GLOW and the Uninteresting White Woman
It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon. Normally, my son would be here, and I’d be figuring out ways to keep him entertained while exerting as little physical effort as possible. Instead, he’s at a friend’s house celebrating his upcoming birthday, and my ex-girlfriend and I are laying around on the sectional in the pitch black living room as we try to keep cool. She picks up the controller for the WiiU and opens Netflix. The cursor skips over a few shows we’ve started and didn’t finish before coming to rest on the neon lettering of “GLOW.”
“Have you watched this before?” I asked.
“No, but I want to watch something that’s not super serious or scary.”
“Okay. Yeah, I’ve heard good things about this show.”
I laughed a fair amount during the half hour pilot. I was interested by the idea of watching a woman’s wrestling league take shape. I loved the 80’s cheese and wonderful soundtrack. But man, Ruth Wilder is a terrible character. She’s so terrible that I stopped the show to write this essay. Ruth Wilder is the latest incarnation of a character trope that we’ve all seen before, and that has been bugging me in particular lately. She’s an Uninteresting White Woman, in the broadest sense of that term.
There are three major components to the Uninteresting White Woman. The first, as you might have guessed, is that the character is a white woman (there is definitely a companion to this character in the form of white men characters, but that’s for another essay). This character only exists because she is a white woman, and the combination of whiteness and femininity is critical to the other two components of this character. Essentially, being a white woman character is obviously a requirement of being an Uninteresting White Woman, but this character can only exist because of the privileges of white womanhood. White women in real life are constantly shielded and protected (just ask DeMario Jackson), and similarly, Uninteresting White Women in stories are constantly shielded and protected by writers.
Those privileges are very important to a show like GLOW. While the story of the show is loosely based on the actual Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, none of the characters are based on real-life people. Ruth Wilder is a complete fabrication, which means that the problems with her character are functions of the creative process, not reality. The creators and writers of GLOW could have made Ruth Wilder be anything, and they made her an Uninteresting White Woman. But Uninteresting White Women are allowed to exist in stories in a way that other characters cannot. Their mediocrity is often positioned as quirkiness or relatability, but they’re actually just mediocre. Despite this, they’re allowed to function as a doorway into better characters, yet they’re never forced to step aside or truly leave the center ring.
The second component is that the character is intensely uninteresting. I don’t mean boring; there are plenty of examples of characters who are boring or rigid, but who shine as “the boring character.” I mean the character is uninteresting. She doesn’t hold your attention, and you are pleading with the show to leave her and focus on the much more interesting supporting characters. Orange is the New Black is perhaps the archetype of this kind of focus. I’ve tried to watch OITNB several times, but I could never get past how incredibly uninteresting Piper is. I don’t care about her family or her fiance, I don’t care about her past relationship and conflict with Alex, I don’t care about her fight with Red over the food. There is nothing compelling or interesting about Piper. I just want her to get offscreen so that I can learn more about the other inmates.
But she never does, or at least not quickly enough for me. I watched the first four episodes of the first season before I quit the show. Later, I watched a few episodes after they changed uniforms, whenever that happened. In both the early episodes and the later episodes, I found myself asking the same question: why does anyone indulge Piper to the extent that they do? Why am I, the viewer, forced to indulge her as well?
After watching OITNB for even the small amount of time that I did, I’ve become much more aware of the Uninteresting White Woman trope, and all of the warning signs are clearly on display in the pilot of GLOW. Literally every character in GLOW is more interesting than Ruth Wilder. Cherry Bang and Sam Sylvia run circles around her. I’m most interested to see more from Carmen Wade. Even Melrose and Sheila the She-Wolf are more interesting. Yet I was forced to watch Ruth get picked on by three punk kids to establish that the man she is sleeping with is her best friend’s husband. None of which I care about. Give me more Cherry, Sam, and Carmen. I have zero faith that will actually happen. One of the co-creators of GLOW is also the creator of OITNB, which as far as I can tell never moved past Piper as the center.
The final, and most important aspect of the Uninteresting White Woman Character, is that she is completely exempt from story consequences. Good stories are a series of causes and effects, where plot derives naturally from the consequences of character decisions. Consequences are also the last opportunity to make a poor character better. If you can’t create an interesting character, at least have something interesting happen to them, and see where it leads them. The Uninteresting White Woman blows up this core aspect of storytelling by making decisions and then suffering no actual story consequences.
Take Karen Page from Daredevil. In perhaps the most egregious example of an Uninteresting White Woman escaping all consequence, she drags reporter Ben Urich to visit Wilson Fisk’s mother without his knowledge or consent. When Wilson Fisk finds out that his mother was visited, it’s Ben Urich who he murders. He doesn’t even learn that Karen was there in the first season. As a final act of saying “Fuck you” to consequence, Karen is absolved of guilt by Urich’s widow at his funeral. She’s let off scott free for her decisions in every way. Add Karen’s murder of James Wesley to this, and you see that the writers have no intention of ever having Karen, an Uninteresting White Woman, face any kind of reckoning, even in a show which is explicitly about characters reckoning with their choices.
Ruth Wilder is slightly different than Karen Page, but she’s still an Uninteresting White Woman. Unlike Daredevil, GLOW gives the impression of consequence in its pilot for its Uninteresting White Woman, without investing in what those consequences would really mean. When Ruth is fired for failing to follow directions, we understand on some level that she’ll get back into the ring- after all, the show is about a woman’s wrestling league. The tension comes from how she’ll get back into the ring, and the show accomplishes this feat by gutting the consequences of another choice that Ruth made- sleeping with her best friend’s husband. Ruth should have never been allowed to be in the ring long enough for Debbie Eagan to show up. She was fired, and should have been removed from the premises immediately. But the Uninteresting White Woman is allowed to behave as if consequences don’t apply to her, BECAUSE THEY DON’T. Ruth doesn’t have to apologize, or promise to work harder, or make any gesture at growth and development. She’s simply allowed to take center stage as the other, better characters watch. She gets to maintain a relationship with Debbie Eagan, despite the fact that Debbie Eagan doesn’t want that relationship. Yes, it will be an antagonistic and adversarial relationship, but let’s be clear: that is not an actual consequence. A real consequence of betraying your friend’s trust is losing the friend, not spending even more time with them, just angrier.
After almost two episodes, I can’t invest any more time into this trope. It’s a shame too, because I actually like everything else about GLOW, and I think the premise and execution are otherwise solid. There are pieces of potential greatness scattered across the show, but the crushing mediocrity of Ruth Wilder smothers whatever else might be possible. The Uninteresting White Woman has managed to turn me into an Uninterested Black Man. So what else is on Netflix?