Leotards, glitter and bodies pushed to their limits: the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) on screen and off
We are walking down a busy Fitzroy street on a Sunday afternoon. Ahead of me, two women are decked out in electric blue and purple tights, bottoms bouncing in thong leotards. Behind, a friend is wrapped in a golden cape, her face covered with a red mask. I am wearing a silver lightning-strike top and sparkly leggings, and have a blonde comb-over that easily rivals Donald Trump’s. We are all rocking an ONJ attitude. People in the street turn and watch as we pass by, cars honking. Gold glitter trails us as we walk. We are heading for Evie’s Disco Diner.
The bar is packed with fans of GLOW, Netflix’s hit series about women’s wrestling. Most people are dressed up: 1980s aerobics gear, lycra marvels, bad mullet wigs. I am old enough to actually remember the fashions, but most people here would not have been born then. The booths are full; the bar area is standing room only. The wrestling ring takes up the whole dance floor, and the wrestlers do a lap through the crowd as they are announced — Vixsin, Avary, Erika, Indi, Kellyanne. The women wear their personas well: punk and outlandish; fine and deceptively sweet; tartan warrior.
The wrestling is exciting to watch: a mix of bravado and choreographed pain, extending the perception of a body’s limits — the harsh slap and whack of the upper back as it slams onto the mat. At each acrobatic feat, the crowd responds: catcalling, screaming, riling, slow clapping, a quick inhalation or wince as bodies somersault through the air or charge into corners. The opening match is too much of a whiny catfight for my taste — lots of hair pulling and shouts of ‘You bitch!’ — but as the program progresses, the competitors get stronger and more magnificent in their weightiness; the power of the dance becomes more subtle. By the final round, the boundary between performers and spectators is gone: the wrestlers are in the audience, pouring drinks over each other’s heads, confronting the crowd with in-your-face antics.
GLOW: A TV show based on a doco based on a TV show
GLOW IRL (in real life), the first women’s-only wrestling event to be held in Melbourne for many years, reflects a growing interest in the spectacle, both locally and internationally. The event’s title alludes to the Netflix series, itself a fictionalised remake of GLOW — Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which aired in the US from 1986 to 1990. The series was a massive hit, screening to an audience of twenty-six million at its peak.
Fans of the current GLOW series appreciate that it is about more than wrestling. The joy comes from that particular brand of 1980s glamour and decadence: big hair, over-the-top personas (that would be seen as sexist and racist today), sexual charisma and high-camp attitude. Most of all, the TV show celebrates the feminist struggle of the times with a wink wink nudge nudge to contemporary audiences, along with the strengths of friendships between women, evoking a sense of sisterhood. The series was inspired by a 2012 documentary, GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which features interviews with most of the original wrestlers — featured over its five seasons — about the impact the show had on their lives.
One of the most appealing features of the various incarnations of GLOW is the strong characterisations of women in television. The characters in the current series are based on true-life wrestlers, including Matilda the Hun, Jailbait, MTV, Tina Ferrari, Mountain Fiji, Ninotchka, Americana and Big Bad Mama, all of who appear in the 2012 documentary. Each woman was encouraged to find what made her unique and then play a more extreme version of that character. Original wrestler Susie Spirit recalls how ‘everything was exaggerated — [the show] poked fun at economics, it poked fun at the Cold War with Russia.’ Only a couple of the women had wrestling experience when they joined; Matilda the Hun wrestled a 700-pound black bear in her first professional match because she was prohibited from wrestling men and there were no other women to take on. On the surface, the 1980s series encapsulates the freedom, liberation and empowerment of the period, but behind the scenes the women were cloistered, divided into ‘bad girls’ and ‘good girls’, and even pressured to give up their apartments so they could all live in the same house. Whether at home or out on the town, they were told to adhere to strict groups and personas. Lightning, who joined the show in season three, describes being tightly reined in at the age of twenty-four through curfews and rules: ‘They didn’t want us to have any life of our own outside GLOW.’
For the uninitiated, GLOW offers a way in to the subculture of professional wrestling, a place where insider knowledge is closely guarded and terminology can be confounding. Just how much is real or fake? Does it really hurt? Where does the power lie, and how does it shift? The show seems to revel in revealing some of wrestling’s secrets, which conversely makes watching it live more exciting; audiences must continually navigate these questions as they watch the women make feats of strength and endurance look effortless. The Women Wrestling website (women-wrestling.org) helps here, too, offering a handy guide to hardcore techniques like the ‘electric chair’, the ‘glam slam’ and the ‘buttdrop’. The more subtle pinning manoeuvres and submission holds make the match seem like a dance, or even a seduction:
Submission holds are some of the sexiest moves in women’s wrestling. These are sometimes simple, sometimes intricate combinations of locks, grips and holds meant to break down the willpower of the defending wrestlerette and to make her surrender the match. According to most female wrestlers, a win by a submission is worth much more psychologically that one via a pin.
