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Netflix's 'GLOW' season two asks viewers to question what we define as real and why

In a show about women's wrestling, the question of authenticity and who gets to claim it always has to come to the fore.
Image: Glow season 2
GLOW Season 2Erica Parise / Netflix
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When I tell people that wrestling is a big part of my life, the most common response is “Like, real wrestling? Or…?”

I used to reply to this question by clarifying that I aspired to be a professional wrestler; I didn’t want to facilitate undue optimism that there were amateur wrestling opportunities for 250-pound trans women. But differentiating between “real” and “fake” wrestling, or amateur or professional, was ultimately abetting a culture of gatekeeping within wrestling that has consequences beyond my own life.

The “real” in “real wrestling” is often meant to distinguish whether or not the outcomes of a match are scripted, but it’s just as often meant to demarcate a rigid series of requirements you have to meet before people accept you as deserving the identity you claim for yourself. (I’ve heard this is very annoying.)

Image: Glow season 2
Kate Nash, Jackie Tohn, Kimmy Gatewood, Betty Gilpin, Shakira Barrera in GLOW season 2Erica Parise / Netflix

Is a “real” wrestler defined by full contact as compared the safer, softer style of WWE? By an emphasis on athleticism over storylines? By preserving an ideological purity to the sport by refusing to feature comedy and/or intergender matches and/or women at all?

The history of women’s struggle for equal opportunities to train, perform and be booked with a legitimacy on par with men in wrestling meant that women always fell disproportionately into the undesirable end of any of these or any other spectrums that mainstream media, wrestling or otherwise, would define as “real.”

And now coming down to the ring of media discourse: Netflix’s "GLOW," the second season of which was released on Friday. The show takes the history of the 1986 "G.L.O.W." television show’s creation, and incorporates it into the storyline universe a number of its reimagined classic characters: The patriotic Americana and commie saboteur Ninotchka from the original "G.L.O.W." are now Liberty Belle and Zoya “The Destroya”, played by Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) and Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) respectively.

By keeping (relatively) true to its original 80s setting and the conditions that shaped the original show’s creation, the series is able to examine the struggles of women living in a Reagan presidency with a modern awareness.

In the larger canon of wrestling shows, Netflix’s "GLOW" is profoundly atypical in that it’s a reboot: It’s very common for wrestlers to change gimmicks or storylines (sometimes very abruptly) and in doing so, have their past identities disavowed and never acknowledged “in-universe.” Evil dentists are reborn as libertarian demons all the time, but wholesale universe rewrites — the sort comic fans have learned to endure every few years — are exceptionally rare in wrestling.

Netflix’s "GLOW" is like one of those movies where a kid is turned into an adult and hates it, but in reverse. By keeping (relatively) true to its original '80s setting and the conditions that shaped the original show’s creation, the series is able to examine the struggles of women living in a Reagan presidency with a modern awareness.

Season two, for instance, features plot lines depicting sexual harassment of the wrestlers. Ruth is preyed on by a television producer, the character of Rhonda (Kate Nash) is harassed by a stalker and the wrestlers begin receiving sexually explicit “fan mail.” These developments aren’t “products of their time”; they not only didn’t feature in the original series, but they might not have been viewed on the original set (particularly by men) as harassment at the time.

Image: Glow season 2
Betty Gilpin in season 2 of GLOWBeth Dubber / Netflix

In the context of the original series, that is to say, sexism and harassment wouldn’t have been seen as “real.”

The creators of the original "G.L.O.W.," in fact, probably thought nothing of confining the cast to their hotel rooms, forcing strict rules on when they couldn’t be out and who they couldn’t be seen with, and making them work in a substandard ring that led to severe injury. No one would think to do that with grown men and “real wrestlers”; no one thought much of doing it to women.

And, so, in a certain way, it makes perfect sense that, for weeks ahead of its premiere, the reboot’s latest season was explicitly tied to the #MeToo movement by cast, press and publicity alike. For women, femme and/or non-binary people, #MeToo has given us a chance to ask two overdue and perhaps rhetorical questions: Is this real? Are we real?

For women, femme and/or non-binary people, #MeToo has given us a chance to ask two overdue and perhaps rhetorical questions: Is this real? Are we real?

Because the #MeToo movement isn’t just about sharing stories of being sexually menaced by men; women have been doing that without a twitter hashtag for decades. It’s about having long overdue conversations about the intergenerational struggle, and the erasure of the fact that it was a struggle, even within our own minds. We’ve all been asking ourselves and each other whether the sexism and harassment we felt was real or just a product of our imaginations.

For women in the wrestling community — wrestlers, fans, crew, even referees — justice within the context of the #MeToo movement isn’t limited to telling our stories. Our liberation from violence requires a restoration of our right to be seen as real.

And that extends not just to the characters Debbie Eagan and Alison Brie play, but to them as wrestlers.

That’s not a typo; I didn’t mean to say “actresses.” "GLOW" is not a show about wrestling, but a wrestling show.

Such a thought might give some men in the wrestling community pause, or even offense. But that confusion or disgust is misplaced. Extending “realness” to all wrestlers doesn’t devalue the wrestlers who’ve had the most success; it just doesn’t make them the default. (I suppose this could be applied to a lot of things.)

But still, those feelings — the need to defend something you love, that you’ve invested so much time and energy into — are real. And it’s real to me, too.

Jetta Rae Robertson is a writer and wrestler-in-training based in Oakland, California. She’s a co-host of "GLOW The Distance," a podcast dedicated to women’s wrestling.

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