The Glorious Bodies Of "GLOW"
GLOW is full of flashy glitter, spandex, and big hair, but at its core it’s a show about women’s bodies.
“You know what the craziest part of this whole mess is? I actually like wrestling,” Debbie (Betty Gilpin) tells Ruth (Alison Brie) in the ninth episode of Netflix’s original series GLOW. “It’s like I’m back in my body, and it doesn’t belong to Randy or Mark,” she says, referring to her newborn son and husband. Pausing, she blinks back tears: “I’m using it for me, and...I feel like a goddamn superhero.”
GLOW is full of drama, big hair, pink glitter, and spandex, but at its core it’s a show about women’s bodies — which is exactly what creators Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive intended from its inception. “We often describe it as a ‘body show,’” Mensch told BuzzFeed News earlier this month. “We had a lot of talks early on, and we wanted to make a show about bodies. [Wrestling] was a completely different way into a body story, and that excited us.”
The bodies of GLOW form a refreshingly inclusive spectrum. During one scene, the nefarious Welfare Queen (Kia Stevens), a buxom black woman, slaps Machu Picchu (Britney Young), our muscular hero and the Queen’s physical equal, square across the face with a handful of food stamps. During another, Zoya the Destroya (Brie), a petite white woman, and Fortune Cookie (Ellen Wong), a petite Asian woman, storm the mat together as a pair of vicious villains. The wrestling ring is a colorful setting, often dealing in extreme stereotypes, and GLOW serves us an appropriately diverse cast of characters.
“We didn’t want it to be the same body over and over,” Flahive said. “There are types of bodies that end up on wrestling shows that don’t end up on regular television, whether it’s larger women or muscular women.”
Such a commitment to representation — plus the number of leading players in the show — set the creators up for a rigorous casting process. “We created the cast of characters we wanted, and then said to the casting director, ‘Find the best actors, but please find us every shape and size and color out there,’” Mensch added. Oh, and they also needed to be gifted, naturalistic actors who were game for a one-month wrestling boot camp before filming, who could also portray over-the-top wrestling personas. “It was a limited pool,” Mensch laughed.
The boot camp helped create a rare bond between the actors, which went beyond the casual friendships formed during a standard stare-at-your-script table read. “You must bond with someone once you’re putting your vagina in their face,” Sydelle Noel, who plays Cherry Bang aka Junkchain, tittered to BuzzFeed News. Gilpin described the boot camp as a “Kill Bill-style training sequence for my soul,” which also helped alter the way she thought about fitness overall. “I used to go to exercise classes where it was like, ‘We’ve gotta tighten our triceps and make our thighs smaller or no man is ever gonna love us, so let’s blast some Kesha and get this going!’” she half-laughed. “The second I started eating what I want, exercising for fun and function rather than shame and posing, that’s when I started to enjoy my work way more — rather than letting body terror dictate my choices.”
The rules of GLOW boot camp were simple: safety first, and don’t worry about weight loss. It was a drastic change of pace for Noel, who said that for most roles she’s booked, she’s first congratulated, then immediately asked to start a meal plan and lose 10 to 15 pounds. That wasn’t the case with GLOW — in fact, it was the opposite. Mensch and Flahive made it clear that no one in the cast should actively try to lose weight before filming (but whatever natural changes occurred as a result of boot camp were fine). Each woman had been chosen for a number of reasons, and one of those reasons was their body — as it was. “Every single one of us is a different body type,” Noel said. “They supported whatever figure we had.”
Kia Stevens, who plays Tammé Dawson aka Welfare Queen, has been an IRL professional wrestler for 15 years, and knows first-hand how the sport can change a woman’s relationship with her body. “When I first started off in wrestling ... men were still running everything. It was always, ‘If you really wanna be successful, you might wanna think about shedding a few pounds.’” She saw fellow athletes struggling to meet an impossible body standard: “Backstage, some of these girls are half-starving or getting this sucked out or that sucked out or this put in or this plumped up,” she sighed. However, Stevens found her “traditional body” gave her a relatable edge. “There are more women who look like me in this world and who come to our shows, so I did it my way and I was successful. I didn’t have to starve myself and lose all this weight to become a successful villain.”
GLOW afforded Stevens the opportunity to witness her costars find that same strength. “It was like watching a wrestler be born, which is a really precious thing,” she said fondly. “By the end of the training camp, they’re these Amazon goddesses that were like, ‘Yes I can, give it to me!’”
