GLOW, the Netflix series about the 1980s women’s wrestling show of the same name, has always been about women’s work, whether it be the physicality required to grapple in the ring or the challenges of melding wrestling with personal life.
Season 1 saw the women of Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling gain autonomy and ownership over their bodies by using them in a way they never had before. “I’m back in my body and I’m using it for me. I feel like a goddamn superhero,” Debbie (Betty Gilpin) says not long after giving birth and stepping into the wrestling ring as the all American Liberty Belle. Last season, newly divorced Debbie and single mom Tammé (Kia Stevens) bonded while juggling parenthood and wrestling. “I once forgot [my son] at the grocery store for three hours and now he goes to one of the best schools in the country,” Tammé tells Debbie when she confesses she forgot to pick up her infant son from daycare. “They’re resilient.”
While I was looking forward to GLOW doubling down on Tammé and Debbie’s unlikely tag team, the third season, which dropped on Netflix over the weekend, puts more emphasis on the hardships these two women face as the show moves to Las Vegas and have to leave their families behind. Under the body slams and glitzy lights, the series found a new way to illustrate its core theme.
[Ed. note: This article contains spoilers for the third season of GLOW.]
As one of the older performers in the troupe, we see Tammé downward spiral into addiction to stem her increasing back pain. As the only actual trained female wrestler in the cast, Stevens no doubt pulled from her time in an industry in which the fine line between addiction and pain management is often blurred. This calls to mind the early retirement of women wrestlers such as Paige, LuFisto, Kris Wolf, Charlie Morgan and Nikki Bella in the last 18 months due to injury.
Debbie, striving to gain control of the company she executive produces, develops an eating disorder. While we know the disease takes hold in highly motivated people, which Debbie no doubt is, this storyline is haphazardly picked up and put down throughout the 10 episodes. The catalyst seems to be when Debbie and the rest of the GLOW team train with showgirls on the Vegas strip, but we don’t really gain much more insight into how she conceals her illness from her colleagues, her new boyfriend Tex (Toby Huss), and her infant son Randy, who relocates to Sin City midway through the season.
In contrast, Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noelle) is rattled by the time spent with the showgirls. She is the one who encourages her fellow wrestlers to mix up their workout routine (or lack thereof) by seeing how women in other physically grueling, yet underappreciated occupations stay fit, but the wrestlers cannot keep up. If bleeding feet and eating disorders doesn’t make one reconsider the oft-quoted line that “wrestling isn’t ballet”, this scene surely will.
While chatting after their workout, the head choreographer (played by Breeda Wool) reveals to Cherry that she is a new mom and has struggled to return to form after pregnancy. Cherry’s husband and resident GLOW referee, Keith (Bashir Salahuddin), has been pressuring her for a baby but can’t reckon with Cherry’s worry that giving birth would affect her body and jeopardize her ability to work. He suggests they adopt and promises he’ll do most of the childcare while she wrestles, a fine effort at egalitarianism if ignorant of the realities of heterosexual partnerships that make women the default caregivers, especially in the less-than-enlightened ’80s. Cherry may not be interested in the labor of pregnancy, but she ends up performing the emotional labor it takes to get Keith to see her perspective.
Rhonda also endures a new kind of emotional labor. Last season she married GLOW promoter Bash in the ring, and season 3 sees them trying to make a go of holy matrimony. Problems occur from the get go, with Bash being unable to care for Rhonda when she’s sick. If you remember, Bash is still grieving from the death of his best friend, butler and, it is implied, lover Florian from AIDS-related complications last season. Rhonda has no idea that Florian’s death hit Bash so hard nor that he may be struggling with his sexuality, and thus tries so hard to please her new husband both in the bedroom and the boardroom in her new role as bookkeeper to Bash’s family fortune (which enables him to keep bankrolling GLOW and other Vegas ventures). In order to fix their problems, Bash proposes they get pregnant, not taking into account that, like Cherry, Rhonda’s body is her livelihood and that she’ll likely be the primary caregiver of the baby and Bash, who is a man-child himself.
We also see the themes of sexual labor in Melrose’s storyline with a male sex worker, and the emotional rigor faced by people of color and queer people in arcs featuring Jenny, Arthie and Yolanda. On the other hand, Carmen gets sick of not being mentally or physically challenged by the monotonous residency of GLOW, and throws in the towel to go on the road with her brother, Kurt (former World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler Carlito).
Wrestling is hard. Relationships are hard. Motherhood, or the choice to be childfree, is hard. Being a person in the world — especially a woman in the male-dominated world of wrestling in the ’80s — is hard. Though it faced some stumbling blocks this season, GLOW continues to shine a light on how women navigate the work required to succeed in all.