There’s very little American audiences love more than the inspiring tale of an underdog. Whether it’s an unlikely hero or a surprising talent—we all love to root for the underestimated or beleaguered. And Netflix’s GLOW is no exception. The series follows the creation of the real ’80s television show Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and its predictably ragtag cast of aspiring actresses, wrestling fans, and oddball hair stylists. Everything about the show is primed for a very marketable brand of “girl power” charm. But while GLOW tries to produce a feel-good tale of sisterhood in the face of adversity, it reveals the uncomfortable truth that our modern market for women’s “empowerment” often operates as yet another form of exploitation.

The original GLOW first aired in 1986, and featured campy sketches and elaborate characters. The Netflix show details a fictionalized account of the behind-the-scenes making of the show—the mixed motives of sleazy director Sam Sylvia, glimpses into the colorful backgrounds of each of the wrestlers, and the rocky road the group takes to produce their first episode. The story focuses on Ruth Wilder, an aspiring actress growing increasingly frustrated with a string of unsuccessful auditions for the lackluster roles available to women. She initially responds to a casting call for “unconventional women” (the rally-cry hashtag almost writes itself), and her social-barrier-bucking plays a central role in developing the atmosphere of the group of wrestlers.

That’s the problem at the heart of both GLOW and many modern forms of promoting “women’s empowerment”: it’s false advertising.

During one of the many training montages, a few of the women describe why they’re beginning to actually enjoy wrestling: “people respect me here,” “we’re the heroes,” and “we’re empowered.” The group discovers the power of their own bodies, builds deep friendships with each other, and it becomes hard not to root for their show to succeed. But like so many other “empowerment” promises, this one falls flat.

Instead of finding strong, complex roles for women, GLOW puts them in skimpy costumes in order to make what the director calls “porn you can watch with your kids.” Instead of giving the women a greater sense of independence, they find themselves living in a run-down motel, their livelihoods at the mercy of a flaky trust-fund kid and a crusty director. Men are funding the project, picking the costumes, and using the women’s bodies for their own profit. The choreographed “fights” might make them feel strong, but they’re far from “empowered.”

That’s the problem at the heart of both GLOW and many modern forms of promoting “women’s empowerment”: it’s false advertising. We’ve bought the lie that hypersexualization can be empowering and freeing, even if (or possibly especially if) it’s in the interest of making a profit. Feminists used to decry pornography and sex work as exploitative, but now they’re often described as a means for women to take control of their own bodies and find freedom in sexual expression. The sexual revolution promised women and men sexual freedom, but it consistently results in other forms of bondage. Instead of liberation from social norms surrounding sexuality, we’re simply bound to a different set—seeking the sexual attention of others or finding validation in racking up casual relationships

The women of GLOW are all seeking some form of authority in a culture that often denies them agency. They’re trying to make enough money to work through medical school, they’re trying to avoid their deteriorating marriage, or they’re hungry for more substantive roles for women on television. GLOW promises them some level of “empowerment”—financial, physical, or emotional. Instead of truly freeing them from their circumstances, however, it only profits off their ambition.

There’s another important way in which GLOW follows predictable patterns of promoting “female empowerment”—the cost falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women of color.

In GLOW, the blatantly offensive stereotypes that motivate the girls’ costumes and wrestling personas are portrayed as such, a relic as outdated as the glittery spandex and sweatbands. But they are still the price that has to be paid for a shot at success. And while Ruth’s frustration over being repeatedly asked to audition for roles as secretaries or damsels in distress is well-founded and important, some of her fellow wrestlers face much more serious difficulties.

One black wrestler, Tammé, is given the role of “Welfare Queen” and teams up with Cherry “Junkchain” to take on a team of two white women dressed as elderly sisters. Under the guise of “empowerment,” two black women are made to embody hateful racial stereotypes—lazy and dependent on welfare or aggressive and criminal—while the white women take on roles that make their “power” seem sweet and non-threatening. Neither team is truly given “empowering” roles to play, but one team is put in the position of furthering deeply harmful attitudes in their audience.

Similarly, the other women of color on the show are put in positions of furthering stereotypes, to the point of putting themselves in serious danger. Jenny, a wrestler of Cambodian descent, is given the role of “Fortune Cookie,” a vaguely Chinese woman who practices some kind of martial arts. Indian-American Arthie is given the role of “Beirut the Mad Bomber” and plays on various Middle Eastern or Islamic stereotypes. The cash-strapped medical student clearly disdains the horribly offensive role she’s been given, but it’s not until their first taping that she realizes just how harmful it is. The filming occurs shortly after the 1983 Beruit barracks bombings, and during her opening fight, the crowd becomes physically aggressive and shouts racial slurs at the wrestler. Unlike the other “villains” in each fight, Arthie goes back to the dressing room and realizes that she can’t just take off the costume—the audience’s hate was directed just as much at her as it was at her character.

These moments are brief nods compared to Ruth’s well-documented angst over playing mindless secretaries. There’s barely a moment spent with a shaken Arthie as she realizes that the hate her character has inflamed has made it physically dangerous for her to leave the dressing room. None of the women are truly “empowered” by the stereotyped and sexualized characters they’re portraying, but the burden is much higher on the women of color, and GLOW barely acknowledges it.

Each of these examples stems from the same lie: that women (or men) can find empowerment in their own objectification. Ruth can find a powerful role in a show that’s intentionally created to satisfy the sexual interest of men. Arthie and Jenny can find financial freedom through furthering the dangerous stereotypes that already hinder their success. Disempowered women can be empowered by the men who seek to exploit them.

GLOW clearly doesn’t support the racism and sexism the wrestlers endure, but it makes every effort to paint the women as using it to their own advantage. They overcome their own objectification by choosing it. Some reviewers have explained it as an “inversion” of objectification, or a dramatic use of irony that’s subtly feminist. But there’s no denying the show’s plucky teamwork vibe and the consistent message that the women are finding themselves and their true strength through the show. You can’t “subvert” exploitation to make it empowering.

GLOW serves as a striking reminder that many forms of “freedom” are illusions—circumstances that appear liberating are still false choices. We can be victims of exploitation or we can use it to our advantage. In GLOW’s world, racial, or sexual exploitation has a strange upside that can be turned to serve the exploited. Instead of questioning the very paradigms that allow for the (not actually so outdated) objectification that the women endure, GLOW suggests that if we’re all going to be bound to something, it might as well make us feel good.

It’s not surprising that we’re still buying this particular lie, that the disempowered can find power through submission to objectification. It’s one of the most fundamentally human tendencies: instead of finding true freedom, we often shuffle from one form of bondage to the next. And in a culture that routinely devalues women, it’s no surprise that exploitation will simply rebrand itself as self-help empowerment. GLOW may be attempting to subvert, unveil, or use irony creatively, but its strategy ultimately suggests that exploitation can be its own form of “empowerment.”


1 Comment

  1. I really enjoyed reading this one. I think you did well to show how what the complex issue GLOW thinks it is confronting is made all the more complex and worse by their ineffective, ill-advised response to it. A timely and insightful analysis for sure.

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