Netflix’s newest original hit, GLOW, forged a deep connection with me almost immediately. At it’s heart, GLOW is about the journey of the artist.
A lot of people talk about wrestling as an art form, but I don’t think most people realize just how much the path of a professional wrestler mirrors the path of an artist of any sort. GLOW takes this parallel and moulds it into the backbone of its story – all of the other elements of the series can be traced back to the path of the artist.
Professional wrestlers begin their careers in grimy local indies that are the butt of many jokes. Often derided for their no-name rosters, cheap presentation, and taking place in buildings that look an awful lot like GLOW’s training warehouse, these local indies nevertheless serve a vital function in the wrestler-artist’s existence; they allow the wrestler a place to develop their craft. They serve the same function as local theatre for actors, or student newspapers for writers and cartoonists.
While the details of how each art form works are different, the early phase of the artist’s career is marked by a period of grinding. In this phase, the artist takes as many opportunities as they can to practice their craft, usually for little to no money, in an effort to develop their skills and establish themselves in their field.
Unfortunately, economic necessities mean that most aspiring artists won’t leave this stage of their careers; they’ll find something more lucrative to do than posting comics online or driving four hours to get tossed around in a rickety ring.
In GLOW, we meet Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) as she attempts to leave this phase of her career behind.
Ruth has more to offer than roles in community theatre productions, and she’s getting the auditions to validate that. She has entered the infuriating in-between phase of her career, where the gatekeepers of her art form acknowledge her, but she can’t get traction. The grinding has paid off… almost. Publishers, bigger promotions, studios… they’re paying attention. A lot of them know who you are. But knowing who you are and giving you money to do what you do are different things, and that’s the gap Ruth is trying to cross when GLOW begins. The tryout scene in the first episode highlights one of the most frustrating elements of this period in an artist’s career, which is seeing others that you think haven’t put in the work you have be up for the same opportunities you are.
Everyone will tell you not to compare yourself to others, and to focus on what you can do for yourself, and they’re right. It’s a negative headspace that can be harmful, but it can also be motivating, as Ruth discovers during the tryout. The manner in which Ruth forces her way onto the GLOW roster is played for awkward laughs, but it highlights the sense of desperation that many artists feel when their goals are close, but not quite close enough. Ruth takes matters into her own hands and forces the issue, and in that sense she’s performing her equivalent of the stunts indie wrestlers undertake to get themselves noticed. She’s the guy in an armoury saying “yeah, I’ll do that spot” in hopes of raising his profile, or the guy taking every booking offered, no matter where or for how little, to ensure his name is in people’s mouths. She’s grabbing the brass ring, as it were.
Landing a spot on the GLOW roster is Ruth Wilder’s break. It’s not what she wanted, but it’s role on TV that she can use as a foundation to build on. An artist’s break is usually what allows them to transition out of the post-grinding phase and into a hopefully more stable period. What constitutes one’s break can be highly variable – sometimes it’s meeting the right person, or finding an unexploited niche, or being hired for a particular project – but it is almost invariably the most visible thing the artist has done to that point. There are countless instances of show-stealing performances in visible promotions that seem to shoot the stock of indie wrestlers through the roof overnight. On a personal note, I found my break in my art career when I signed my first book deal. I happened to meet the head of a publishing company, and had built up a portfolio during my grinding phase that was strong enough to convince him to let me pitch him a book idea. It was my “getting onto the GLOW roster” moment.
For most of the GLOW series, Ruth learns the same lesson that I and many, many others did after they got a break – getting in is easy, staying in is hard. As the GLOW project threatens to fall apart at any moment, Ruth finds herself trying to hold it together not because she cares about the project, but because she cares about what it represents for her – the biggest platform she’s ever had. She learns that the phase after your break is remarkably similar to the initial grind, except with some money. The big break is largely a myth – most people will get a bunch of small breaks that add up to a career. As a result, the real value of one’s first break is that, if it works out, it can be used as leverage to create further chances to shine.
While Ruth struggles to keep her opportunity from falling apart, Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) provides an example of leveraging one break into another. A former soap opera actress, she’s able to use that fame to bypass GLOW’s tryouts entirely, and instead reach a level that many artists never do – she’s a sought-after commodity. A star. Most artists would kill to be able to do their thing and have opportunities come to them, but like Ruth, have to spend as much time hustling as they do actually making the art they love.
Let’s all hope that Ruth’s hustle pays off, for art’s sake.