‘GLOW’ Brings #MeToo to the 1980s

Posted July 3, 2018 3:44 p.m. EDT

Netflix’s “GLOW,” about a women’s wrestling TV program in the 1980s, is a sharp, insightful comedy. But a subplot in the new season’s fifth episode begins more like a horror story — one we have seen described repeatedly over the past year, in the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood predators.

Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) gets an exciting call: The head of the TV network, Tom Grant (Paul Fitzgerald), wants to have dinner with her to discuss her career. They make an appointment at a restaurant. A hotel restaurant. Where, when Ruth arrives, the host directs her to Tom’s bungalow. “Mr. Grant always takes dinner meetings in his room,” he says.

Glen Klitnick (Andrew Friedman) — an executive at the local station that airs the wrestling show — meets Ruth and Tom in the room but quickly leaves to “grab a couple menus.” Tom suggests that acting on a wrestling show must not be “quite what you had in mind for yourself.” Then he suggests that Ruth show him “a move or two.”

In the process, he is showing us his own moves — the signature playbook of serial predation, as refined and choreographed as any staged back flip.

There are the quiet enablers, setting up a dinner that they must know is not about dinner. There is the way Ruth alerts to the danger signs as soon as Glen leaves the room, but feels compelled to try to salvage the meeting. There is the way Tom simultaneously flatters Ruth and attacks her self-esteem, planting the idea that she is stuck, that she is a failure, that she needs something that he can give her.

Ruth gingerly puts Tom in a headlock. He gropes her. She tries to make an excuse to leave, but he insists that she stay for “a hot meal and a good bath.” Finally, as he goes to run the Jacuzzi, she makes her escape.

The scene would be effective enough as a sort of educational video: a step-by-step illustration of how predators operate and an answer to anyone who is asked, “Why would she let herself be put in that situation?”

But the episode, written by Rachel Shukert, really distinguishes itself when Ruth tells the story to Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), her estranged best friend and co-star. (Debbie plays the patriotic hero Liberty Belle, Ruth her Soviet nemesis, Zoya.) They have just gotten word that their show is being buried in a 2 a.m. time slot, and Ruth realizes she is probably the reason.

“I can’t believe this,” Debbie says. Ruth (and presumably the audience) assumes she is talking about the network dirtbag. She is not. “You’re in the hotel room of the head of the network,” she says, “he comes on to you and you run away?”

Ruth, aghast, asks Debbie if she was supposed to have sex with him. “No! You’re supposed to make him think that you might,” Debbie says, “if only you didn’t have a fiancé or your period or an extra set of teeth where your vagina should be.”

This is not what Ruth expected. It is not what we, the audience watching in the #MeToo era, expect. Of course Ruth did nothing wrong. Of course it is not her job to make it easier for her boss to be a pig.

The temptation is to write Debbie’s response off to resentment (Debbie’s ex-husband cheated on her with Ruth), selfishness, naïveté or internalized sexism. But “GLOW” complicates the matter. Debbie, the show makes clear, is all too aware of her business’ sexism.

She came up in the business as a soap opera star, fought to become a producer of her low-budget wrestling show and applied her soap experience to the melodramatic story arcs of the ring. Yet she is dismissed, ignored and patronized by the men she works with.

Earlier that same episode, she walked into a meeting where Glen greeted the director, Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), as an “auteur”; the show’s money man, Bash Howard (Chris Lowell), as a “superproducer”; and Debbie as “the beautiful Liberty Belle.”

The scene between Ruth and Debbie is remarkable in part because of how well Gilpin simultaneously conveys Debbie’s anger with her co-star and her exhaustion with her own situation. No, Ruth should not have to pretend to enjoy Tom’s lechery, she says. But, she adds, “Feminism has principles. Life has compromises.”

“GLOW” is, at its core, about how women make art in an imperfect industry. In the wrestling ring, that means literally embodying the stereotypes they have had imposed on them — pinups, bitches, vixens, hags. It can be empowering, and it can be objectifying, and sometimes the two are inseparable. (The episode’s title, “Perverts Are People, Too,” refers to the cast members meeting some of the more attentive male fans who keep the show on the air.)

In the season’s fantastic fourth episode, for instance, Tammé Dawson (Kia Stevens) reveals to her son, a student at Stanford, that she has been playing an African-American cliché, “Welfare Queen.” It is uncomfortable to see him watch a taping of the show, where his mother embodies this racist stereotype while the crowd chants at her “Get! A! Job!” (The cadence, incidentally, sounds not a little like “Lock! Her! Up!”)

But Tammé is also great in the role; her Welfare Queen is powerful and swaggering and unapologetic, and audiences — whatever subconscious prejudices the character is tweaking or appealing to — love to watch her. “You were right, it was offensive,” he tells her. But also: “You threw a white girl across the ring? When did you get that strong?”

Out of the many ways in which the world has typecast them, the women of “GLOW” have made incendiary, punk entertainment. They are working with the world they have been given. Just so, the showdown between Ruth and Debbie is about the strategies they have each developed to apply their minds to an industry that wants to see them as bodies.

The point of the scene is not so much who wins the argument, but why the argument happens in the first place. One of them has been harassed, one of them has been dismissed, yet here they are, pitted in the ring against each other. That is one of show business’ oldest moves.