It's Time To Stop Body-Shaming Physically Powerful Women
The stereotype of a "strong female character" often implies that her strength is emotional rather than physical. In the case of the new Netflix series GLOW (which stands for "Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling"), women get to show their strength on a more physical level. Sydelle Noel plays wrestler Cherry Bang on the series and tells Bustle that GLOW celebrates women like her, who are proud of their physical prowess.
"I have this phrase that I say all the time: 'I’m always ready,'" Noel says. "I want to be an action hero. I always work out. I’m a gym rat, I do multiple things, I switch it up all the time."
In women, strength is often seen as a performance of emotional and mental stamina. Meanwhile, physical strength is often associated with masculinity and is seen as problematic in women. When it comes to wrestling, aggressive personalities are the name of the game and those attributes didn't fit with the cultural idea of femininity. Until G.L.O.W.
The original G.L.O.W. series began in 1986 and ran for four seasons, featuring colorful, over-the-top rivalries between characters. According to LA Weekly, who covered the premiere of the documentary about the original G.L.O.W., the show "recruited amateur girls, mostly from L.A., who wanted to break into TV ... They were divided into good girl and bad girl groups — Americana vs. Ninotchka, good vs. evil — playing up the Cold War and other politics of the decade."
While the new series is fictionalized, it will take a page from those powerful woman who gave their all in the ring. As the characters begin to develop their individual performances of physical aggression, they begin to learn that they can be strong in whatever way they choose.
“When [GLOW] premieres, especially falling on the back of Wonder Woman, it’s going to show women that there is nothing that we can’t do," promises Noel.
(When ask if she's seen Wonder Woman, Noel replies, "Yes! Women rule! After I got out, I texted the girls, 'You have to see it, this is us!'")
But just like the real women of G.L.O.W., the actors on the series needed to learn a few moves. “Truthfully, learning more about the show, none of the women were wrestlers. They were the same just like us. They had to learn to become wrestlers. We had to learn everything," says Noel.
Of course, rigorous training is both Noel and Cherry’s specialty. “Cherry and I are very similar so it wasn’t that hard. When I read her I was like, wait a minute: she’s a badass, she’s a stunt girl. We are both athletic,” she says. She also values her character's candidness, especially with her colleagues.
“Cherry speaks her mind and is not afraid to go there and tell people that they are wrong," says Noel. “She is a force to be reckoned with! She also knows that it’s her time to shine.”
Today, the American public is familiar with female wrestlers, thanks to shows like E!'s Total Divas and WWE Raw's Women's Division. However, it was the original women of G.L.O.W. who showed women wrestlers could also be TV stars. Even a few decades later, Noel was inspired by what she saw.
"When I got home I spent two hours after my audition on YouTube, and was like, 'Oh my God,'" she remembers. "I was floored! I was a kid. I was a baby, so I had no idea."
But there was a precedent for the women of the original G.L.O.W. According to WWE, Mildred Burke rose to fame in the 1930s and managed to defeat both male and female competitors in the ring. Aside from her accolades, Burke was also known for her physique. Pictures of her were displayed in L.A. Police Department offices to shame the officers into staying in shape. For Burke, her powerful, physical presence was celebrated along with her femininity.
In the case of Cherry Bang, she also finds her inspiration a physically strong woman of her time who's celebrated in a different part of pop culture. “My character is a stunt double for Pam Grier," Noel says. "She doesn’t want to be the stunt double for Foxy Brown. She wants to be Foxy Brown."
With the recent success of Wonder Woman, strength is still being redefined in terms of whether or not women can be imposing in a physical space. From magazines telling women to be thinner to using the word "shrill" to describe female speaking habits, the idea that woman can control a physical space successfully has become cultural conversation.
In a piece for Elite Daily, Laura Argintar wrote, "We have been socialized to feel unentitled to our own space, to shrink our presence. To be feminine is to be small and contained. By contrast, to exude masculinity is to recline or spread out to assert power."
The story of powerful women is what Noel feels GLOW audiences will resonate with the most. She says, “I never thought I would play a role of a wrestler, as well as doing it myself. Doing a flip and falling on our backs and getting up and saying 'let’s do it again.' For women to watch the show, it’s going to show empowerment and friendships. It’s all about losing yourself in wrestling and finding yourself."
The trouble often lies in creating believable and compelling female characters that are more than one-dimensional stereotypes, which is a problem that can often be solved by having more women behind the camera. (GLOW was created by Liz Flahive, has a lead writer in Carly Mensch, and Orange Is The New Black's Jenji Kohan is one of its producers.) It is expected of male characters to be interesting and complicated, whereas female characters tend to fall back on the "strong female character" stereotype that denies any character growth or complexity. But GLOW addresses why women deserve to be perceived as physically strong, intelligent, and powerful.
“People want to see to women kicking ass and that’s what GLOW is all about,” Noel sums up.
GLOW's challenge won't be to explain to audiences that women can possess ambition and physical strength, but that the stigma around those things need to finally be put to rest.