US and Australian women’s wrestling: that was then, this is now
Tracing the history of women’s wrestling in the US gives an interesting snapshot of cultural change and dynamics. The 2016 documentary Lady-Wrestler: The Amazing, Untold Story of African-American Women in the Ring tells the story of Ramona Isbell, who had a successful wrestling career in the 1960s, touring the US, Australia, Nigeria and Japan, but who then kept her past a secret for fifty years. In an interview with the Chronicle-Herald in 2018, Isbell remembers loving the freedom, money, travel and fun that wrestling provided, as well as the chance to break social boundaries: when wrestling in Detroit and other cities in the north, Isbell was able to compete against white women, but in the southern states she could only wrestle black women. These days she is concerned about public perceptions: ‘What are they going to say at church?’
The 1980s changed the way women wrestlers were perceived in the US. The popularity of GLOW gave the sport legitimacy and encouraged more women to take up the profession. But the industry’s attitude shifted in the late 1990s, when WrestleMania took on a more sexualised edge, treating the women and their bodies with contempt. According to Thomas Leffler, this era was all about ‘wrestling pimps, porn stars and scantily-clad women. The male contingent ate it up … while many women were turned off by the crude treatment of the WWE-termed “Divas”. Tina Ferrari, who joined World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) after GLOW ended, agrees. In an interview for USA Today, Ferrari recalls that during the 1980s ‘everybody had their own shape and size’. This changed in the 1990s, when the WWE began recruiting perfect bikini bodies, models with no training, overlooking those wrestlers with skill and experience: ‘They wanted them to look sexy and stupid, unfortunately.’
A history of women’s professional wrestling in Australia is harder to pull together. In Libnan Ayoub and Tom Gannon’s 100 Years of Australian Professional Wrestling — a yearly breakdown of who wrestled whom, where and when — only a few women are named, and usually as a sidenote, mentioned just before ‘midgets’. The first advertisement featuring women wrestlers comes in the late 1960s and refers to two American wrestlers: Princess Little Cloud, a young, wholesome-looking girl shown wearing a Native American headdress, and Bette Boucher, a pin-up leaning against a wall with her arm raised. The first Australian woman wrestler mentioned is Sherri Sinatra, who debuted in 1972 and continued to wrestle for several decades, regularly touring New Zealand, the Philippines and other countries. Along the way her opponents included Mona West, Jenny Demalias, Patti Ryan, Donna Taylor, Princess Tara and Donna Marie. In more recent years, Sinatra regularly acted as a referee, and in 2000 she set up a women’s wrestling school in Sydney, before retiring two years later.
Other legendary figures included Susan Sexton, who headed to the US and worked with some of the GLOW women, eventually being recognised as world champion in 1990, and Amy Action, the first woman in Australia to wrestle in the men’s division. Restrictions on mixed-gender bouts meant that Action had to wear a mask and oversized clothes to disguise her identity, adopting the stage persona of Kombat Karl.
It was only in the 2000s that things really seemed to pick up for Australian women wrestlers. Tenille Tayla signed with WWE in 2011, and other key figures include Sara Jay, Kellie Skater, Rhea Ripley and Madison Eagles, who started the Pro Wrestling Women’s Alliance, the only Australian company of its kind.
These days, women in the industry are clearly up front and in focus, featuring in both mixed programs and women-only bouts. Championed by organisations such as Australian Indy Wrestling, Warzone Wrestling Australia, Underworld Wrestling and Battle Championship Wrestling, wrestlers like Tessa Blanchard, Savannah Summers, Xena, Kingsley, Taylah Rose and Melina are leading line-ups and serving as strong and formidable opponents. Western Sydney’s Peyton Royce and Billie Kay, a double act known as the IIconics, went to the same school, Westfield Sports High in Fairfield West, and have made the big time in world wrestling. Playing up their broad Aussie accents — the US crowd chant ‘I can’t understand you’ — the women maul their opponents and set out to annoy American audiences with high-pitched squealing. They annoy me, too, until I watch their ‘Iconic or Not?’ YouTube video. After going through various items of Oz culture — Iggy Azalea, Vegemite, the Hemsworth brothers — they settle on long socks and sandals, hailing the combination as ‘an Australian fashion icon sensation!’
