There’s certainly a lot to love about the original 1986 TV show G.L.O.W.: big hair, plenty of glitter, and tons of expertly choreographed, theatrical ass-kicking. The professional women’s wrestling program titled Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling that ran for four seasons is a campy, vintage gem.
It’s in this universe that show creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch created their new Netflix show GLOW, a serious, fictionalized story about the women who became these ridiculous characters in the ring. Starring Alison Brie as Ruth, a struggling actress desperately looking to try out for complex roles for women, GLOW follows a ragtag group of actresses (whether soap stars or Van Halen video extras) and weirdos (one girl’s wrestling persona is simply: wolf) looking for a job who end up in the ring.
Flahive and Mensch are playwrights turned TV writers for shows like Orange Is The New Black and Nurse Jackie, and the writing on GLOW reflects their ability to write a captivating group ensemble. Jezebel spoke with them about building their world.
JEZEBEL: What first drew you to the Gorgeous of Ladies of Wrestling?
Liz Flahive: We first were introduced the world itself when we watched a documentary of G.L.O.W. looking back on their time making the show. It wasn’t a show we were familiar with or knew anything about, but we sort of fell in love hard and fast. We started researching and digging up old episodes on Youtube and took it from there.
What was the research process like in addition to watching old episodes?
Flahive: We knew pretty early on that we wanted to build our own version and to start from scratch when we were bringing characters into the world. We are two people who know a lot about theater but we know nothing about wrestling. So we really had to school ourselves on the history of wrestling and what women’s wrestling was like in the ‘80s. We would watch Youtube videos of famous matches from the era like Wrestlemania and a lot of bizarre, weirdo gimmicks in wrestling history.
We also had our wrestling trainer, Chavo Guerro Jr., and his entire family has been pretty famous in wrestling history. They’ve sort of cycled through every style and wrestling gimmick. He was a great curator for things to watch and to answer any dumb questions we had. We didn’t even know how a match ended! [laughs] And then there was a lot to read on the social history of the 1980s and as much about Reagan as we could read.
Carly Mensch: We also did a movie night with our writers where we watched movies from the ‘80s that we hadn’t seen before.
You mentioned you both know a lot about theater, and GLOW’s lead character Ruth is this very serious thespian who comes to wrestling as a last-ditch acting effort. Do you both see yourself in her?
Mensch: Yeah, we’re both drama nerds at heart and we met in a playwriting group in New York. Ruth is probably kind of an exaggerated version of [us], she’s like the natural place our minds go when we’re looking at stories.
Flahive: I think too when you actually look at our set, we’re in a gym with this big stage in the middle. It’s this circle where different things happen, you get into the ring and get out of the ring, and for us there were very natural parallels to [theater.] And Ruth takes the acting in wrestling very seriously.
Mensch: And that’s how seriously we wanted to take it too, honestly! We didn’t want to poke fun at something, we wanted to really understand it and examine it.
The show focuses on these characters who are looking for better roles and ends up being a commentary on the limitations of acting for women. Was that something you set out to intentionally explore when you were creating the show?
Flahive: Yeah, I think we’ve gotten to work in a fantastic pool as writers. We’ve both written on very female-driven with complex characters and that’s certainly not always what is out there, especially what wasn’t out there in the ‘80s. It was definitely something we wanted to talk about. We have friends who are actors who talk about the sorts of things they go in for...
Mensch: ...like how many times they come back from an audition and [they were] just the wife who was holding laundry with two lines of dialogue. But also even that ‘80s film festival was so enlightening for us because there were so many roles where we were like: wait a minute, the lady character is just a robot? Or a mannequin?
Flahive: Mannequin was really hard for Carly [laughs.] Mannequin really pushed a lot of buttons. You have a lot of affection for it but then you start asking questions and then those questions are pretty tricky!
When I think about about ‘80s movies I think about all those comedies about being a working woman (Working Girl, 9 to 5, Baby Boom) and the women of GLOW are sort of campy or scrappier versions of working women during the decade. Were those movies in your mind at all while making GLOW?
Mensch: One place our brains went to pretty early was this image of the woman business suit and how it sometimes felt like women were sort of suiting up to go to work. It almost seemed like armor, wearing these huge shoulder pads and having hair sort of fashioned like a helmet. Which then felt like on some metaphorical level, wrestling was speaking to this idea of suiting up for battle. But we picked the world of wrestling and of course you’re not showing up the wrestle in white tennis shoes and a business suit. There was a whole new visual template here to explore in terms of women working.
Watching old clips from the original GLOW show it’s clear that for a lot of these women, while they were allowed to be sort of fantastic or angry, they were molded into stereotypes based on their race or looks. How did you approach adapting some of the more dated elements to the show?
Mensch: That’s definitely something wrestling does in general, it kind of takes whatever time period it’s in and takes the stereotypes and prejudices of the time and turns them into characters. It’s why in the ‘80s The Iron Sheik was huge. For us we did a lot of thinking and researching the decade to find those uncomfortable prejudices and history. “Welfare Queen” was something Reagan was throwing around a lot in his speeches, Islamophobia was definitely around and there were a lot of Arab stereotypes in movies.
Flahive: We didn’t want to just wink and nod at the ‘80s but be in that decade and look at what was really happening in wrestling culture, not just then but today too. One of our actresses, Kia Stevens, is a pro-wrestler in her alternate life and we checked in with her a lot. Her stories about the roles available for black women in the wrestling community in 2017 are not so different today.
Mensch: I think at one point she was told that she was too big to be a wrestler for some circuit she had tried out for and that really motivated her. It’s not just wrestling in which women are told they don’t have a particular body type for something or judged based on their physical appearance.
A lot of the success of the original ‘80s GLOW seemed to stem from cat-fight culture and the idea of commodifying women fighting with each other. But on your show natural rivalries do develop backstage between characters as well. I was curious what you feel like GLOW has to say about female competition and the spectacle of it.
Mensch: I think we were showing that it exists, it’s interesting to watch, but yet you should be aware of how other people see it when you make it. So much of what’s really counterintuitive about wrestling is that even though it looks on the surface like two women are fighting, what’s actually happening underneath is that they’re working very intimately to not hurt each other. I think there’s something fascinating about that and subverts this idea that wrestling is about violence is because the more you actually get to know it, it’s actually quite the opposite. This choreography is two people keeping each other safe, which is a little more beautiful than while on the outside it can seem exploitative, even though it’s both things at once.