'GLOW' Stars Wrestle With Inclusion and Satire Through Stereotypes

Co-stars Ellen Wong and Sunita Mani talk with THR about how the Netflix comedy brings typecasting into the spotlight in an attempt to get it pinned.
Courtesy of Netflix
'GLOW' stars Ellen Wong, left, Betty Gilpin and Sunita Mani

[This story contains spoilers through the first two seasons of Netflix's GLOW.]

In the third episode of Netflix comedy GLOW, energetic and idealistic producer Bash Howard (Chris Lowell) has taken the ragtag group of wannabe female wrestlers to his exotic mansion in Malibu. An early read of the first script by director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) was a mess of complicated sci-fi storylines and Bash, a lifelong fan of the ring, lets the girls go crazy in his extensive wardrobe to create new personas.

"She walks into the ring," he says, gesticulating to Jenny Chey (Ellen Wong). "There's no backstory. There's no dialogue about where she came from. Look at her, what's the first thing that jumps out at you about her?"

"Her eyes," compliments Rhonda "Britannica" Richardson (Kate Nash), but Bash takes it in a different direction.

"Bingo. She's Oriental."

The comment elicits shocked reactions in the room, but that does not derail Bash's adrenaline- and cocaine-fueled frenzy.

"You're a jock. You're an Arab. You're a big black girl. It's not a judgment; it's just what I and the entire world see with our eyes. And in wrestling, that is the foundation upon which we need to build." Arthie Premkumar (Sunita Mani) then calls him out on what he's primarily talking about: stereotypes.

This conversation leads to the creation of characters that will define these women both in and out of the ring for GLOW's first two seasons. The series, starring Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, focuses around the creation of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, the 1980s syndicated women's professional wrestling circuit. Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and executive produced by Jenji Kohan, it shares DNA with Kohan's Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black, touting a strong ensemble of women with a variety of personas and backgrounds.

But as Bash alludes to, the wrestling audience disposes of these complicated backstories in favor of simple, two-dimensional personalities. And though everyone has a gimmick, it's notable that the nonwhite members of GLOW have theirs crafted off of broadly sketched generalizations. The two black wrestlers, Tammé Dawson (Kia Stevens) and Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel), play women who revel in unemployment and government checks and a rapper, respectively. Jenny, though of Cambodian descent, plays "Fortune Cookie," an amalgam of seemingly all Asian stereotypes, complete with a robe, samurai sword and hat straight out of a rice pagoda. Perhaps the starkest is Arthie: while she is Indian-American, she gets mistaken for being Arab, and the quiet pre-med student suddenly becomes "Beirut the Mad Bomber." Ironically enough, it's familiar territory for Mani, who had her big break playing Iranian-American hacker Trenton on USA Network's Mr. Robot.

While GLOW is set in 1985, it's an extremely dicey subject for the series to step into the ring with in the 21st century. Recent comedies like ABC's Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat and Netflix's own Master of None have highlighted the trials and tribulations that can happen when nonwhite people are raised in a culture where movies, television and music depict characters in stereotypical fashion. And while the women can bask in the warmth of a roaring crowd after a particularly good suplex, as an audience, viewers wonder if their work is actually refuting these generalizations or merely perpetuating them.

For what it's worth, the characters within GLOW are thinking out that point alongside viewers. Tammé spends an episode of the second season hiding her new profession from her Ivy league son, fearful of him knowing his mother makes a living boasting about being a "welfare queen." After a rage-filled response in the pilot, Arthie deals with the ramifications of playing a terrorist while plane hijackings are making the nightly news. And true to GLOW's nature of highlighting the three-dimensional characters outside the ring, they all have different ways of handling next steps. Tammé finds power in bashing in her white co-workers every match, and Jenny fuels her passion into making costumes for the show. Arthie, meanwhile, spends the bulk of season two trying to escape the albatross of the "Beirut" persona. And though her efforts leave her stuck in old molds, she does venture into new territory when she explores a relationship with new castmember Yolanda Rivas (Shakira Barrera).

