least warm colleagues, and they’ve both had doozies of a day. Debbie impetuously sold all her furniture and forgot her son at day care; Tamme visited her son at Stanford and now he’s in the audience to watch her play a grotesque stereotype, though she wishes he weren’t.

The crowd is initially with Liberty Bell, as it’s supposed to be, taking pleasure in her degradation of an uncowed black woman. But Liberty Bell goes too far—she insults the Welfare Queen so much that it begins to sour the crowd. (Chants of “Get a job,” “Get a job” peter out.) It’s not so much that the crowd begins to see Welfare Queen as a person—though, it is a little bit of that, especially after she runs out of the ring, mortified—but that Liberty Bell has behaved in an un-ladylike way. She has crossed the Anne Hathaway line, the invisible point at which a woman becomes too sure of herself, too cocky, and suddenly and irrevocably seems like an overdog: annoying, presumptuous, and unbearable. GLOW is aware of the hierarchy of privilege, of the way race and racialized beauty standards have secured Debbie and Liberty Bell the highest status in the ring and backstage—but that status is still provisional. Suddenly, Debbie is alone in ring, the crowd against her, Gilpin’s eyes darting helplessly about, the fourth wall cracked by a woman who has overstepped.

GLOW is a workplace drama, and despite the oddity of that workplace its gendered dynamic is very familiar: A dozen women work for a handful of men, who find the women they employ if not downright annoying then either fuckable or ignorable. (That billionaire Bash never quite treats the women this way is one part of an ambiguous storyline that raises questions about his own sexuality.) Season 2 features a predatory network executive, but it cares less about sex than about work. At the start of the season, Sam, curmudgeonly on a good day, behaves like a straight-up bleephole, summarily firing a woman and cruelly ostracizing Ruth for her ambition, her talent, and her leadership. Meanwhile, he refuses to listen to or even pretend to respect Debbie, despite the executive producer title she has procured for herself. Both Ruth and Debbie are forced, in their ways, to coddle him—to apologize, to bring him candy, to thrill at whatever he offers—until he comes around.

Sam is self-aware: He knows he’s being cruel to Ruth for his own selfish, insecure, competitive reasons. GLOW gives him a little too much credit for this self-knowledge, turning him back into a loveable lug by the last few episodes. But at least it avoids the pitfall so many other shows would of mistaking his bad behavior for game. He may get off easy, but he doesn’t get off, and thank goodness for that. (This season of GLOW, unlike the first, does have an honest-to-goodness romantic storyline that is very adorable while also being sane and healthy, which you don’t see all the time.)

In addition to being a sports show and a workplace show, GLOW is also a theater show—a show about making a show. The GLOW within GLOW has low ratings and throughout the season, the cast tries to save it from cancellation: to boost viewership, to save it from a terrible time slot, to find it a new home. GLOW provides a kind of meta-answer for why it’s OK that in the era of peak TV shows aren’t cancelled anymore, and it has nothing to do with the audience—it has to do with the cast and crew, with the people making something together. The characters on GLOW have formed a wacky estrogen-heavy family, and they don’t want to give up the best job they’ve ever had. So they don’t. The season ends quoting the ending of The Graduate—Ruth on a bus, wondering what the hell she’s gotten herself into. For us, luckily, it’s Season 3.