“I’m a fucking bovine mutant”: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and the (Un)Tamed Performance of the Female Body – Meeting Report

On Monday 13th November the network was delighted to welcome University of Reading PhD candidate and sessional lecturer Anna Varadi from the Department of Film, Theatre and Television to present her research on the Netflix series GLOW and the (un)tame bodies of the show’s female wrestlers. (If you are currently watching, or intend to watch GLOW, please note that there will be spoilers in this post).

GLOW
2017 Netflix series GLOW

Rocking a ‘Girls just wanna have fundamental human rights’ t-shirt, we knew the GSRN was in good hands with Anna! Introducing the subject of her analysis, Anna outlined the premise of GLOW, a 2017 Netflix series fictionalising the creation of an American television show of the 1980’s, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Due to the depiction of feminist issues within GLOW, analysing this program presents opportunities for Anna to see how a return to the past can both clarify and complicate our contemporary, and future, feminist goals.

One such issue, still central to feminist goals, is that of the female body and the control that can be exerted over it. Anna played the network a clip from the pilot episode of Ruth and Debbie at an aerobics class. On noticing that Debbie was lactating, Ruth alerted Debbie to what is taken to be an embarrassing situation, and provides Debbie with a jumper to hide the visible signs of her lactation. It is at this point that Debbie says the line which Anna has taken as the title of her presentation: “I’m a fucking bovine mutant”.

GLOW Clip 1
“I’m a fucking bovine mutant” – Scene from episode 1 of GLOW

Anna conveyed this scene as depicting the ‘leaky female body’, stemming from the idea that female lactation is associated with a lack of control. This is supported by Noortje van Amsterdam’s analysis, that women struggle with their “ungovernable bodies”. By self-referencing as a “bovine mutant”, Debbie frames lactation as an unnatural, alien process. This is strongly juxtaposed with the scene portrayed, as a gym class is often where women may go to gain control over their bodies.

Another feminist issue the aerobics scene illuminated for Anna was that of Ruth regulating Debbie by pointing out her lactation, and instilling a sense of embarrassment. Drawing on Alison Winch’s concept of the ‘girlfriend gaze’, Anna highlighted how this scene supports Winch’s critique of post-feminism and ‘girlfriend culture’. Whilst proponents of post-feminism might argue that women are active subjects of girlfriend culture, Anna demonstrates how women excerpt control by regulating each other.

Anna stressed the significance of the 1980’s setting as it stands as the last pre-postfeminism phase in time. On reflection of other shows which portray a previous time frame, such as Madman, Lynn Spiegal noted a “postfeminist nostalgia for a prefeminist future”. Anna notes how the 2017 GLOW has moved away from accepting postfeminism and has embraced a more activist approach. GLOW strongly contrasts with programs such as Sex and the City, a distinctively postfeminist program in which women are dependent on men, and more contemporary feminist programs such as The Handmaid’s Tale, which is expressly feminist in its vision.

At this point, Anna introduced the idea of the male gaze, in contrast to the girlfriend gaze. The next clip that Anna played depicted Debbie and Ruth fighting, or wrestling, on Debbie’s discovery of Ruth’s affair with her husband, followed by a clip from the final episode in which Debbie engages in wrestling during the filming of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.

GLOW Clip 2
Clip from episode 1 GLOW

Anna argued how these clips invoke the male gaze, particularly in the first of the two clips, in which the male gaze is a fantasy sequence of a hypersexualised version of reality. Throughout the clip, the aesthetics of reality and fantasy are strongly contrasted. The sexualised fantasy of the fictional director portrays the sexual exploitation of the women of GLOW, but also, the very clear visual woman on woman fighting represents a clear extension of the ‘girlfriend gaze’ or ‘culture’, with women regulating and exerting control over each other’s bodies.

glow clip 3
Clip from the final episode of GLOW

The second of the two clips portrayed Debbie reasserting control over her own body. Anna argues that this scene represents a woman’s space, whereas the sexualised fantasy scene of the director was a clearly male dominated space. Whilst Debbie’s new found control over her body represents an important shift in the program, Anna argued that this scene is used to demonstrate how, despite the supposedly feminist success in this gaining of bodily integrity, feminist issues of the 1980’s prevail in contemporary society. Anna suggested that the shifting of the lens, between present day GLOW visuals, and the grainy visuals of the 1980’s fight clips, is used to symbolise the coincidence of feminist issues in both time frames.

To illuminate the coincidence of past and contemporary feminist issues further, Anna introduced to the network a later scene which centred on Ruth’s abortion. The temporal gap was important to Anna in her analysis due to the increasing portrayal of abortions in present day media, such as Girls and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for example. Media narratives, Anna explained, are important to societal perceptions of abortion, and with that in mind, the framing of the abortion scene in GLOW, appears to be a positive one. Ruth asserts control over her body through wrestling, and in deciding whether she wants to proceed with the termination, Ruth says “I am a wrestler”. The control that she gained through wrestling, informs her decision and allows for further control.

In Anna’s analysis of some media responses to she noted much praise for GLOW’s portrayal of Ruth’s abortion. A small selection of media outlets, often from more conservative sources, were more critical in this regard. One such article from the DailyWire included the following critique:

“I hoped GLOW would be the one show feminists would not taint with their shrewish agenda.”

One possible, and appeasing, reply to this, is that GLOW is set in a different time, but as Anna stated at the start of her presentation, such reflections on the past can both clarify and confuse our contemporary and future feminist goals. Anna compares the 2017 portrayal of a 1980’s abortion with the highly contrasting portrayal of a 1960’s abortion in the 1980s film, Dirty Dancing. In the latter film, the abortion was shrouded in connotations of unsafe and unclean clandestine abortions, representing the feminist issues of the 1980s, whereas in GLOW, the abortion scene is framed in a narrative of control over one’s own body.

A huge GSRN thank you to Anna for her captivating discussion of GLOW, the 80’s, and all things feminism. It was truly insightful and we want to wish her luck in the continuation of her research. Thank you as always to all those who were able to attend and contribute to a lively Q&A!

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