Growing up, my biggest exposure to the world of wrestling came just once a year, and oddly enough, on Valentine’s Day. In elementary school (all romance aside), I left the forced exchange of cardboard valentines with a brown paper bag in hand, brimming with tear-off cards from the boys featuring Stone Cold Steven Austin and messages like “I’ve got a CRUSH on you.” As such, I avoided wrestling as if it too had the cooties. Nothing against Steve Austin, though.
Truth be told, I’ve never been a huge fan of organized sports, a disinterest I trace back to the tarnished ending of my 6th grade basketball career. That’s when I both miraculously and tragically shot a hoop in the wrong basket. More generally though, I just never understood the point of winning with another game looming inevitably around the corner. What’s a winning title when you have to work for it all over again? But watching G.L.O.W. I can’t help but think that maybe if I’d possessed the upper body strength (and the bikini leotards), women’s wrestling could have been the sport for me.
Roland Barthes once wrote that, “The function of the wrestler is not to win,” that the primary virtue of wrestling is its abandonment of tallies and scores for the “spectacle of excess.” This is not a sport of officiated leagues and regulations (or order and dignity of any kind). It is a sport where helmets are supplanted by spandex, teams by characters, and sportsmanship is superseded by shamelessness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and all its uninhibited gaudiness.
As self-aware as it is ridiculous, there’s something compelling in the show’s recurring battles of good versus evil, where heaven is a cheerleader and hell is a deranged porcelain doll who’ll drop her balloon to choke you with a handlebar. All along, you have the sneaking suspicion that Tina Ferrari was fated (or scripted) to rise up in spandexed glory over the cannibalistic headhunter, Manna. But that’s not the point.
What is? Maybe that girls can backhand chop along with the boys. Maybe indulgence in creating a show that has characters named “Jailbait” and “Melody Trouble Vixen” and gets away with it. As Barthes would say, the point is that G.L.O.W. can give up concern over wins and losses and can get out the costumes, put on the makeup, and commit to the marvel of a pair of southern belles being dragged around by chainsaw-wielding sisters. But more than anything else, G.L.O.W. is part of a larger history of women’s wrestling as an entertainment of titillating sensationalism and defiance.
Emerging in the mid-1930s, women’s wrestling came onto the scene as a way to lure more men to wrestling shows and ease Depression era tensions. And with women’s mud wrestling breaking out as early as 1938, the concept of woman as wrestler proved vastly successful. Often promulgated as a “freak show,” women’s wrestling played to the perception that women were volatile and scourged with emotional instability. Quickly condemned by the Catholic Church, as Depression tensions fell, tension over the indecency of women’s wrestling grew. Concern over the immorality of a girl-on-girl fight, along with the general atmosphere of sexism as women moved into “male” spheres, led many state athletic commissions (such as those in New York and Pennsylvania) to ban women’s matches entirely. Despite the bans, women continued to pummel each other in the name of a good show, and wrestling remained incredibly popular through wartime.
Though popularity subsided in the 1970s, there was a fitting resurgence in the 1980s. If wrestling is the sport of excess, it seems only natural that it would return in full force during the decade of big-haired, bright-colored unrestraint. And here enters G.L.O.W. in all its unabashed spectacle. Keeping in line with wrestling’s history as an over-the-top exhibition and unpredictable freak show, only on a show like G.L.O.W. can you find astrologist and mother-of-Rocky Jackie Stallone rapping about pummeling girls into kitty litter. Luckily for audiences, and in keeping with the 80s-ness, each character on the show has an awkwardly timed rap, set to the rhythm of strained dancing. Other allures include narration ripe with puns, the thong bottom leotards, and the presence of Aunt Kitty, the Bad Girl’s obese manager who shouts detached commentary from the sidelines in her kitten ears.
All in all though, G.L.O.W. has a kind of magnetism about it, a sensationalism that makes me want to put on a bathing suit and smash something, or tell someone I love them with a wrestling valentine. It makes me want to stop taking tallies for myself and others and just live ridiculously and shamelessly for all to see. It makes me want to write bad puns and self-conscious rap songs about my ambitions. And the more I give in to the spectacle, the more it makes me want to watch another episode, just to see Matilda the Hun get beat down.
So take a lesson from the Heavy Metal Sisters and take yourself a little less seriously. Don’t take these women seriously at all, and look for the grandiosity in well-timed hair pull. Because moral or immoral, freak show or not, G.L.O.W. is as hilarious as it is captivating.
1 Barthes, Roland. “The World of Wrestling” from Mythologies, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957.
2 Ball, Michael M. Professional Wrestling As Ritual Drama in American Popular Culture (Mellen Studies in Sociology). Edwin Mellen Press, 1990.
3 Oppliger, Patrice A. Wrestling and Masculinity: Nurturing a Culture of Bullies in the United States. McFarland & Company, 2004.
4 Beekman, Scott M. Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America. Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, 2006.
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.