Content Note: This post contains references to sexual abuse and domestic violence.
I love television, but I love a lot of things, including procrastinating, so I’m chronically behind on all of the best “new” shows. I took three weeks earlier this summer and plowed through The Handmaid’s Tale, the promos for which literally wallpapered the New York subways two full years ago. And this week, a month or so after several personal recommendations from friends, I finally binged GLOW, which, again, already has two full seasons out. But you know what, sometimes my pop-culture feet-dragging works out in my favor. And this was precisely one of those times.
If you haven’t seen or read The Handmaid’s Tale, which is one of Hulu’s beloved originals, all you need to know here is that it’s a “Christian” fundamentalist wet dream set in a near-future fascist state that openly enslaves women because of a widespread plague of infertility. If you haven’t watched GLOW, all you need to know is that its setting is very similar, namely the US in the 1980s. I’m kidding. Mostly. Definitely. Kind of.
I don’t think I’m surprising anyone by suggesting that these shows are very different. But I think I might be onto some nuance when I suggest that I think they’re foils of each other, closer to Hamlet and Fortinbras than Hamlet and Guildenstern.
The main character in the Handmaid’s Tale, June, is the “handmaid” to a man, Fred, and his wife Serena. This means that Fred ritually rapes her once a month, and not-so-ritually the rest of the time, and Serena literally helps. The purpose of this is ostensibly to have June, who has proven to be able to carry a child to term, bear a child for Fred and Serena, in the same way that Bilhah bore a child for Rachel. Because, you know, that was a great moment for the Bible. Of course, another purpose is served by June’s sex slavery: she and every other handmaid represents an example of what can happen when women don’t behave according to the tyranny of the patriarchy. Also, Serena and other women who are similarly oppressed by their husbands get someone to feel better than, which keeps them from noticing their own slavery. Marx would be…proud?
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the main character in GLOW*, Ruth, is a struggling actress in Los Angeles who is told she can’t get any roles because she is “too real” and no one wants to work with “real” women. She constantly complains that parts written for women are vapid and useless, and she yearns for something more substantive and meaningful. She eventually ends up cast in a women’s wrestling TV show, complete with staged fights and cheesy gimmicks. The cast is entirely women, and due to time constraints, they end up renting out a motel for a month while they train and practice for the filming of the pilot.
Both shows reflect realities about modern life as a woman: men frequently don’t take you seriously, success often comes only after you humiliate yourself, men make the decisions but you can still get blamed if something goes off the rails. You can’t win for losing, and it’s easy to feel hopeless.
I loved watching The Handmaid’s Tale. It legitimately gave me nightmares and made me all the more uncomfortable with Jeff Sessions’ flippant quotation of the Bible. But it displays the grit and strength of oppressed peoples in a surprisingly empowering way. I felt connected to centuries of oppressed women whose bodies were only ever useful for those two things. The fullness of the characters’ lives and the variety of their responses to such ruthless adversity forced me to think of the victims of history as more than what their oppressors made them. They subverted. They lived despite. They thrived even so.
And now that that show is on break for a while, I am so incredibly thankful that I have GLOW to keep me company on those days when I feel compelled to imbibe television. Yes, they have to wear those ridiculous leotards and yes, their male producers and writers treat them pretty misogynistically. This is the US in the 80s, and try as we might, we can’t pretend it was a feminist utopia.
One of the reasons I loved The Handmaid’s Tale is that, in its caricature of American culture, it demonstrates just how ridiculous it is for oppressed people to hate on other oppressed people. It is painfully easy to see that Serena has let the powerful men in her society brainwash her into a shell of woman, a traitor to her own sex. But at times, even though it’s counterintuitive and internally frustrating, it’s hard not to also be mad at June and all the other handmaids as they struggle in futility against the Baptist Barbies in their lives, when if they could instead get everyone on the same page, they could probably overthrow the status quo before breakfast.
But that side of the weak fighting the weak while the powerful sit back and laugh is all too real. Throughout history, today, and I’m sure on into the future, an important feature of maintaining oppression is convincing the lowly to scrabble with the lowly so that they forget they are stronger together. I can only watch that for so long. GLOW tells a different story. All the women cast in this wrestling show live and work together twenty-four hours a day, and they are all different people with potentially conflicting personal values: one woman is a pre-med college student who rooms with a high-school drop-out. One woman is taking time away from her coven and meticulously makes herself up like a wolf while her roommate works tirelessly to become a leading lady in Hollywood. One woman drives a limo and has her bills paid by her parents while another woman is the youngest in a family of professional wrestlers who is hiding her new job from her father. One woman is a former soap star. One woman is a professional stunt person.
And there is conflict. Ooh, there is conflict. But there is teamwork, too. There is setting aside of differences to accomplish something bigger than one person could do alone. There is an understanding that, while the world may try to convince us of the dichotomy between “us” and “them,” there is no room for that kind of thinking when you’re trying to succeed. The Serenas are put in their places by the Junes. The Junes speak truth to power at every opportunity. These women take it on the chin without becoming the floormats of society’s more powerful. And they do it all while wearing the most fantastic glitter eyeshadow.
So if you’re looking for a pick-me-up after the inspiring but painful Handmaid’s Tale, I highly suggest you pick up GLOW and watch some excellent ladies take it all to the mat.
* I’m only talking here about the first season of GLOW, partly because I’m still working through the second season, but mostly because I’m afraid the shine has worn off a bit. There is a distressing level of pettiness in the second season so far, but I’m hopeful that it will all be worth it in the end.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.