On February 9th, 1989 WWE owner Vince McMahon changed the landscape of professional wrestling forever when he testified to the New Jersey state senate that his business wasn’t a legitimately contested sport like boxing, but instead a scripted stage show with a predetermined outcome. It was hardly a world shaking revelation to the outside world, but it had a wide range of effects that are still being felt to this day.
McMahon’s motivation was to see pro wrestling deregulated and thus no longer subject to the fees and stipulations of state athletic commissions, saving himself a considerable amount of money, but it also opened the doors to smaller promotions who couldn’t afford the associated costs of regulation and created a permanent psychic split in how the world viewed the sport.
The real life GLOW debuted three years too early to have been affected by either prong of the outcome of McMahon’s testimony, but the current Netflix series loosely based on it lives entirely in its shadow. From that moment forward, a Cartesian duality defined media conceptions of pro wrestling separating it into two separate worlds: what happened in the ring and what happened backstage, with the latter greatly overtaking the former in emphasis.
The fascination with sex, drugs, related drama behind the surge that propelled professional wrestling into the mainstream is hardly surprising. There’s over thirty years of rock and roll biopics about musicians both real and imagined speaking to that impulse, but in every case, there’s a prelude to the debauchery that carries the audience through the original creative spark, the source of the passion that made everything else possible.
It’s a spark audiences rarely get to see in wrestling related media. My ideal version of GLOW, one I wasn’t holding my breath for, was something more like A League of Their Own or Whip It that communicates a raw and unapologetic passion for the sport that unites the women it’s about. GLOW, for the most part, isn’t about wrestling, it’s about the things people associate with the ’80s wrestling scene, namely sex, drugs, and commodified racism. Fictional sports stories shouldn’t have to bear the responsibility to advocate for the sports they depict, but nevertheless it’s disappointing to see a TV show about women’s wrestling come off as wishy washy while an incredible watershed moment for it is playing out in real life.
In some ways, GLOW feels like it wants to detach itself from wrestling as much as possible. Its namesake absolutely was a rogue promotion that ran very differently from McMahon’s WWE, but it wasn’t run by a sleazy movie director who fired his only trained wrestler on staff his first day on the job. It was the brainchild of wrestling announcer David B. McLane, who hired Mando Guerrero — a member of the most influential and beloved wrestling family in North America — as the initial trainer. It’s a history that, for reasons completely unknown, the writing staff of the series chose to completely eliminate.
It’s a choice that feels all the more disturbing considering the attachment to giving all the women of color crude racial stereotypes to play while the white women are all given room to organically develop their own in ring personas. Especially considering that the only female wrestler in the main cast, Kia Michelle Stevens, who wrestles under the name Awesome Kong, gets “Welfare Queen” as a gimmick. There were equivalents to all of the Netflix series’ most gruesome stereotypes in both GLOW specifically (Mountain Fiji, Palestina, and Mika the Headhunter among them) and pro wrestling in general, but why lean on those aspects or luxuriate in the imagery of racist lawn jockeys when in the real world two out of three of WWE’s female champions are women of color?
Questions like these are at the heart of a baffling schism between the writing and the production on GLOW. Off camera, the man who trained GLOW’s cast is Chavo Guerrero Jr, Mando’s nephew, who currently wrestles for Robert Rodriguez’s Lucha Underground, while the brief on camera trainer was played by his co-star John Hennigan (alternatively wrestling as John Morrison and Johnny Mundo). There’s no question that many of the people who worked on GLOW love wrestling, they just weren’t in the writers room. In that way, watching GLOW feels a lot like watching the theatrical cut of Suicide Squad: you can see evidence of a second, superior production desperately trying to fight its way to the surface and never quite getting there.
The fidelity to wrestling choreography is dead on, right down to a moonsault, which is considered an absolute basic move for the entire roster of a promotion like Lucha Underground, being the pinnacle of aerial gymnastics of the era. The high point of the series comes during a backyard training session at Carmen’s house, whose family are probably meant to reference the Anoa’i wrestling dynasty that counts The Rock, Roman Reigns, Uso twins, and Tamina Snuka among its members. It’s a rare moment of bliss for the series where Ruth and Debbie get a bonafide training montage overseen by Carmen’s brother, played by George Murdoch, who currently wrestles for TNA under the name Tyrus.
For Ruth, it’s one of another long chain of events that lead to her becoming the best and most dedicated wrestler on the roster with no clear motivation behind it. For Debbie, it’s a payoff for a sequence of revelations about wrestling that started when she bonded with Steel Horse (played by former WWE wrestler Alex Riley) over the soap opera sensibilities of wrestling writing. His advice to Debbie about the ring psychology of heel and face dynamics could have, should have been the defining theme of the rest of the season, but it wasn’t. The ability of best friends, like current WWE wrestlers Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, to play bitter rivals or for real life heated rivals like Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart to push each other to spectacular heights in ring is where the backstage and on stage worlds merge most compellingly. It’s also the liminal space between fiction and reality that WWE has embraced to stay relevant to contemporary audiences.
McMahon’s testimony, as historic as it was, did no more damage to the business than a magician admitting that he didn’t really cut a woman in half and kayfabe, rather than cease to exist, mutated to adapt to that new reality. WWE has opened up considerably in recent years to make the human stories behind the wrestlers and the logistics of putting on its gigantic events a cornerstone of its brand.
Key to that strategy is Total Divas, the Keeping Up With the Kardashians style constructed reality show that turns the offscreen lives of a rotating cast of its female wrestlers into a carefully managed soap opera that merges with their in ring performances. It’s arguably more of a marketing strategy than a legitimate television show, aimed at opening up the sometimes incomprehensible wrestling world to a casual female audience and present its stars as aspirational figures with relatable struggles in contrast with the especially cartoonish melodrama they enact in ring. It’s six season run has been so successful that its transformed series stars Nikki and Brie Bella into crossover celebrities with a gigantic social media presence.
By contrast, GLOW feels like a grimy derivative embarrassed by and of itself that nevertheless shows just how much women’s wrestling both has and has not changed over the last 30 years. The racially mixed group of models, actresses, and second or third generation wrestlers being thrown together to learn on the fly still exists. What has changed is the infrastructure dedicated to training them and the caliber of opportunities awaiting them in ring.
The irony of GLOW is that its shortcomings as a fictional series based on a real wrestling program are revealed by the layers of carefully massaged truth that go into contemporary wrestling programming. In an era when every step of a woman’s career in wrestling from her arrival at the gym to her in ring engagement at the biggest event in the industry is broadcast to the world, it’s hard to see GLOW as much more than an excuse to roll in the muck of history to extract the same cheap thrills of every other pseudo transgressive prestige drama on the market.