‘GLOW’s’ women wrestle with their own female stereotypes

Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) sings “This is One of Those Moments” during a scene in “GLOW.”
Screenshot via Netflix

“GLOW” has been on Netflix for about a month and if you haven’t watched it yet, consider pausing House of Cards” and watching this instead.

The show about a show, starring Jewish Alison Brie and Marc Maron, follows a ragtag group of women in a new TV series, “GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling).” Netflix’s “GLOW” is based on production of the 1980s series of the same name with characters inspired by the lady wrestlers on the original.

Creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch have said they were inspired to create this series after watching the 2012 documentary “GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” and falling down a “rabbit hole” of old episodes.

On its predecessor series, the women create personas they use in the ring. In the new show, set in the ’80s with all the trappings, it’s the same: A delightful cast of women — refreshingly diverse in both body type and race — create personas for themselves that end up going deeper than just a kitschy nickname.

The girls complement their leotards with echoes of stereotypes of their ethnicity or race. Fortune Cookie, for instance, becomes a cliché of Chinese culture for the character Jenny Chey (Ellen Wong). In a more jarring example that feels a bit out of place with the time period, Sunita Mani plays Arthie Premkumar, a character who is most certainly Indian but becomes Beirut, an Islamist terrorist.
“There are things that are incredibly offensive in wrestling,” creator Flahive said in a Vanity Fair interview, “and that was very interesting to us. We wanted to see our girls grapple with the stereotypes of the time and what they were being asked to deal with in the name of a job.”

Melanie Rosen, or Melrose as she prefers, (played by Jackie Tohn), the “irreverent Jewish nihilist who drives a limousine just because she can,” as the Forward describes her, is a seemingly typical party girl, with teased out hair and edgy outfits that make her look ready to dance into a Van Halen video at the snap of a finger.

But she’s much more than that.

“My character is a drug addict. And she’s a Jewish girl and there are far more, I think, intricacies than her being a music video girl,” Tohn said in an interview with Uproxx.

A blog on the Jewish Women’s Archive website describes Melrose as a departure from the Jewish women we might be used to seeing on screen.

“Melanie Rosen is a refreshing change from the shallow Jewesses we’re often expected to accept,” JWA wrote. “While she does fill the limited space stereotype allows for — she is unapologetically loud, wealthy and sarcastic — she is also, surprisingly, complex.

Maron gives an incredible performance as Sam Sylvia, the washed-up B-film director who helms the series. As the coke-snorting, ambitious mentor who helps the women come up with their identities, he challenges them to really go into the stereotypes — and in the process, the women grow closer and are more multifaceted than their single names suggest.

As Sylvia explains to a network executive, “They’re gonna be wrestling with their own female stereotypes, metaphorically … and I think that’s something that’ll really resonate with female audiences.”

The women have backstories for each fight as they spar with each other, leading to the ultimate showdown between Ruth Wilder (Brie) and Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), which pits Wilder’s Russian Zoya the Destroyer against the blonde, all-American Liberty Belle.

Wilder gets help forming her character’s nuances from Gregory, the Russian-Jewish owner of the hotel where the women end up staying while they train and rehearse.

“I didn’t know you were Jewish,” Wilder says to Gregory (Ravil Isyanov), who responds by holding up his necklace.

“I wear a giant chai,” he says dubiously.

“Oh, I thought that was a cat.”

Gregory takes Wilder to a family party, which ends up being an impromptu brit milah for his teenaged cousin Michael who was sponsored to come to America from Russia.
Wilder asks if this is a celebration for Michael, “Or did he die? I can’t tell from the faces.”

The scene, while comical and steeped with Jewish references and dramatic, sweeping statements (“Life is suffering,” Gregory laments at one point), also illustrates the challenges Jews faced in this time period.

“Isn’t a bris supposed to happen when you’re a baby?” Wilder asks Gregory, who answers, “In Russia, it wasn’t an option. We had to live in secret. Now he’s in America, he gets to be who he is.”

“Oh… like Yentl! Yentl had to come to America to be who she was,” Wilder answers excitedly.
Overhearing this conversation, Michael, recovering from his procedure, perks up when he hears “Yentl,” leading to Ruth serenading him.

Gregory is unconvinced Wilder would know the music, to which she responds, “Come on. Everybody knows ‘Yentl,’” as she begins singing “This is One of Those Moments.”

Inspired and a bit drunk, she returns to wrestling practice with a rousing “Shalom, everybody!” and a new persona to try: Gittel the Orthodox Warrior, who will capture her opponent between her “completely covered legs and guilt you into submission.”

Melrose was not pleased.

Marissa Stern is a staff writer for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.

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