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Wong and Mani about their initial thoughts on their characters and wrestling personas, the benefits of being an "equal opportunity offender," and the statement GLOW is making about inclusion onscreen.

What was your reaction when you initially read through the script and saw not only your role, but your respective wrestling persona?

Mani: When I first read for the part, I was immediately responsive to an Indian-American character. It was exciting to put myself out there as myself. It was a level of intelligence from this industry that I am scared of. (Laughs.) Mr. Robot was my first job, so I was like, "OK, maybe this is just the path. Maybe I'm just going to be a little uncomfortable for a while." I knew I was auditioning for a failing pre-med student with Hollywood dreams. That was the breakdown for the character. You have this nod to a cultural expectation of going into medicine, but deep down, this girl wants to be an actor. That's super relatable. This character is hiding her strength and her passion. We talked about that and fleshed that out a bit together.

Wong: I didn't know about the world of wrestling, and I didn't know about the world of [the original] GLOW, so it was an exciting world to dive into. [I was] totally excited to go out for it. It's scary to play this thing that I've spent my entire career and life trying not to be. For the first time, we were all working together, and I realized, "Hey, I don't really know everyone that well." I'm about to jump through the air, wield this sword, wear this ridiculous hat and play a mash-up of every Asian stereotype. They don't go together, but everyone thinks they're supposed to go together. I'm just going to be ridiculous and do this. I was like, "Wait, is this going to be done with awareness? Is this going to land? Is it going to be funny, done in this manner where it's clear that it's also wrong?'"

Leading up to it, there was this fear that made for very interesting transparent in-depth conversations on set prior to that day. And I felt very nervous doing it. I had never so blatantly played a stereotype, so that was very hard to get over. But realizing we were all in this together, playing these totally ridiculous labels and in some ways owning our power in doing that, taking our power back and standing together in the ridiculousness, I think it made that part of it much more digestible and easier to do. And that made it that much more fun because we knew we weren't just playing this wrestling characters. We were these other three-dimensional human beings outside of the ring. That was important to remember.

Ellen, you were speaking about the conversations you had on set before bringing these characters to life. As two white women, how collaborative were Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch with you in building out your characters based on your personal experiences?

Wong: It's always been a back and forth with Liz and Carly, and it still is. I think we're all still developing and learning who we are. Going into production, it was a huge conversation. Liz and Carly took the time to sit down with each and every one of us before we started shooting to talk about who we are mostly outside of the ring. I don't think we needed to talk about who we were in the ring; what was important was who we were outside of the ring. That backstory is important. To be able to bring this specific identity to Jenny and to say she's Cambodian was very important to me. I've always said I believe there is diversity within the Asian identity. Even if Jenny only gets to say, "I'm Cambodian" for now, that's important.

Mani: When I met with Liz and Carly as a character meeting, we didn't really discuss [Palestina, the real-life GLOW wrestler off of which "Beirut" is based] very much. I think that work was already done before I showed up. I guess with the events specifically in 1985, having a character named Beirut and then having that plane hijacking from Lebanon being so pointed toward Arthie's character, it just hit home a little more. It was all worked out before I got in the room. We talked about how myself, Arthie and Beirut collide into this kaleidoscope of very personal and fictional identity.

In the first season, the episode where Bash is laying out all of these stereotypes, that was the most intense. We're actually donning these characters and these costumes and doing this screen test. That's when I remember having my biggest conversation with Liz and Carly about intention and awareness of this character. How much does this character expect to be in this position, and how much does she expect to be a lead? It's the dissonance between this dreamy naive girl and the way the world sees her. That was really important to distinguish. I feel like that was a collaboration in the moment with the level of awareness of this character.

You are both representing the Asian and Indian experiences on the show which, while they have been touched on in modern programs, has not been as out in the open as other minority experiences. Do you feel like your wrestling personas are making a statement on that?

Wong: I think a lot of the time, we still don't really understand what "Asian" means. We still think that Asian is "Fortune Cookie," and there's no clarity on that identity. So to have something so specific for Jenny to say, to own and know where she's from, that's important. It's also a background we don't see a lot of in film and TV. It was important for me also to show that everything you think about this Asian character is not what you think, and maybe we should ask more questions and think about what her backstory is. That's the question I felt was more important and the part of her identity I wanted to draw to more.

