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Time for Wrestle Woman-ia

The second season of 'GLOW' is a triumphant, self-aware return to the ring

A still from the second season of ‘GLOW’.
A still from the second season of ‘GLOW’.

A few years ago in Vietnam, I met some young American diplomats who were stationed in Pakistan and used to annually hop across to Ho Chi Minh City for some rest and recreation. One thing that bewildered them was how passionate people in Pakistan were about WWE wrestling, and how crushed they would always be when the Americans explained that professional wrestling was fake. This revelation—presumably appearing to these fans like the truth about Santa Claus— felt like the ultimate betrayal: “They keep asking, ‘What about Undertaker?’ ‘What about Hitman?’ ‘What about John Cena?’"

Now, I know John Cena as an over-muscled fellow in comedy films—most memorably, Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck—but T-shirts bearing the WWE wrestler’s slogans are worn by young men across India and the world. He is a multiple-time champion and the No.1 “mover of merchandise" in wrestling, yet it is hard to label Cena as popular since he is apparently booed even more than he is cheered. That may not be a bad thing.

Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s smashing Netflix series GLOW is about a small-time women’s wrestling outfit, and has just been nominated for three Emmy Awards, including Best Comedy. In the second season, we see the villain trying to cash in. Tammé Dawson (played by real-life wrestler Kia Stevens) plays a character called The Welfare Queen in this series based on the making of a loud 1980s show called Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling. The Welfare Queen wears mink, is lazy and lives off taxpayer money, and is roundly booed during her performances. Yet fans greet her with smiles on her day off, and she industriously customizes nondescript dolls and slips tiny Welfare Queen leotards on to them in order to sell her own merchandise.

Professional wrestling has two primary archetypes: The good and the bad are called the Face and the Heel, respectively, and characters often switch these binaries around in order to shock and rejuvenate the audience. Some wrestlers clearly make better villains, while others are easier to buy as the noble heroes who won’t gouge out an eye when the referee’s looking elsewhere. It gets trickier when the hero is actually far too easy to dislike—as seems to be the case with Cena— or when the villain is electrifyingly charismatic, as I remember used to happen in my youth with the narcissistic and effortlessly cool Heel, Shawn Michaels.

I loved the first season of GLOW, and this one betters it by being even more self-aware. Flahive and Mensch expertly toy with the preposterousness of myth-making by putting us in the wrestling audience’s shoes as the season progresses: The good girl from the first season, Debbie, now appears to be turning increasingly “evil" in her quest for retribution, while the bad guy, Sam (played by the amazing Marc Maron), turns out to be nicer than his obnoxious exterior would have us believe. Who do we root for? How about everybody?

This is, after all, an underdog show. Maron’s character, Sam Sylvia, is a one-time horror film-maker who now directs a wrestling show that has been pushed to a 2am time slot. Yet, as the internet shows us these days, there is a corner for you no matter how weird you are. Sheila, played by Gayle Rankin, dresses as a she-wolf, and, much to her chagrin, finds an army of men and women who dress like her and howl along. Another girl, Ruth, commits to the role of an evil Russian stereotype, revelling in it as she takes this low-budget tomfoolery very seriously indeed. This wicked character is, after all, one that she has conceptualized and built from scratch, and that is more than the scraps movies have offered her. It belongs to her.

Some don’t even have that. Sunita Mani plays Arthie, a former medical school student, who, thanks to her complexion and ethnicity, has been racially stereotyped into the role of an evil terrorist called “Beirut the mad bomber". She wants, more than anything, to shrug off this identity and emerge as a new character, but some of us struggle with finding our voices and niches longer than others. GLOW may be about one struggle—a fledgling wrestling promotion trying to stay afloat—but characters within it face their own fights, from deportation to plagiarism to constipation, and the show gives us a great ensemble to cheer.

The show puts them through a lot, and I don’t mean aerial wrestling moves and chokeholds, though those are impressive as well. There is a sequence where Ruth—played superbly by Alison Brie—is invited by the owner of the TV channel that broadcasts their show for a dinner meeting. She turns up and realizes the meeting will be in his room, and the stench of Harvey Weinstein permeates this increasingly uncomfortable scene. He wants her to wrestle with him, to fool around. She wants none of that, and, after some discomfort, flees the scene. The impact of her decision is significant, and it causes her to be both yelled at and yelled for. We cannot choose our allies, or dictate how much our friends will stand by us.

The lesson to learn from wrestling may simply be this: All of us are merely a couple of decisions away from turning Face or turning Heel. Don’t fall for the applause.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets at @RajaSen

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