The real story of Netflix’s GLOW: when comedy, Cold War politics and wrestling collide

Netflix's new series plays on many of the outrageous 80s stereotypes seen in the real female wrestling show Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling – and reminds us that wrestling is as much about propaganda as punching

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At one point in the latter stages of Netflix’s fantastic women’s wrestling series GLOW, Ruth Wilder (played by Mad Men’s Alison Brie) goose-steps into the ring wearing an ushanka. She is carrying a boombox, which is playing a Russian tune, but the noise is drowned out by thunderous boos from the audience.

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“I will neuter your pet dogs, and fill your swimming pools with borscht!” she screams at a predominantly male crowd.

Her opponent Debbie (Betty Gilpin), a tall, stunning blonde sporting a stars and stripes leotard, isn’t convinced. “It’s over Zoya,” she says, “Americans will never give up their freedom”. The crowd roars in approval.

Such is the set-up for GLOW’s underlying satire of a familiar phenomenon: professional wrestling as propaganda.

For the most part, this political thread is all fun and games for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Unlike its sister show Orange is the New Black (GLOW is produced by OITNB creator Jenji Kohan), GLOW is very much at the comedy end of the ‘dramedy’ spectrum.

It follows a group of out-of-work actresses who take a gamble on an ambitiously pitched ladies wrestling show run by a washed-up B-movie director and a wealthy, boyish wrestling fanatic. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZqDO6cTYVY?ecver=1

Creators Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive were inspired by a real-life women’s wrestling programme of the same name that became a cult hit in 1980s USA. It was pretty low budget and very camp. At various stages, the group of predominantly white wrestlers rapped smack-talking verses directly to the camera. It is perhaps the whitest, most 1980s thing ever to be caught on camera.

Though it was created by men, the women who took part in the series fell in love with it, and felt empowered by embodying these braggadocious characters.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cK_qd3ev5w?ecver=1

Like its male counterparts at the time, the original GLOW made a distinct effort to blend politics into the narratives, in order to incite a response from the audience. Unsurprisingly, given the high levels of anxiety surrounding the Cold War at the time, it worked.

One of the shows most popular wrestlers, a cigar-smoking, America-hating Russian called Ninotchka, was the inspiration for Brie’s Zoya the Destroyer, a character born from her protagonist’s desperate scramble to prove her worth to her director. It’s the female equivalent of Rocky IV, the heavily politicised fourth instalment of the boxing drama in which Rocky Balboa takes on brutal, genetically-engineered Russian villain Ivan Drago.

But it wasn’t just the Russians who faced vilification.

In the new show, Arthie (Sunita Mani), a second generation Indian immigrant, is encouraged to play a Muslim from Lebanon called “The Terrorist”. Then there’s Welfare Queen, played by real-life wrestler Kia Stevens. She prides herself on being lazy, living on benefits and wasting the government’s money.

Mani’s “Terrorist” character, like Zoya, is based on a real-life GLOW character known as Palestina, a wrestler from Damascus, Syria, who would carry a sword into the ring and stomp on the American flag. In one grainy YouTube clip, the announcer comments: “Palestina’s next move might have been to attack the audience with some kind of automatic weapon”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZSQuVgbPfE?ecver=1

If you’ve ever watched WWE (formerly WWF), this kind of jingoistic bravado may ring a bell. Over the last 60 years, the wrestling giant has mined the depths of America’s cultural stereotypes and political anxieties to enhance the spectacle and rouse the audience.

Take, for example, the Iron Sheik, an Iranian who, in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in the 1970s, would condemn western culture and spit on the American flag. More recently, in the wake of September 11th, a Muslim character called Muhammad Hassan was introduced, preaching a rather salient point about Islamophobia which fell on deaf ears. Along the way he disparaged the troops fighting in Afghanistan, and professed his hatred for the American way of life. The crowd would seethe with rage as soon as he appeared, so in a theatrical sense, it worked. But ultimately, as wrestling blurs the line between sport and theatre, this just managed to increase tensions in a fractured society. 

While GLOW finds humour in the absurdity of its characterisations, it does not take them lightly. Towards the end of the series some of the characters are forced to consider the knock-on effects of embodying stereotypes as villains. In one match, the hatred from the audience is palpable, and Arthie is spat on and called a “towelhead”. After the match, she appears traumatised by the reaction.

Dismayed by her own characterisation, the Welfare Queen (who’s real name is Tamee) confronts Sam Sylvia.

“It’s offensive,” she tells him.

Sylvia, a B-movie director who has reluctantly taken on the job to securing funding for his next film, hits back. “That’s the genius of it,” he claims. “It’s sort of a f**k you to the Republican Party, and their welfare reform and race-baiting s**t.”

“Yeah, but will other people know that?” Tamee asks.

The question remains salient as professional wrestling continues to turn to politics to find its big ticket baddies. In the Mexican equivalent of WWE, the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, the most-hated villain is a Trump-supporting American called Sam Adonis, who wears a pair of tights with the US president’s face emblazoned on the side.

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One publication called him “the most hated man in Mexico”. And they say wrestling is fake…