Mani: To me, it feels harder to tackle Arthie's loaded stereotype because who she is still a foreign concept to understand in the American narrative. I feel like a baseline cultural context has to be understood before you can comment on her internal conflict, and I don't think we have enough understanding of Eastern customs and ways of life in our larger American psyche without either exoticizing and mystifying them or being afraid of them.

Wong: What I also find interesting is Arthie is also Asian. A lot of questions are geared toward me with regards to what it's like to represent the Asian community. I think that's another place where I go, "Hey, we really don't understand what the Asian identity is.'" I think within our world, we believe Asian is still "Fortune Cookie" a lot of the time. But with a character of Arthie, we just say, "She's just representing Beirut. She's a terrorist." But she's South Asian, and yet we don't say she's Asian too. I think something is interesting in that because I'm the one always answering these questions.

Sunita, you have arguably the most difficult role, as you're taking on not only playing a terrorist, but a person of a different ethnicity playing a terrorist. What has that experience been like for you?

Mani: It's a challenge. I am excited that it's me in the role, honestly. I have approached it pretty personally. It's hard to separate, and I hope that comes through as a benefit for the character, not as any lack of authenticity. It's 1985, and we're playing characters where there's a certain cap for a minority or a certain lot in life, you could say. [Laughs.] You're only going to be seen in a very confined way. That's the comment we're making. But it's still a personal struggle to play the face of that confine. So in an of itself, it's another trapping. It's a lot of meta layers going on, and the show has allowed for so much conversation to happen. I feel like it's a very complicated, layered character.

I feel like it's super hard to tackle that cultural identity: an Indian-American playing an Arab terrorist. There's so much to unpack; whether it's 1985 or 2018, I feel like our culture needs more of a baseline understanding of all of those identities. It's really hard to tackle when the narrative in our American society isn't quite fleshed out as much as something like the black experience. I don't know how to tackle it in my own work, but I appreciate the sheer facts of it onscreen. I'm an Indian-American actress playing an Indian-American character playing a terrorist. That's a lot! (Laughs.)

Ellen, something that I noticed about your role is that, while Fortune Cookie really is a representation of the worst assumptions made about Asians, Jenny herself is really trying to buck those assumptions in her real life. In the first season, for example, she's the one most excited about Sheila's (Gayle Rankin) birthday and seems to be obsessed with pop culture. It serves as a nice dichotomy.

Wong: What I love about our show is we have these stereotypes in the ring, but the characters outside of the ring are allowed to live in this world where they're just humans. What I do love about playing Jenny is that it's not just about her being Cambodian. She gets to be one of the girls too. She makes all the costumes, and in season two you get to see her be more comfortable in her own skin. She's asking for what she wants, and she's having fun, and having fun with boys! She's there as part of the group. But at the same time, we're not getting into backstory. I want to see that for every one of the girls, but at the same time, I like they are so far living in this world where they're not playing these stereotypes in their real life.

In the second season, we get to see Arthie spark a romance with Yolanda. What was your reaction to finding out about the relationship, especially it being a same-sex relationship with two women of color?

Mani: I love it, even if it's not quite fleshed out with a total thesis behind it. It's a relief to just be a person, just be Arthie, who's in a classic archetypal romance as a geek falling for a cool kid. And it's two brown women in a really warm, innocent love story. That's huge, too. The show is doing a lot for television.

Wong: Characters like Arthie and Yoyo are getting to have this burgeoning relationship of love and curiosity. And I love that. It's a story that anyone can have, and it doesn't just boil down to the color of their skin. It's specific to who they are, and I think that's very important.

Mani: [With regards to Arthie's storyline of trying to get out of the Beirut character], I admire Arthie's sheer adrenaline and proactivity of problem-solving. She's not ready to admit what it means, but just trying to get out of it I think is really funny. It's funny to see her squirm a little bit instead of addressing it head-on. It's funnier to see her try and fail at different creative attempts. I saw it as a way to get to know her beyond that label and that very real, very apparent conflict. We get to see her loosen up and liberation in a different way. Not necessarily liberating herself from this label, but finding strong companionship and sweet admiration and romance with Yolanda. It's a really sweet growth, and it was unexpected, honestly.

