Entertainment

Queens of the ring: Netflix's Glow puts spotlight on women's wrestling, then and now

Netflix's new series Glow taps into a growing movement of female empowerment in popular culture.

New series based on 1980s women's wrestling show of the same name

Alison Brie stars as Ruth Wilder in Netflix's new series Glow, based on the women's wrestling program of the same name that aired in the 1980s. (Erica Parise/Netflix)

In the first episode of Netflix's Glow, Ruth Wilder, an aspiring, down-on-her-luck actor (played by Alison Brie), is training inside a wrestling ring.

She's one of a dozen or so prospects for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a women's wrestling show headed by Sam Silvia (Marc Maron), an ornery director whose B-movie credits include titles such as Blood Disco.

Things go awry when Ruth's former best friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin) shows up and confronts her about the cause of their recent falling-out.

She enters the ring, and the two begin to spar.

As they trade waist locks and elbows to the face, the other aspiring wrestlers nearby can't decide whether this is part of their training or reality spilling into the ring.

'It's not fake:' Glow's Alison Brie on wrestling for real

5 years ago
Duration 2:25
Brie and co-stars Marc Maron and Betty Gilpin on the new Netflix series Glow, based on the 1980s show Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.

"Is this real?" asks one prospect.

"Who cares?" another answers.

What's real and what's fake has always been a fundamental fascination with professional wrestling. Netflix's new series doesn't seem interested in settling that debate, but it does tap into a growing movement of female empowerment in popular culture — a time when Wonder Woman stands alongside Batman and Superman in theatres and the new Ghostbusters are female.

Fictional re-telling

Glow is a fictionalized re-telling of G.L.O.W., an actual women's wrestling show that aired in the late 1980s, and hardcore wrestling fans (or "marks," to use the lingo) will appreciate the respect and attention to detail.

"The first thing that I did was watch some of the original episodes of G.L.O.W. on YouTube," Brie told CBC News in an interview.

She and the rest of the cast then trained for weeks inside the wrestling ring, learning how to run the ropes, perform basic wrestling holds and, most importantly, how to take punishment and hits (or "bumps") without seriously injuring themselves.

"Doing the actual training was really what got us, what really ingrained it in us. And also, I think, it helped me to form such a respect for what wrestling was," said Brie.

They were trained by longtime pro wrestler Chavo Guerrero — a fortuitous bit of continuity, as his uncle Mando trained the actual G.L.O.W. performers in the '80s.
In Glow, Marc Maron, centre, plays Sam Sylvia, a chain-smoking B-movie director. (Erica Parise/Netflix)

Guerrero wasn't the only wrestler on the set. Kia Stevens, who wrestled under the monikers Awesome Kong and Kharma, plays a supporting role as one of Brie's fellow ring warriors.

Wrestling fans will recognize a handful of other cameos that show up throughout the show's 10 episodes.

Ahead of its time

In many ways, the original G.L.O.W. was ahead of its time. In the 1980s, wrestling was a turbo-charged testosterone tour, starring bar-room-brawling cowboys and burly dudes who would make the ladies in the crowd swoon.

The World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE) did have a women's championship, but the matches were further down the card.

The most famous woman of the era, Miss Elizabeth, wasn't a wrestler herself but the demure valet, manager and (real-life) wife of Randy "Macho Man" Savage.

One character in Glow makes a reference to this attitude, saying, "Nobody respects a lady wrestler, sweetie. It's like the midgets. You're a sideshow."

Fast-forward to 2017, where a new Wonder Woman movie has cleaned up at the box office and the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling no longer seem like a curiosity.

Bayley, in the white pants, suplexes Alexa Bliss during a recent episode of WWE Monday Night Raw. (WWE)

Glow comes at a time when women's wrestling is being put in the spotlight in WWE. While there have always been a handful of high-level female performers in the company — including Toronto's Trish Stratus, who headlined the women's division from 2000 to 2006 — WWE currently employs a wider and deeper stable of women wrestlers than at any point in its history.

New performers such as Bayley, Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss have headlined live events alongside the men, including their annual mega-event, Wrestlemania.

It's a far cry from the late '90s, when women were branded "Divas" and wrestled in bikinis while play-by-play announcers yelled "Catfight!" or yearned to see their "puppies."

'It was really exciting'

While women's wrestling is undergoing a renaissance, men still make up most of the producers, trainers and executives in WWE.

Not so with Glow, which has about as many women behind the camera — including executive producer Jenji Kohan, creator of Orange is the New Black — as it does on screen.

"It was really exciting and important, you know, to work with so many women on a show about women. But also to have female showrunners and women on the crew and female writers and directors. I've never worked on a show with so many women," says Brie.

"And the whole experience felt much different than any job I've ever worked on and it was really empowering for everyone involved — except Marc [Maron]," she jokes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Ore

Journalist

Jonathan Ore is a writer and editor for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He regularly covers the video games industry for CBC Radio programs across the country and has also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the games industry for CBC News.

now