The Netflix series evolved TV in an essential way
The intro to GLOW — for those who resist the “Skip Intro” button — treats viewers to a group of neon-clad wrestlers gearing up for battle, all to the tune of Patty Smyth’s “The Warrior.” As they slip on their hairspray-fortified, shiny stretch armor, they smash, cheer, and fight, every blow rippling across the screen.
The title sequence and glitzy premise put combat in the spotlight, but GLOW, unceremoniously canceled earlier this week after a previous renewal, was more than the banging 1980s soundtrack or the loud outfits. Essentially a workplace dramedy with metallic spandex, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s series allowed the time and space to seriously consider the relationships of women; those they pursue and nurture, and those they unearth in the most unlikely places. Each episode was part of an ongoing shift in a culture learning to accept and acknowledge the depth of female friendship.
Too often, female friendships get the short shrift in the media; either they’re portrayed as toxic, leading the women to cut bait, or they’re nothing but wholesome, save for a single fight to be solved with a spackle of understanding. Shows like Parks and Recreation, Friends, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and New Girl all paint friendship between women as easy compatibility, rarely challenged by life events. No matter how lovely the friendships within these shows are, their comedy rarely had the bandwidth for the full range of female friendship, let alone verbiage for the long road to resolution after a blow-out fight.
Today, with more women behind the scenes in creator and writer roles, grappling with the intricacies of female relationships has become more vital to TV shows that show the full heft of female friendships. Shows like Insecure, Broad City, and Grace and Frankie show, not just how fulfilling a life between two women can be, but what happens when turmoil throws that connection out of sync and affects the ability to connect. In these stories, friendship is more than just a bond, it’s a fluid relationship, full of ups and downs and all the developments in between.
Photo: Erica Parise/Netflix
GLOW was a show that anchored itself in this space, complicating the notion of both personal and professional friendship. In the pilot, struggling actress Ruth (Alison Brie) scores a spot on the titular (in-universe) wrestling league at the same time as her friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin) discovers she’s slept with her husband. Once Debbie also joins GLOW, the two are forced to find a way to work together; Debbie takes on the role of the All-American hero, Liberty Belle, and Ruth becomes her heel, Zoya the Destroyer.
Unlike more traditional sitcom TV, their relationship is not simply boiled down to “frenemies” or “cattiness.” Rather, they are treated with the weight and respect that most women feel friendships between women deserve, even when they’ve gone sour. Their jobs mean neither is in the position to simply give up on the friendship because it’s hard, even with just cause but neither particularly wants to. As Ruth points out, Debbie could’ve walked away after slapping her. She chose to come back to the show.
The wrestlers’ connection is thorny, but compelling, and each shift is rooted deeply in their characters and choices. In the pilot we see their natural patterns start to show the cracks: Ruth’s the people pleaser, and Debbie’s the golden girl. Debbie “has it all” and wants to help by combing through Ruth’s unhappiness; Ruth’s insecurity turns to resentment so deep-seated that she can’t even explain why she sabotages the relationship. They’re at very different places in their lives, and their inability to connect debilitates their friendship. Over time their cold war begins to thaw, but their emotional intimacy is never completely unguarded. Even as they discuss being able to complete a routine, Debbie is annoyed that Ruth won’t ask why it didn’t work the first time. Yet, Debbie still won’t offer the information up.
Photo: Ali Goldstein/Netflix
The writers of GLOW never really stake a claim about whether one is more right than the other. With matters of friendship, the butting of heads is rarely black-and-white. Their out-of-the-ring brawls were beautifully rendered because you can see the cracks so clearly even as they are blind to them. Instead, GLOW lets their complicated friendship eke out what it can, leaving moments for quiet character growth between the two wrestlers fumbling their way to some sort of working out of their grievances. Their path to healing isn’t as straightforward as a triumphant season arc; in the final moments of season 1, Debbie turns down Ruth’s offer for a drink, even after leaving her husband. “We’re not there,” she tersely spits out. What GLOW intuitively understands is that these women will always have their challenges, but they’re willing to accept that and attempt friendship anyway, difficult as it may be at times.
Over three seasons, the drama spiraled out from just the white women at its center. By nature of the real-life wrestling history GLOW draws from, most of the cast is forced to wrangle with stereotypes, and adopt them as their personas for the sake of easy characterization of the in-universe audience. Early on, these characters, many of them women of color, veer toward the pitfalls of television storytelling, where camaraderie oozes out as a byproduct of closeness, and glosses over any real difficulty. Slowly but surely, characters like Cherry (Sydelle Noel), Arthie (Sunita Mani), and Jenny (Ellen Wong) each challenge how they are perceived by the other girls, and stand up for their whole identity. While it often still favored white characters, the thrust of GLOW was clear: friction sparks, and is talked through.
GLOW’s third season brought the wrestling act to Vegas, using the change in scenery as a tight metaphor for arrested development and the discombobulation that comes from stepping foot in a casino. And yet, in the sixth episode, “Outward Bound,” GLOW shows how Debbie, Ruth, and the entire gang’s relationships have evolved. Debbie has found a friend in fellow-working mom, Tammé; Ruth and Sheila have always had a soft acceptance that makes them both feel safe; Yolanda tells Arthie that friendships with straight people will mean dealing with internalized homophobia; Melrose and Jenny understand each other’s history with violence in a way that makes resolution possible; Carmen and Rhonda tentatively talk boys. Everyone commits to forging friendships anyway. For a TV show hoping to say something deeper about female relationships, it’s a true flex.
Photo: Erica Parise/Netflix
The fictional gorgeous ladies of wrestling will ever be secure enough to be a “family,” free of blemishes and strained feelings. But it’s that understanding that makes GLOW feel so refreshing: In a culture that so often talks down to or diminishes the role of friendship in women’s lives, Flahive and Mensch acknowledge their power over us, for better or worse. The connections these women make inform the show they build, affect their self esteem, build them up, and tear them down. When Ruth is in the hospital for a fractured ankle, she acknowledges that her bonds are just as important as the professional experience: “It’s not [just a TV show] to me. I have people now — people who come with me to the ER, people who care if I’m hurt.”
At the end of the day — and certainly at the end of these pandemic days — having people who care is all any of us can really hope for. GLOW was part of a crop of shows that saw friendship as just as vital to women as love interests (if not moreso). And the storytelling made friendships as dynamic as the wrestling bouts, gripping and developing with every step, integral to the very fabric of the show. These relationships may be professional or deeply personal. But there was always room for negotiation, for growth, for love in the friendships of GLOW.
More than just ending on a cliffhanger, losing the series means losing a show that understood that women need to be seen as friends and confidants, flaws and all. It’s a reflection women deserve to see more often, and without GLOW the already sparse landscape feels that much more empty.