Netflix will soon premiere a TV show, GLOW, about a little known 1980s wrestling organization, but before it arrives let’s look at the 2012 documentary which inspired its existence: GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
All cards on the table: I grew up a wrestling fan. I had no choice in the matter. I lived in the heartland of America, and the only thing my grandpa ever seemed to watch on TV was wrestling or, as he pronounced it, “wrastlin.” Yep. Just 6-year-old me and my grandpa sitting together watching half-naked, roided-up dudes pretending to beat each other up in a ring, my grandpa drinking his beer the entire time and occasionally mumbling something like, “Damn Russians” (because this was the 80s and most WWF bad guys of the time were Russian). I completely believed it was all real, and by the time I was old enough to know better I was to invested in all of the characters to turn away. The last time I tuned in, though, John Cena was brand new and running with a shtick where he was a wannabe rapper. So, it’s been a while.
At no point throughout my wrestling fandom did I ever hear about GLOW, which was a syndicated TV show following the trials and tribulations of a Las Vegas-based all-ladies wrestling federation. Perhaps that’s because in the grand scheme of things GLOW was but a blip on the radar, just another failed promotion in a business full of them, especially after Vince McMahon transformed the WWF from a regional promotion into a national juggernaut. GLOW’s rise coincided with the WWF’s, but it only lasted 4 seasons (1986-1990) before an abrupt and unexplained cancellation came down from the financial backers despite skyrocketing ratings and increasing mainstream exposure.
Sadly, the people – GLOW creator David McLane, director Matt Cimber and producer Meshulam Ricklis – who would actually know the full story behind this ignominious end (might have been for tax reasons, might have been because Ricklis’ wife Pia Zadora suspected he was sleeping with the girls) refused to be interviewed for the documentary. So, director Brett Whitcomb interviewed a handful of the former wrestlers as well as the show’s former head writer, trainer and referee, and used their talking head segments along with a plethora of archival footage to piece together a story that sounds oddly familiar:
- A group of women living in an especially sexist time manage to break into a male-dominated field and succeed, scoring one for feminism even though behind the scenes their lives were still very much dictated by the men in charge.
- Sadly, though, their success is short-lived, and comes to an especially cruel end.
- But they get together decades later for a reunion where they all sing a silly little song which was used in the promotion of their sport back in the day but now has considerably more emotional resonance to them.
It’s basically A League of Their Own but set in the 80s, with wrestling in place of baseball and real instead of fictional (noting, of course, that League of Their Own is based on a real thing, but its characters are all composites or completely fictional). GLOW is even better in some ways, though, because very few of the these women were wrestlers. They were mostly aspiring models and actresses who showed up for a casting call and decided to stay when they were told they would be auditioning to become wrestling characters. It’s thus a story about women thinking outside the box in their efforts to get ahead in the world, and looking back on it years later with a love for their fellow sisters, mixed emotions for their male trainers and co-workers who were often very controlling and ninja-level sexist and conflicted views on the long-term damage wrestling did to their bodies.
One weakness of the documentary, though, is that if you come to it unfamiliar with how a typical episode of GLOW would go (or how it would compare to a WWF/WCW show of the time) you leave it with roughly the same level of uncertainty. There is a considerable amount of archival footage of GLOW’s various vaudeville-esque skits and matches, which are often wince-inducing to behold because…[shudders]…so, so 80s in every way, but it’s par for the course for wrestling of the time. However, what was everyone wrestling for? Were their belts? Apparently there was a tiara which we see at the very end of the doc. How were the pre-taped sitcom-style sketches integrated into the show? How in the world did Jackie Stallone figure into all of this? Simply put, what would it have been like to watch an episode of GLOW in the 80s? Was this a precursor to the more storyline-based Monday Night Raw the WWF would soon unleash into the world?
Moreover, while the doc makes a token effort at explaining the pre-GLOW history of female wrestling it stops before it’s even really started, seemingly hamfisted by a low budget and inability to afford the rights to footage from other promotions. They couldn’t have at least mentioned Andy Kauffman’s famous proclivity for going to various regional wrestling promotions and challenging women in the crowd (usually plants) to wrestle him?
These are but minor quibbles, though, for what is an otherwise fascinating and entertaining cultural history of a group of women who, for a short time, ran wild over the wrestling world. It’s not hard to see why Orange is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan picked GLOW to be her second Netflix series or why Alison Brie and Marc Marcon signed on to play two of the main characters. There is an inherent drama to this story which is too rich to ignore.
For the record: My grandpa probably never watched GLOW. He was a WCW/WWF man, and lady wrestlers didn’t really become a serious thing in either of those organizations until the mid-to-late 90s. But some of those impressive acrobatic moves which launched future WWE Hall of Famers like Lita and Trisha Stratus were being practiced in GLOW a decade earlier by a bunch of actresses who found wrestling preferable to dealing with the bullshit sexism and casting couches of Hollywood.
GLOW, the documentary, is on Netflix (and YouTube) right now. GLOW, the show, premieres in its entirety next Friday (6/23).