Let’s Talk About Labor Politics in GLOW Season 2

This article contains spoilers for GLOW Season 2.

Since the beginning, Netflix’s GLOW has focused on the safety of the wrestlers and their precarious financial futures. Season 2 is framed around something ostensibly boring: entertainment contracts. As most of the cast of the local access women’s wrestling show immediately sign detrimental contracts because they’re told to, star Debbie leverages her knowledge and power to get herself a much better deal. It’s not all roses for Debbie, who faces a different kind of sexism higher up the ladder than Ruth and her other coworkers and, ultimately, Debbie learns a tough lesson in the power of collective bargaining, or rather the perils of tackling labor issues as an individual concern.

The show’s contracts are one-sided, clearing the studio and channel of any wrongdoing if any of the women are hurt, while giving them little recourse for poor treatment, like Sam firing Reggie to punish Ruth, or a proper avenue to address serious concerns like the state of their locker room and training facilities. Of course the studio retains full rights to the characters and stories within the show, even though many are original creations from the wrestlers themselves, as well as Sam and Bash, who at least get the benefit of credit for their work.

Debbie takes one look at the contract and knows she can do better and, due to her relative power and experience, she does. She has her lawyer ex make changes that, among other things, bring her a producer credit. Notably, she tells no one, until it comes time to claim her right to be in production meetings and her own personal changing area, which turns out to be Sam’s office and seems to have more to do with a desire to do coke than anything else. This negotiation brings Debbie into a position of authority, while Ruth and the rest of her coworkers toil away with nothing.

Ruth clearly does more work on the show than Debbie, directing an opening title sequence of her own motivation, writing a PSA, and working on storylines throughout Seasons 1 and 2. Sam promises Cherry that he’ll double her salary if she trains the girls, but Carmen, who brings much of the wrestling knowledge and sees her own matches suffer due to giving personalized training to her coworkers, gets no such offer. Then there’s Jenny (stage name: Fortune Cookie) who makes all the costumes, for what appears to be no compensation.

Debbie and Ruth both deal with sexism, but their power differential makes them vulnerable to different problems. Debbie’s higher profile and obvious show of power keeps her out of a predatory TV executive’s crosshairs, but they can’t protect her from Sam and Bash’s casual sexism. Debbie struggles to make her seat at the table a reality. The two men are regularly unprofessional and do anything they can to duck Debbie, who they view alternately as a nagging mother and someone they can sucker into doing their homework, like the PSA to quiet the “Concerned Women of America” protest group.

Sexual harassment abounds on GLOW, ranging from Sam Silvia blatantly stating he would hire based on who he found attractive, to the creepy fan mail and even snail mail dick pics the wrestlers receive. The most egregious example is, of course, when TV exec Tom Grant has Ruth come to his hotel room for a “dinner meeting” that quickly changes its tenor. While characters have speculated over which wrestlers were cast via the casting couch since the beginning (namely, Cherry and Yolanda), Ruth’s encounter exposes that thought process as deeply flawed, instead showcasing the inherent powerlessness in the lives of the young performers just barely scraping to get by.

When Sam learns that GLOW has lost their timeslot to a men’s wrestling show, Bash pushes for more intense wrestling, with bigger moves, harder hits, and more dramatic falls, changing the show’s priorities. He blames himself for Ruth’s injury, and it’s entirely possible that his and Sam’s attitude is what lead to Ruth ignoring her instincts when Debbie repeatedly showed warning signs that her head was not in the match. It’s also worth wondering if any other wrestler would have gotten away with Debbie’s sudden changes in behavior, which could have signaled her recreational drug use to a supervisor, if one had been paying attention.

At the hospital, Sam and Bash are disturbed to learn how few of the wrestlers have health insurance, though their own privilege continues to keep them from seeing their role in this reality. It feels like poetic irony that Debbie, who has insurance and so much wealth she can sell her stuff at cut rates when she has a bad a day, is the one who takes recreational drugs and hospitalizes Ruth, who can’t afford a second pair of wrestling shoes. While Debbie pays social consequences for what she has done to Ruth, in terms of isolation from the rest of her coworkers, she essentially gets off Scott free for injuring her teammate and former best friend.

Debbie does experience some form of comeuppance, though it comes at the expense of everyone when the show is killed by the network and the GLOW team realizes that they have no right to their own creation. Debbie learns a hard lesson in solidarity: signing a better contract helped advance her station in some ways, but it didn’t protect her from the ramifications of her coworkers signing something so onerous. It turns out Debbie isn’t much use without the rest of her cast, and she didn’t bother considering the collective needs of the group when she signed her contract.

GLOW is ultimately a show about a rag tag group of weirdos who are putting everything on the line to make something they love and believe in. But the members in that group are not taking equal risks – nor will they receive equal rewards – and GLOW’s second season is not shy about how that inequity plays into the show’s labor politics and social dynamics.

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