Spoilers ahead for GLOW Season 2 Episode 4. There's a lot to love about GLOW, the '80s-set Netflix dramedy inspired by the real-life amateur women’s wrestling show. Not only does it celebrate an underappreciated program that highlighted real women doing extraordinary things, but GLOW tells the personal stories of a diverse group of women who often don't get to spend time in the spotlight. For these characters, the show-within-the-show validates their dreams, no matter how outrageous or seemingly unachievable.
For the usually meek Ruth "Zoya the Destroya" Wilder (Alison Brie), she gets to be the intimidating leader, a winner who doesn't let even a broken leg keep her out of the ring. Debbie "Liberty Belle" Egan (Betty Gilpin), who just left her cheating husband and is now a single mom in her 30s — still a taboo in the 1980s — gets to be the punisher she’s unable to be in the real world. In the ring, she can lean into the fury a woman like her is not supposed to have. But while the show’s (and the show-within-the-show’s) white stars continue to flourish in the ring, GLOW’s women of color are stunted as they grapple with embodying wrestling personas based entirely on racial stereotypes that hinder any real promise of success.
This distinction is never more clear than in Season 2’s standout episode, which centers on Tammé, aka “Welfare Queen” (Kia Stevens) as she prepares for an iconic battle against “Liberty Belle” and confronts the implications of playing a problematic character in the ring as she visits her son at Stanford University. It’s an episode that purposely and authentically explores a black woman character that until now we haven’t gotten to know very well, and in that respect, it succeeds. But while the episode supports the show’s commitment to highlighting diverse narratives, it also highlights GLOW's greatest flaw.
Although the writers take the time to present Tammé’s standalone narrative in Episode 4, there is something alarmingly different in how hers progresses as opposed to that of the two white protagonists. Unlike Ruth and Debbie, who wow the crowd and live out their wildest dreams as their alter egos, Tammé is reduced to a cheap punchline whose story doesn’t end with her feeling heroic or even good about herself. Rather, after Episode 4, she's tossed back to the margins as the storylines of the two white main characters accelerate towards the finale.
Tammé's "Welfare Queen" wrestling persona requires her to embody some of the most pernicious racial stereotypes. While the show acknowledges that her character is intentionally designed to be offensive, this episode finally delves into the toll this takes on Tammé as she tries to be a good heel and play a character who's meant to be jeered at — even when she wins. This point is underscored when Tammé sees how much the crowd goes wild for Liberty Belle — even wearing her signature red, white, and blue colors — as they hiss and holler at Welfare Queen's mere presence. Sure, it's all a part of the play-acting that comes with wrestling, but the artificially amped up racial tension makes Tammé rightfully wonder if she's become far too complicit in her own oppression — even if it's only orchestrated in the ring.
I imagine that GLOW is highlighting a painful reality that the women of color in the actual short-lived wrestling series that inspired the show faced; that the writers aren’t just painting characters like Tammé in wild, broad strokes arbitrarily. But GLOW's major flaw is the fact that it still fails to address the challenges its women of color characters face in ways that feel as vital to the series as those of its two white characters, Ruth and Debbie. Even in an episode that's primarily about Tammé, Episode 4 merely presents what she's is going through, rather than allows her to be the hero she deserves to be in her own story.
This isn’t lost on Tammé, either, as she grapples with what she wants to be in life and what she actually does in order to get there. Through Stevens’ heartbreaking performance, we see Tammé run through a gamut of emotions. She’s so proud because her son is now attending the prestigious Stanford University, but with that comes a sense of shame because she is embodying a stereotype while he’s challenging one. He even pointedly calls her out for "playing a minstrel character on public television." Deep down, Tammé realizes this, and it’s painful. She’s had to sacrifice her self-worth in an effort to position herself in the same victorious space Ruth and Debbie. As a result, she fails to become a champion in her own eyes as well as her son’s.
Tammé’s inner conflict is most profoundly illuminated when she spots her son in the audience in the middle of her fight and watches him dodge her eyes in embarrassment. Whatever the outcome, she feels she’s not a true winner if her son can’t even look at her. Though The Welfare Queen and Liberty Belle are wildly entertaining to watch in the ring, and the former puts up a great fight, Tammé feels defeated, because she realizes that no matter how great a fighter she is and how many crowns she claims, she will never be seen as a hero in the eyes of the public — not if she presents herself this way.
While it’s important to truthfully highlight the unique challenges black women face as they reach for their dreams, they should at least be able to triumph in a space that is specifically designed to envision them as their heroic selves.
To add insult to injury, Liberty Belle wins the match and berates The Welfare Queen in front of the cheering crowd, encouraging them to chant “Get a job! Get a job!” While the match's outcome was planned, what hurts Tammé the most is her character being ridiculed for being exactly what he feared she’d be — a coon. What’s worse is that as Tammé gets emotional, she’s all alone in this moment, without even so much as the women around her, who claim to be a sisterhood, to comfort her. When she runs out of the ring, they’re more concerned with the fact that the show is over than that Tammé’s spirit has been broken. Clearly, these two white women characters, despite a ton of baggage between them, will choose each other before they bother to check in with their obviously hurt black female peer.
It’s a shame that a show that prides itself on solidarity and uplifting women has pushed its “Queen” to the wayside. Tammé’s plight is never acknowledged again throughout the season, which also highlights Cherry Bang’s (Sydelle Noel) struggle to be taken seriously as a star in an industry that even sees her natural black hair as a dealbreaker. While it’s important to truthfully highlight the unique challenges black women face as they reach for their dreams, they should at least be able to triumph in a space that is specifically designed to envision them as their heroic selves, as it has done for the two white protagonists. But even in the ring, Tammé can’t escape the stereotypes she already faces on a daily basis and must settle for a minstrel act that puts them front and center for all the world to point and laugh at. While the white women around her get to live out their dreams, Tammé’s experience in GLOW has become an utter nightmare.