Reimagining the American Hero: Race, Welfare Queens, and Wrestling in the New Netflix Series GLOW

September 13, 2017 Lucy Odigie-Turley

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

**Disclaimer: This article includes spoilers**

What can a comedy-drama about a women’s wrestling league teach us about the current state of political discourse? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

On a particularly rainy and uneventful Saturday afternoon, I occupied my time by binge-watching an entire season on Netflix. My show of choice; the new Netflix original series, “G.L.O.W” (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), the latest project from producers Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, and “Orange is the New Black” creator, Jenji Kohan.

A still image from the Netflix comedy-drama GLOW of the "Welfare Queen"Set in Reagan-era Los Angeles and inspired by a true story, “GLOW” follows the story of Ruth Wilder, a struggling actress who auditions for a role in the new league. In the course of the season, we are introduced to has-been Hollywood director Sam Sylvia (played by Marc Maron) and the dozen or so other women who Sam is tasked with transforming into the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.

On the surface, “GLOW” appears to be a comedy about the bizarre and colorful world of women’s amateur wrestling. However, it was not long before issues of gender, race, and class to came to the forefront, and the social politics of 1980s America converged with the world of women’s wrestling. The highly politicized nature of the series was made evident by Sam’s struggle throughout the season to develop stage personas for his motley crew of actresses. His inability to establish a clear artistic vision culminates in a showdown between Sam and the league’s financial backer, Sebastian 'Bash' Howard, in which Bash pleas for Sam to return to the basics and see the obvious - that his wrestlers are not the Amazons Sam envisioned, but “a jock,“an Arab,” and “a big Black girl.” What Bash’s argument lacks in tactfulness, it makes up for in its astute awareness of the central elements that have defined wrestling (and the entertainment industry more broadly); elements that Sam’s pursuit of nuance and depth made him overlook. Those elements are of course, racialized stereotypes.

On the surface, “GLOW” appears to be a comedy about the bizarre and colorful world of women’s amateur wrestling. However, it was not long before issues of gender, race, and class to came to the forefront, and the social politics of 1980s America converged with the world of women’s wrestling.

In his article for the now defunct online magazine Grantland, author David Showmaker details the long history of racialized stereotyping in wrestling, noting how slurs such as “yard ape,” “lawn jockey,”“honky,” and “Chinco,” were used regularly by World Wrestling Federation (WWF)  (now World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)) wrestlers looking for easy boos from the crowd. Beyond providing cheap entertainment, wrestling’s use of caricatures and stereotypes reflects the centrality of stereotypes in many Americans’ imagination, and  how depictions of heroes and villains have traditionally acted to reinforce racial and gendered hierarchies.

A still image of GLOW of a woman with a keffiyah and a gun

It is no surprise then that “GLOW” directors decided to depict the ultimate stereotype and villain to emerge from the Reagan era – the welfare queen. As noted by Rachel Black and Aleta Sprague in their extensive article examining the genesis of the modern welfare queen trope, it was during a 1976 campaign speech delivered by would-be president Ronald Reagan that the image of the lazy, system-abusing, Black queen of welfare was solidified in the imagination of many Americans. Reagan’s vivid storytelling has presented long-term implications and continues to shape many white Americans’ attitudes toward social safety nets.

In the series, the welfare queen caricature is assigned to Tamme, a middle-aged Black woman who expresses serious reservations about her new persona. In an exchange with director Sam, Tamme explains her concerns, stating that she fears the character is not only offensive, but that the goal of the character (which Sam explains is “a fuck-you to the Republican Party and their welfare reform and race-baiting shit”), will be lost on most members of the audience, including her own son.

I, myself shared similar reservations to Tamme watching “GLOW” for the first time. The presence of wrestling persona Welfare Queen (alongside fellow wrestlers Fortune Cookie and Beirut, the Mad Bomber, pictured above) made me profoundly uncomfortable, and I questioned if the depictions run the risk of reinforcing more stereotypes than they help to challenge. At the same time, I also recognize that the presence of such troubling caricatures provides an important commentary on not only the racial politics of 1980s America, but also the state of U.S. politics today.

The current debate about the presence of confederate monuments in town and cities across the country is just one example of the symbolic role heroes and villains, and winners and losers continue to play in shaping American social and political discourse. And in a political climate where the vilifying of Muslims, immigrants, trans-people, and other traditionally marginalized communities has become more overt, our ability to tell new stories that help redefine who Americans imagine as their heroes and, critically, as members of their team, may prove critical to achieving transformative change.

Our latest report, Power of Pop provides some helpful tips for those seeking to engage popular entertainment, and best practices for using shows like “GLOW” to spark much needed conversations about social justice issues.