The Netflix comedy is centered on the adulterous conflict between former best friends Debbie Egan (Betty Gilpin) and Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) as they work to make a woman’s wrestling show for TV. Johnson and Gatewood are Dawn Rivecca and Stacey Beswick, friends who audition together for the show-within-a-show just as they auditioned together in real life. Most of their time in the ring is spent playing the Beatdown Biddies, two old lady characters who are inexplicably skilled at tossing people around. They’re “the good guys” in a form of entertainment that boils down to good versus evil through well-worn stereotypes. And, out of the ring, Johnson and Gatewood played them with the spontaneity they’d honed through a decade of working together on a ’40s-inspired comedy act (“The Apple Sisters”).
But their scripts took a turn later in the season, when Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) and Tammé Dawson (Kia Stevens) ― whose characters in the ring are called Junkchain and Welfare Queen ― see themselves matched with the Biddies. Deciding it’s their turn to play the heroines for once, Cherry and Tammé convince Dawn and Stacey to try another set of characters: white-hooded KKK members.
Johnson and Gatewood hadn’t read the twist in the script when they showed up to practice the wrestling sequence. Confusingly, the pair were told they were playing the “bad guys,” but not, exactly, what that meant.
“They said, ‘You’re playing something else,’ Johnson recalled. “They didn’t tell us what the ‘something else’ was, but then Kimmy looked over the shoulder of the wrestling coach and saw immediately that it said ‘KKK,’ and whispered it to me, and we turned white.”
“I didn’t know if it was like, oh, god, are our characters secretly racist?” she added.
The pair told HuffPost that the scene is based on an ugly moment in wrestling history, when a black wrestler called Virgil went up against a white wrestler playing a KKK member, who not only won the match but mock-lynched Virgil from the ropes. That wasn’t half a century ago ― it happened in 1994.
“GLOW,” however, twists the narrative into one of overcoming racism. It’s the most modern storyline we get from Sam Sylvia, the director played by Marc Maron, who otherwise orders his wrestlers to play into racial, nationalistic and gender-based stereotypes ― winning or losing matches according to which one is deemed worse. An Indian-American woman becomes the terrorist “Beirut,” while an Asian-American woman turns into “Fortune Cookie” in the ring.
“I think we thought maybe we’d be immune to these stereotypes, and then to be face-to-face with it, I had definitely a deeper appreciation for the struggle of the other actresses,” Greenwood said.
“Obviously I would never compare it to the other actresses’ experiences with racism and stuff,” Johnson added, “but I certainly understood, ‘Oh, you want me to play a monster! That’s cool. That’s cool.’”
As the only wrestling pro in the core cast, Stevens ― who makes her Welfare Queen character work through sheer commitment to the role ― has explained how she told her co-stars that stereotypes are a real part of the gig.
“This is what wrestling really is,” Stevens told TV Guide about her scene with the KKK characters. “People are given gimmicks that they actually struggle with and are uncomfortable with and if you wanna make it in wrestling, sometimes you have to eat crow and fly with it.” At one point in her actual wrestling career, Stevens dealt with being handed a racist character based on King Kong by simply making it the best it could be.
“So when you heard the name ‘Amazing Kong,’ you respected that name,” Stevens said.
“It’s definitely a thing that makes a fool of people who believe that stereotype, because it’s just so over-the-top, throwing the money,” Johnson said. “And that’s what’s funny about it, is the comment on the people who are judgmental.”