BAD TO THE BONE
The ‘Catfight’ Is Dead. Long Live the Kick-Ass Women of ‘GLOW.’
Women’s professional wrestling’s gleeful subversion of the male gaze is on full display in ‘GLOW,’ an excellent new Netflix series starring Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin.
Catfight. Girl fight. Broad brawl. Fighting between women has possessed a variety of euphemisms over the years as it’s been depicted in soap operas, daytime talk shows, and reality television. But as riveting as it might be to see Lisa Rinna hurl a champagne glass at Kim Richards on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, there’s always been something slightly demeaning about the endeavor. After all, these fights have their origin in the news media pitting women like Gloria Steinem and Phyllis Schlafly against one another in the ‘70s, and have always been filtered through the male gaze. As Susan J. Douglass described in her 1994 book Where the Girls Are, the appeal of the catfight was: “two women, often opposites, locked in a death grip that brought them both crashing down into the muck. Both women were sullied; no one won. Meanwhile, the men, dry, clean, and tidy, were off in some wood-paneled den relaxing, having a drink and a smoke, and being reasonable.”
But for every fight that seems fashioned to titillate men, there’s also the thrill women get from seeing a formidable woman take an opponent to the mat. Take the recent box office success of Wonder Woman. Or the ratings bonanza generated by fights between Joan Collins and Linda Evans on Dynasty. By the time Melrose Place rolled around in the ‘90s, catfights were not the pleasure of men—they were they pleasure of women. A surging female fan base showed that Melrose Place revealed: “women do not want to watch men fight each other with guns; they want to watch women fight each other with words.” But even so, the catfights of primetime television required stunt doubles (usually men in bad wigs) and still required women to brawl over the attention of a man.
Enter The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, or GLOW for short, which debuted in 1986. A cable television show devoted to professional women’s wrestling, it took all the trappings of the soap opera and pointed a funhouse mirror at it, producing an outrageous series full of sexy women, camp costumes, and hand-to-hand combat. But there were no stunt doubles here. The women battled just like men in the ‘80s wrestling boom, where wrestlers like Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, and World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon were superstars. Granted, women’s professional wrestling has been around since the 1930s, where communities of athletic women formed to share in their love of a sport that celebrated the human physique. But by the time wrestling became a popular, globally syndicated endeavor, it was a sport dominated by men with women wrestlers seen as nothing more than decoration.
Netflix’s new comedy series GLOW is a fictional take on the low-budget, ‘80s-grindhouse-style television series that catapulted women’s wrestling into the mainstream. Created by women Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, it stars Alison Brie as out-of-work actress Ruth Wilder, who stumbles into a wrestling show that’s being made on the fly. But Ruth’s problem is she’s thoroughly unlikeable, or rather “too real.” A casting director tells her: “I bring you in, so they can see that they don’t actually want the thing they think they want.” She’s having an affair with her best friend’s husband. She’s the anti-heroine of GLOW, which makes it hard for her to play likable on television—until she discovers wrestling.
The beauty of wrestling is that you're beloved because you're an athlete; because you can fly through the air; because you have a flamboyant costume. That works for you even if you’re unlikable, if you’re a villain. Because, as demonstrated by popular villainesses like Alexis Carrington and Amanda Woodward—who torture their enemies on Dynasty and Melrose Place, respectively—audiences love a messy bitch who lives for drama. In wrestling, that makes you a heel—the wrestler specifically booked to be an antagonist to the “face,” or the heroic protagonist of a wrestling match. In the ‘80s, the face is a good-looking, boy/girl next door, all-American type. The heel is usually an accented foreigner. Ruth discovers this as she embraces the persona of Zoya the Destroyer, a Russian villainess who hates democracy and wants to bring America to its knees (ah, Russia, eternally America’s no. 1 nemesis).
But what’s a heel to do without a face? GLOW brilliantly answers that with the introduction of Betty Gilpin as Ruth’s best friend, Debbie Eagan. Also an out-of-work actress, Debbie is the former star of the daytime soap opera Paradise Cove where she was placed into a coma for being too difficult on set (before being written out altogether). When she discovers Ruth is fucking her husband, she shows up at wrestling practice and tries to kick her ass—and suddenly the audience and the other wrestlers are on Debbie’s side. She was the housewife betrayed by her best friend. If Ruth is a heel, then Debbie is her face. They both need each other to succeed.
Debbie is mostly reluctant to take part in this, but as a soap opera actress, she understands that for a heroine to thrive, she needs a formidable nemesis. When Debbie is taken to her first wrestling match, the backstory of two wrestlers is explained to her until a light bulb goes off in Debbie’s head. She’s familiar with this kind of backstory, two men fighting over a woman, and how it leads to brainwashing. “This whole thing is a soap opera! I understand how to do that!” Debbie’s self-doubts are erased when she realizes that wrestling heavily relies on the tropes we see in soap operas—but it’s even more powerful because she won’t have to resort to merely slapping Ruth and then sobbing over the loss of her husband. In the wrestling ring, she can be just as seasoned as her nemesis.
I’d always understood the connection between soap operas and wrestling, having tuned in to wrestling after episodes of Passions in the 2000s, but I never quite understood what drew me to it (besides attractive men in Speedos) until I saw women’s wrestling. Superstars who often overshadow their male counterparts—particularly Sasha Banks, whose winning personality and star power (she recently walked the red carpet at the 2017 BET Awards) drew me back into wrestling—have shown that in a space where women are allowed to employ all of their strengths, their intelligence, emotions, and their bodies, something truly spectacular can happen. The sense of triumph I feel when watching Banks wrestle is the same thing I felt in the final match of GLOW’s first season, which made me leap to my feet and shout Yasss! on more than one occasion.
The series comes in the midst of a second wrestling boom. Following the original incarnation of GLOW, women’s wrestling stopped being a novelty but it still wasn’t taken seriously. Despite powerhouses like ‘90s wrestler Chyna with bodies that could bring you to your knees, women wrestlers were there to sell sex. The Women’s Championship title became defunct and the WWE Diva’s Championship was created, complete with a shiny pink belt. But last year, the WWE dropped the “Diva” title and implemented a new WWE Women’s Championship belt, with Banks battling for the hardware at WrestleMania.
GLOW could rest on its laurels as an ‘80s comedy about a ragtag group of women putting on a show while barely scraping by each week, but its greatest strengths are when it remembers that women’s bodies themselves are the reason we’re tuning it—not out of physical attraction, but for the political act of baring their mettle for rowdy, fist-pumping crowds. But GLOW largely succeeds because it understands the misogynistic roots of women quarreling with one another and turns it on its head. It allows for the thrill of soapy elements like a housewife confronting the homewrecker who fucked her husband, but makes the fight about far more than enticing men. The series innately understands why wrestling—and women’s wrestling in particular—is enjoyable. It’s like Michelangelo’s David: a marble sculpture that exists as a testament to the male physique, to heroism, and as a political statement. The act of presenting a woman at peak physical strength, fitted in a garment that’s not designed for the male gaze but to show off her muscular definition, is one of pop culture’s greatest political statements.