Why women loved the original 'Glow': It was a space to experience the empowerment of wrestling
“We’re the gorgeous ladies of wrestling! We’re all champions in the ring!”
That’s the catchphrase for the original Glow, which hardly anyone knows anymore. I must have shouted it out at least 72 times as my friend Lauren — a Glow neophyte — and I worked out the technical issues for our podcast Glow the Distance, which tracks Netflix’s new series, also titled Glow, about the ’80s wrestling phenomenon.
She thought I was making something up, but, really, I was making up for lost time. An appreciation for Glow is hard-wired in the circuitry of my waking self; one of my favorite gigs, ever, was helping a local ladies lube-wrestling crew in the Bay Area adapt Glow-style gimmicks. The release of the Netflix series, and the rapidly growing appreciation for the show by mainstream “lean-in latte with no whip” feminist press (who never cared about women’s wrestling before) has set me, reasonably or not, on a race against this sort of adaptational nostalgia that has become big business for Netflix.
There is a lot I like about the new Glow series: The episodes I’ve seen have historical truth to them, interwoven with the fiction in a compelling way. But I’m a wrestling nerd of the most insufferable sort, anxiously imploding at the thought that the sacrifices of the original Glow cast — and the ways their sacrifices changed wrestling, not just women’s wrestling — may be getting mired in the hyper-nostalgic world-building that’s become so emblematic of the Netflix brand.
I have always been aware of Glow. The pilot for the original series was shot the year I was born; it premiered in 1985. My parents watched the show when I was a child. This has left a primal, inescapable impression on me, one that may be the reason I marathoned the show while working late nights in the college media lab, or the reason I made collages out of Glow screenshot print-outs when I was recovering from surgery.
This isn’t tradition or heritage; Glow isn’t cool just because it’s old and familiar. It wasn’t the first foray into women’s wrestling, and definitely didn’t invent the idea of gender politics in wrestling. But it took women’s wrestling to a place it hadn’t been to before, beating a path that is constantly being rediscovered, in spite of history and respectability.
The history of women’s wrestling is a story of slights, blacklists and backslides, similar to those scripted into the original series. In the late ’40s, Billy Wolfe’s stable of women grapplers, including former National Wrestling Alliance Women’s Champion Mildred Burke, brought women into the fold of the national wrestling scene. But then Wolfe and Burke separated. At the time, women weren’t allowed to actually attend official NWA meetings, and so Wolfe went from being Burke’s sole advocate to her outright gatekeeper, effectively blackballing Burke and all the women who supported her.
In the ’80s, in light of Cyndi Lauper’s involvement with the Fabulous Moolah and Wendi Richter, World Wrestling Entertainment (then known as the World Wrestling Federation) gave women’s wrestling unprecedented mainstream star power — which Moolah immediately squandered by infamously screwing over Richter and other wrestlers with backstage politics, like feeding wrestlers the wrong match finishes to discredit them in front of the promoters.
It was around this time that a ring announcer named David McLane, set on proving women’s wrestling was more than a novelty act, left Indianapolis for Hollywood and launched Glow.
In the early and mid ’90s, in the wake of Glow, exchanges with Japanese wrestlers like Bull Nakano helped the WWE and World Championship Wrestling (the two major national wrestling companies at the time) develop their women’s division. That is, until WCW paid Madusa, aka Alundra Blayze, the former WWE’s Women’s Champion, to come on a WCW show and throw her belt in the trash. That caused the WWE to shelve the development of serious women’s wrestling in favor of eye candy, forcing future legends like Lita and Trish Stratus to wade through the “bra-and-panties matches” of the Attitude Era of WWE programming.
In wrestling, you expand or die. You’re always on the hunt for new audiences, new markets, new gimmicks, new projects. WWE started out promoting boxing matches, moved into wrestling and now it’s a streaming service, broadcasting reality television 24/7. Part and parcel to this pervasive need for expansion is presenting yourself as a “global brand.” But, back in the day, a benefit of membership into the NWA during the “territorial system” was that your local talent had opportunities to wrestle the World Champion, affirming your “big league” status.
For a long time, the state of women’s wrestling has depended on however someone with money and influence feels about certain women at a certain time. And in a society that deems women’s labor as less respectable, yet men are seen as charitable for even acknowledging that women exist, cutting women from your program has often been an effective way to maintain that global respectability.
The original Glow wasn’t so different; it was, at its heart, an enterprise for men to profit off women’s bodies and labor. But! It also offered a space for women to experience the empowerment of wrestling within a closed universe. Glow was not trying to build territory like the WWE was in the ’80s; it wasn’t looking to corner the wrestling market. It didn’t do wrestling all that great. On the best of days, the in-ring technique of a Glow match was maybe a five or six out of 10. It didn’t need to be more than that, because it had great characters, performed by people who played the shit out of them.
With some notable exceptions, like Matilda The Hun (also known as Queen Kong, who once had to wrestle live bears because there weren’t any women to wrestle and many state athletic commissions wouldn’t let her wrestle men), almost all of Glow was performed by actors and models. Wrestling was, ultimately, part of an actor’s toolkit, a kinetic language for them to act out the drama of their characters and storylines.
It wasn’t about athletic respectability — it was about character, comedy, and spectacle. For all its shortcomings on the front of female empowerment — skimpy outfits and vapid character archetypes like “party girls” and “party girls but rich”— Glow had characters that have never been attempted by other mainstream wrestling companies: misanthropic grandmas, gossip columnists, and even the personifications of geographic features, like Mt. Fiji, who was meant to be taken as a literal mountain, who had a friend, who was a smaller literal mountain. And those characters had lockers next to the reincarnation of Lady Godiva, a Soviet emissary, and cheerleaders who learned to wrestle, presumably because they weren’t good enough cheerleaders to get a college scholarship and also had bad grades.
By embodying these characters, the women who played them took on glamorous personas who eclipsed their mortal forms, in the same way that rock bands, burlesque dancers and drag queens defy corporeal shells to become powerful and effervescent.
Glow transformed lives — not only the lives of the women who did the work, but also the fans. Yeah, when you watch old matches, there’s a lot of horny dudes in the audience. But when you seek out genuine fans of the show who have kept the torch lit all this time, it’s predominantly women (and queer women at that) who you’ll find. Glow helped establish the female wrestling fan — not someone dragged to the event by their boyfriend, not someone solely there to check out “chiseled male bodies,” as so many anti-feminist wrestling fans insist, but women who really loved wrestling.
At its heart, wrestling tells stories. Interwoven through the storyline conflicts of these larger-than-life women, Glow told a profound fable of abandoning feminine respectability. So you’re not great at what you do, or what you want to do is inaccessible because men have all the resources. So what? Be a volcano. Just, once a week, by yourself or with friends, insist you are Krakatoa and embody the heat of oblivion. Have no respect for respect. It’s a tool to hold you down.
“We’re all champions in the ring” is, to me, the synthesis of all that. So I repeat it: It’s this seed I hope will take form under the layers of ’80s hairstyle nostalgia and the inevitable think pieces about whether Glow’s Sam Sylvia is actually a secret feminist.
Why be a secret feminist when you can be a mountain?