There are a significant number of stereotypes going on across many of these GLOW wrestling personas. In one season two episode, Tammé tries to relieve her son when talking about her role as the Welfare Queen, saying, "I'm not the only offensive character. Everyone's offensive." Do you think that's true, and do you think GLOW being an "equal opportunity offender" in a manner of speaking helped you digest your experience in getting into the character?

Mani: It goes back and forth between palatable and sheer panic. I don't ever forget that I'm playing a character whose persona is a terrorist. It's very different when we're all together and when I'm alone in other contexts. I do agree it's an offensive show, so we can talk about these things that are hard to talk about. Putting it out there in the most exaggerated way, it does make it easier to have girls to talk about it with on set. Honestly, the inspiration that each girl has for their character and the comedy [is brilliant]. I'll never forget how funny those screen tests were in episode 3 when we're each becoming our characters. It was just a roulette, watching one person after the other. You're more than just this stereotype; you're bringing so much life to this one-dimensional thing. It's incredibly skillful, and it really inspires me to bring it.

Wong: I realized in that moment that I was among many other women who have experienced being marginalized. I wasn't on a set where I was the only one or one of a few. It was one of these experiences where I actually could say something and express my discomfort. I sometimes worry that I'm not honest with myself because there's this fear of, "Hey, I'm going to be labeled difficult, or I'm going to lose my job." But in a show like this, where there are so many of us, so many women from different backgrounds, I feel like, in some way, we're all together in this, and we elevate one another by being able to have these hard discussions. If I was playing "Fortune Cookie" and everyone else was white, I think it would be very hard, and I would be afraid to use my voice. But I feel empowered. We can come to this place together collectively saying we all want to be represented. And when I see my other castmates be represented, I feel represented too.

I think with every show, just because you have a diverse cast, it doesn't grant you an award for representation. The prize comes from looking into these stories together, and I believe when women of color are represented, all women are represented. It elevates everyone, and it knocks down this place of benefit and privilege. It knocks down these walls that have allowed one race to sit on a higher pedestal because it creates this equality that is validated through the transparency and honesty. It allows story to thrive in a much more digestible way. I think anyone can see themselves in any one of these careers. We're all just human.

It's often said that satire can be the best way to make a statement, as comedy can disarm an audience into being more receptive to a point being made. Do you feel GLOW's sense of humor adheres to that, and what messages are you hoping the audience is receiving about nonwhite representation?

Wong: The reason why this show is so digestible in the dark reality of it is because there is the comedy. We are so ridiculous in our stereotypes that you laugh. But at the same time, as you're laughing, you also know it's also truly ridiculous. Through this comedy, I think it also leaves people thinking back to this show and going, "Wait, that was also really wrong." It's when you're able to go to this place of enjoyment and laughter, then have this moment to breathe and go, 'Wait, that's not right,' that's when you can see it and feel it. If it were this seriousness all the way through, it would be really hard to take in.

Mani: I come from a comedy that moves away from labels; it lives in the absurd and is very goofy. So to be in that comedic position with a very strict label was hard. It's a totally different approach; I was not prepared for that, even as a comedian. It was hard to let go, give into it, and not feel like it's total minstrelsy. It was really scary, [but] once you go for it, you find your power in it. Though cognitively I understood my role, it was a process of managing my tools. It was much scarier in the beginning, but in season two, I was so ready to attack the storyline and shy away from the literal unpacking of the terrorist persona in the ring. I'm just so excited to see the conversation and have my machetes ready. They're in my hand now; they're not in my back pocket.

I hope on a larger scale, it has the impact for people to look beyond the image you see when you met someone. I go back and forth in this political climate as to whether it's perpetuating fear mongering or if it's completely humiliating it and affirming our sense of humanity. I really hope so.

Season two of GLOW is now streaming on Netflix. Click here for more season two coverage.