Like their counterparts in GLOW, the IIconics’ appeal is one of subversive humour and comic extremes. But they still have to fight to make what they do the focus of attention, rather than their bodies. Dave Meltzer, from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, was recently forced to apologise after commenting that Royce was ‘more attractive’ when she was ‘lighter’. Royce responded on Twitter, to overwhelming support: ‘So what would you have me do, Dave … starve myself? This is how nightmares for young women start.’
Wrestling, porn and the degradation of women’s bodies
A problem for women in professional wrestling has always been the association with other forms of wrestling, like jelly wrestling, mud wrestling and even nude wrestling/porn (for example, the Naked Women’s Wrestling League, hosted by Carmen Electra from 2004 to 2007) that are regarded by many as degrading to women. When I first started watching a YouTube clip of two women in bikinis slipping about in slime at the Land of Promise Hotel in Hindmarsh, South Australia, it all looked harmless and fun. But then the crowd of men starts to hound the women — ‘Take your top off!’ — leading the announcer to say ‘There are no rules — you can do anything you want’. The competition takes on a wild, alcohol-fuelled edge; it is as far removed from the GLOW IRL experience as you can imagine. As the girl finally succumbs and starts to take her bikini top off, the video cuts out, leading to plenty of thumbs-down.
This style of wrestling is linked to the World Wrestling Federation’s mud wrestling bouts in the late 1990s. In one bout accessible on YouTube, the SmackDown announcer tells wrestler Miss Kitty: ‘Seeing as you are so obsessed with showing your cleavage, the only way to win is to rip your opponent’s top off.’ The shift of responsibility for subjugation here is subtle: the result now hinges on women’s desire to show off their bodies not on the devouring male gaze.
The way in which male spectators understand and respond to competitors’ bodies is telling. Writing about ‘masculinised’ women athletes in Weimar Germany, Katie Sutton discusses male responses to the anxieties provoked by these women, and their reactions are instantly recognisable to the modern viewer:
[Cultural commentators] responded to the symbolic threat of the ‘masculinised’ female athlete by devising strategies through which to defuse her subversive potential. One of the most straightforward methods of containment was caricature and ridicule.
Jetta Rae, a trans woman who has worked in the porn and wrestling industries in the US, sees a close tie between them in terms of treatment of participants, particularly women: ‘Porn producers and wrestling promoters profit from performers’ ability to care for and condition their bodies — their most precious asset — but fail to provide the resources or protections to preserve those bodies.’
The GLOW documentary reveals the ongoing impact of wrestling on the women’s physical health. Rather than competing in a real arena, the women were forced to wrestle in a plywood ring covered in carpet. Babe the Farmer’s Daughter says that training four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon was so hard she could barely walk: ‘They wanted to see if they could break you.’ Tina Ferrari describes director Matt Cimber manipulating the women like ‘an abusive husband’, with the women expected to smile through the pain. Matilda the Hun and Mountain Fiji both ended up in wheelchairs as a result of their wrestling. Matilda reveals the full ordeal their bodies endured:
Oh, people were hurt all the time … A lot of the girls ended up with permanent knee injuries. Susie Spirit ended up with her elbow poking out of her socket, looking like she’d never be able to use her arm again … I have degenerative disc disease — which ended up turning into numb feet and losing toes — I can’t stand for any length of time and now my hands are going numb.
As a spectator sport, women’s wrestling seems full of contradictions, but GLOW seems to have moved it beyond mere objectification and into a performance space where women as participants and audience feel like they belong. What it reminds me of most is roller derby: the friendly competitiveness, the emphasis on the body, the theatricality and dress-ups. In an article for Journal of Leisure Research, Adele Pavlidis talks about her own involvement in roller derby:
[It offered a] space where women can enact different femininities, where they can present themselves as tough, mean, sexy, rough and strong … It is a space where women can express [what Finley calls] pariah identities and where they can perform alternative femininities.
At GLOW IRL, the overwhelming feeling is not one of aggression or voyeuristic gaze. Rather, it is one of sisterhood, of respect, of a place to play out your fantasies, dashed with a great deal of humour — a similar tone to that captured in the current Netflix series. For 1980s teensters like myself, the music and fashion also offer a dash of nostalgia. After the wrestlers have gone, my friends and I make a dash for the ring, swinging up through the ropes, running and bounding off them like we have seen on TV, unleashed for the night — before the ring is dismantled and turned back into a dance floor. As Lightning says, ‘I had glitter in my hair for ten years after GLOW ended. Glitter is, like, permanent.’