How Netflix wrestling comedy Glow became a sexism smackdown in season two
Star Betty Gilpin praises the series’ many and layered female roles, and slams the usual one-dimensional roles on offer for actresses in Hollywood today
Betty Gilpin describes the set of her Netflix comedy Glow as “a feminist monastery biodome”.
Yes, that is a positive description.
Gilpin and her character, newly single mother and former soap star Debbie “Liberty Belle” Eagan, return for a second season of the colourful show about the “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling”, a real 1980s series. The new Glow was created by women, and features mostly women as directors, actors and writers.
But Gilpin notes that the show, with its many and layered female roles, is something of an anomaly in Hollywood. “Once we wrap I go back in the world [and] it’s back to auditioning for mute blow-up doll No 7,” she says.
Gilpin, 31, is only half-joking about the tribulations of being a woman in Hollywood. Throughout her acting career (which includes The Good Wife, Nurse Jackie and Fringe) she has auditioned for parts she saw as one-dimensional, like “the sexy nurse who the guy just sort of sexually harasses and you’re supposed to find the male character hilarious”.
And she has been mistreated on a set: “I’ve had many experiences where you realise at the beginning of the job that the male presence on set is establishing a dynamic with you that you do not want any part of: ‘Oh here comes a hand on my back, there it is. There’s the [back] rub, there it starts.’”
Gilpin’s character, Debbie, can relate to that.
Last season, Debbie joined a wrestling show, left her husband and struggled to repair her friendship with her in-the-ring enemy, Ruth “Zoya the Destroya” Wilder (Alison Brie). In 10 new episodes, she confronts rampant sexism as she becomes the All-American star and producer of her wrestling show.
Debbie plans meetings with male co-producers who don’t show up, makes suggestions that are ignored and is told “that is the longest that I’ve ever let a woman who I’m not sleeping with speak” by her show’s director, Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron).
Debbie becomes so accustomed to the chauvinistic culture of show business that she chastises Ruth for ditching an executive who was about to make a move on her.
“You’re supposed to make him think that you might [have sex with] him,” Debbie says. “This is how the business works, Ruth. You have to pretend to like it until you don’t have to any more.”
Gilpin can relate to that scene: “Particularly for being an actress when you’re getting sexually harassed, every job is kind of an island of time that you just have to get through the [awful] parts of that so you can check the ‘my dream’ boxes,” she says. “What’s laughing at a few more jokes at the craft table, if it means you’re not going to get fired?”
Glow creators Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive, former playwrights turned TV writers, don’t have the same connection with Gilpin’s character.
“Betty has been telling a lot of stories that are very enlightening to us,” says Mensch, who worked as a writer on Weeds, created by Jenji Kohan.
And in their second season of Glow, they’ve added to their mostly female crew, which now includes a female-led stunt department and two female assistant directors.
“Frankly, it wasn’t an anomaly for us to have women leading this show,” Mensch says. “We stand on the shoulders of women like Jenji. We came up in their [writers] rooms and on their sets. We’re a part of that change [and] never tolerated [bad behaviour].”
But to Gilpin, spending time on the set is like being part of an “experimental futuristic society” in which men don’t leer at her in a skin-tight wrestling costume, and she doesn’t feel the need to compliment a director to ensure an extra take.
Though most sets are not like Glow, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have improved the climate at many. “There is something to prey on and use to our advantage that people are so terrified of appearing exclusionary [in today’s age],” Gilpin says. “It’s the Salem Witch Trials of being woke.”
In fact, just a month ago while filming horror movie The Grudge, Gilpin considered her young male producers’ fear of ignorance and did something she wouldn’t have.
Gilpin plays a woman who’s older and five months pregnant. “There were a bunch of lines about it being a geriatric pregnancy,” she says.
The actress worried that a thirty-something female viewer would be offended. So she complained to the young male filmmakers, who were surprisingly receptive, she says, immediately excising the dialogue.
“If it was five years ago, I never would have said anything. I was way too scared and way too cognisant and would’ve played the part [as is] because jobs are hard to get,” Gilpin says.
But because of “what’s globally happening in terms of gender and the world … it kind of culls you out of your own fear”.
Hopefully other Debbies will feel that kind of bravery soon, too.
Glow is available for streaming on Netflix