It was in 1986 that the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling made their TV debut which, thirty years later, can only be described as surreal. “We’re the gorgeous ladies of wrestling, proud champions in the ring!” This is the chant that precedes a series of bizarre introductory raps, which feature questionable stage names (Palestina?) and iconic lyrical threats including: “An ambulance is what you’ll desire / because I’m going to set your face on fire.”
Over the years, GLOW amassed a cult following recently reinvigorated by news that the creators of Orange is the New Black were planning to revive the show on Netflix. The first series launched last Friday and it’s as weird and wonderful as the original; not only is there an abundance of diverse, well-developed roles for women, there are tacky costumes, hilarious storylines and, of course, lashings of hairspray – this is the ’80s, after all.
The choice to create a series based on the show may seem unusual, especially given the enormous under-exposure of women's wrestling. However, GLOW highlights the treatment of women being packaged as sex symbols in a male-dominated field, and it’s a story which still holds huge relevance even today.
Perhaps the best examples of this treatment on any notable level can be found within the WWE, an international franchise renowned for launching some of the world’s most talented wrestlers – the Fabulous Moolah, Alundra Blayze, Sherri Martel, Aja Kong and Bull Nakano are just some of the icons who dominated wrestling around the 1980s and 1990s, cementing the credibility of women in the industry.
Although many legends have risen through the ranks of the WWE and gone on to create new initiatives for other women (Aja Kong founded ARSION, an all-woman promotion), the company has long been reluctant to spotlight its female talent. The Women’s Championship was notably absent for a large portion of the 1990s and, when it did return in 1998, it came alongside a newly-labelled ‘Divas’ division.
Although just a small change in language, the WWF Attitude era saw the beginning of the phenomenon of fitness models being hired over women with actual wrestling experience. There were some exceptions over the years – Jacqueline, Ivory and Jazz are some of the best – but the general consensus is that most women were there to be seen, not to be taken seriously.
This mentality came through in the hideously gimmicky matches created to see female athletes stripped to their underwear and spanked on camera; there was the Bra and Panties match, which could only be won by stripping down your opponent, and several variations of swimsuit competitions and mud wrestling matches. One of the more unfortunate characters of the time was the Godfather, who came to the ring accompanied by his ‘Ho Train’. Women like Sable and Torrie Wilson quickly gained traction as models outside of wrestling, landing lucrative deals with Playboy and commanding enormous amounts of cash for nude photoshoots; the sexy female wrestler gimmick worked for some, but it led to a women’s division which relied on one archetype and rarely offered the potential to become a genuine star.
One legendary exception to this rule is Chyna who, ironically, was initially introduced to the roster as bosses felt she was the antithesis to the other Divas. They played heavily on her masculinity and created humiliating storylines for her, yet she was soon sexualized; despite these reductive stereotypes, Chyna persevered and changed the game in more ways than one.
She truly was the perfect antithesis to the countless divas who could talk but not really fight. Not only did she rack up several prestigious title wins – including the WWF Championship – she beat some of the best men in the business and earned unparalleled respect. Chyna also significantly boosted the popularity of then-fiancé Triple H, who went on to repay her by having an affair with Stephanie McMahon, daughter of CEO Vince McMahon.
Unsurprisingly, things soon went downhill for Chyna: her contract was never renewed, and her career was effectively ended while her ex-partner’s went on to flourish. She later entered the porn industry but was shamed heavily for doing so, eventually following a path which led to a drug overdose last year. Despite her monumental contribution to wrestling and women’s wrestling in particular, her name is still yet to be commemorated in the Hall of Fame – a snub which exemplifies the often terrible treatment of women in the industry.
Another woman responsible for changing the face of female athletes is Trish Stratus, initially hired as eye candy but now known as one of the best in the business. Stratus began her career as the manager of T&A (see the pun?) and was thrust into some pretty humiliating storylines. In context, Vince McMahon essentially hired a fitness model to play his mistress; they would regularly make out in front of his comatose wife, and McMahon famously crossed a line when he forced Stratus to bark on her knees like a dog. The segment was later erased from the archives.
Stratus persevered through these sexist storylines and later went on to carve out a career based on charisma, determination and a ruthless drive which saw her win the Women’s Championship seven times in total.
Alongside the equally brilliant Lita, Stratus shook up the WWE and led to a more credible women’s division – incentives like the Diva Search came along, and it seemed like women were finally getting the push they deserved. There have been well-documented problems, one of which is that men were reluctant to lose to a woman; one wrestler, Disco Inferno, was even fired for not agreeing to lose to Jacqueline. Still, several women over the years have held traditionally ‘male’ title belts like the Intercontinental Championship and the Hardcore Championship, and the recently-formed NXT division is actively pushing a new breed of superstar talent – Asuka is perhaps the most impressive example, enjoying an undefeated reign.
Better still, the ‘Diva’ term has been scrapped altogether thanks to a viral hashtag which saw fans demand more character development and stronger storylines. The women are now classed as ‘Superstars’, just like their male counterparts.
Although arguably intended as a light-hearted exploration of an under-represented industry, GLOW actually delves into a world largely written by men, for men. Characters are simplified as (often racialized, often extremely offensive) stereotypes. One scene at the end of the third episode sees the women recite brief but hilarious monologues for outdated characters like Beirut (the mad bomber), Machu Pichu, Junk Chain and the Welfare Queen; it’s an acknowledgement of the racist overtones present in the world of wrestling, and it’s just one of the self-aware gags which demonstrate how pervasive stereotypes are still reinforced by the media and entertainment industries.
At its core, GLOW is a clever, up-to- date remake of an original franchise which argued women had to be gorgeous to step foot in a ring. Although this may still, to an extent, be true, the world of women’s wrestling has progressed by leaps and bounds; the likes of Nia Jax, Awesome Kong and Charlotte Flair are just some of the stars diversifying a valuable industry and showing young girls that they don’t have to fit stereotypical ideals of femininity. There is, of course, still work to be done, but it finally seems that GLOW’s Netflix rework has succeeded in highlighting how ridiculous it is to imagine that women need to be beautiful to kick ass.