That newly discovered power and camaraderie carried over into filming — especially when it came time for the cast to don their tiny spandex unitards: No one seemed nervous about baring their body. “From the beginning of the series really, these girls are showing a lot of skin, and nobody had any issues about it at all,” said costume designer Beth Morgan. “Part of what I think was so amazing about this whole process was that it was so women-driven.” Whenever a cast member showed up in a new costume, everyone from the cast to the crew would rave. The set provided the women a safe environment. “Nobody had any concerns because they felt supported, and in a way that I think is really rare in any show, or in any line of business.”
Morgan included painstaking character-driven details in the costumes — purchasing Machu Picchu’s costume directly from a market in Peru, sewing frog closures on the side of Fortune Cookie’s costume — and relished the opportunity to dress a vast spectrum of body types. “For me, it didn’t feel as much like a challenge as a privilege to not have to do just size zero, because it isn’t realistic in the world,” she said. As she moved from fitting to fitting, each necessitating different dimensions and palettes, Morgan was forced to “constantly change [her] mindset,” which stretched her creativity. “You can’t just think about the same design sensibilities for each character. They each had a different set of rules we had to follow because they’re such different shapes and sizes. For me, it was really great to see these girls thrive and feel comfortable in their bodies.”
Creators Mensch and Flahive also wanted to avoid making the cast look unnaturally coiffed. “I find it so alienating when I see people who don’t look like real people on TV,” sighed Mensch. Brie got a perm and, according to Flahive, “basically wore not a drop of makeup” outside her wrestling scenes. Even the initial casting calls reflected the show’s naturalistic, styled-down approach. “They said they wanted my character to come in in yoga pants and a tank top and literally no makeup on, and I was like, This is my type of role,” Noel said of her audition for Cherry Bang. She went to her try-out straight from the gym, merely wiping off her face and putting some Vaseline on her lips. “We, as women, we want that!” she said of the experience, noting that so often she gets dressed and made up for 10 minutes in an audition room, only to go home and strip down after. “But on this show, for some of us, it was very au naturel. I didn’t have to get dolled up. They’re showing us as we are.”
For Gilpin, less time in the makeup chair felt like a small but important closure of the gender gap. “As a rule, actresses get up earlier in the morning than actors. We’re called to set that much earlier because it takes two hours to Emerald City-style scrub scrub here, scrub scrub there, get us into show-pony mode. Actors come in, their hair gets scruffed with some gel, a brush is passed over their nose, and they’re cooked.”
The lack of makeup also helped the actors to connect emotionally, both on camera and off. “Sometimes on set, when you first interact with people after [hours of] hair and makeup, it can feel like you’re meeting the fake result version of me instead of no-makeup, real me,” Gilpin continued. But on GLOW, “We’re basically in our pajamas, no makeup, just everyone’s bodies sweating together. Taking that energy, that sort of, this is who I am at my basest, barest level ... it was a completely different experience than I was used to.”
Despite its quiet subversion of how women’s bodies are often portrayed on TV, GLOW was never about pushing some sort of agenda. At the end of the day, Mensch and Flahive wanted to tell the most emotionally resonant story possible. “Do you want to notice what the person is going through emotionally, or just notice the lipstick and the hair? And how perfect they look when they wake up?” Mensch asked. The creators also drew on plenty of inspiration from other female creators who have tread on similar ground. “What Lena Dunham did on Girls in terms of bodies and comedy and the way she used her body and nudity on that show is, I think, spectacular,” Flahive said. She also hat-tipped GLOW executive producer Jenji Kohan’s work on Orange Is the New Black. (“They changed things completely.”)
But agenda or not, the show adds a welcome brushstroke to the television landscape in terms of body representation. And on a smaller scale, it gave both the actors and creators a different relationship with their own bodies. “We were aware of our vulnerability in a heightened way,” Mensch, who was “secretly pregnant” during filming, said. “There was a huge awareness of the limitations of people who are not used to being in their bodies.”
Gilpin did a photo shoot recently, and she made sure that none of her curves would be airbrushed out. “Baby steps — it’s terrifying,” she laughed. “We [need to] stop perpetuating the lie that women are either craggy old sea captains or shiny sexual pennies. I would like to see more real women: all shapes and sizes, like GLOW portrays.”