Emmy Nominee GLOW Sidesteps Nostalgia With Clever Use of 80s Junk Food

Set in the mid-1980s, the Emmy-nominated Netflix show GLOW explores the inner-workings of a low-budget women’s wrestling TV show, also named GLOW (aka Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling). The sisterhood of misfits — who hail from acting, wrestling, and stuntwoman backgrounds — eat all manner of colorful, artificially flavored junk foods. Protagonist Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) and her cohorts are often seen devouring snack-size bags of Doritos, Tato Skins (remember those?), and Twizzlers, while guzzling cans and glass bottles of 7UP, Tab, Diet Pepsi, and Fresca. (This is, after all, the decade when Americans started drinking more soda than water.)

When they step into the ring, the GLOW girls even resemble the junk food packaging that’s omnipresent in their world — bright, bold, and occasionally couched in offensive stereotypes. It’s a rather kitschy affair, but at every step of the way, the creators of the show resist the urge to play up the nostalgia factor of the wrestlers’ outfits and the foods they eat. These are real people, struggling to make names for themselves, and what they eat reflects their socioeconomic status.

Left to right: Sunita Mani, Ellen Wong, Kimmy Gatewood, Rebekka Johnson, Jackie Tohn, Kate Nash
Beth Dubber/Netflix

Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive created the show after watching the 2012 documentary GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (stream it on Netflix), based on the real-life women wrestlers of GLOW, a candy-colored syndicated TV show that aired from 1986 to 1990. “We were really conscientious about it feeling like a very real, grounded ’80s,” co-creator Carly Mensch told Vulture. “Our girls are struggling. They’re not rolling in money, so we wanted things to feel dusty and not like every person was walking around with a huge cell phone and dangle earrings.”

With the exception of Debbie, aka Liberty Belle (played by Emmy-nominee Betty Gilpin), the women live together in the Dusty Spur Motel, where they have access to vending machine foods and not much else. At work, their craft service table holds only a box of doughnuts and some coffee — not exactly what a well-funded Hollywood production would supply. If they were proper athletes or celebrities, they would likely receive a bevy of nutritional food options. But because they’re aspiring actor-slash-athletes, they have to scrape by with whatever the production team decides to give them.

In the second season of the show, the GLOW girls’ lives become even more closely synched with the world of processed foods when Howard Foods, a fictional “anything canned under the sun” company run by Birdie (played by Elizabeth Perkins) and her son Bash (Chris Lowell), takes up sponsorship of the wrestling show. In one episode, Bash — who’s also a producer on the wrestling show — eats a bowl of Howard-Os with his mother’s butler (Bash has his own butler, Florian), and notices that they’re spicy. “They’ve added cayenne pepper to the seasoning mix for the Latin market,” the butler says. The joke resurfaces three episodes later when a commercial for the product features a red cayenne pepper dancing around with maracas and a sombrero, reflecting the same type of stereotyping found in the GLOW ring. This smart callback further connects the GLOW wrestlers to cheap-o “canned culture,” while also highlighting the questionable ethics of the show and its producer.

Besides canned food, candy also appears in the storytelling — especially in what seems like sophisticated settings. In an early episode from Season 1, the ladies attend a party at Bash’s mansion, and again junk food is everywhere: Lucky Charms in glass bowls, a three-tiered server stand filled with snack foods, and various bowls of candy adorn a long table. And in a Season 2 episode, aptly titled “Candy of the Year,” Debbie throws a fondue dinner for her fellow producers, but Tammé (aka Welfare Queen, played by real-life wrestler Kia Stevens) is the only one to show up. After dinner, Welfare Queen is a bit tipsy on wine and pulls a 5th Avenue candy bar out of her purse and says, “Sugar wakes me the fuck up. Candy — cheaper than drugs. Tastes better than coffee.”

Later in the episode, Debbie suggests to the production team they should give the audience Nerds — the candy du jour — to the keep them awake. “They’re like Grape Nuts, except of instead of being healthy and delicious, they’re just like sugar,” Bash says about the candy. Though director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) jokes about its use —”I was hoping the show would keep the audience awake”— Debbie and Bash concur the candy will invigorate the crowd’s energy level.

Marc Maron and Sunita Mani

Junk food later plays an important part in an exchange between Sam and Arthie (Sunita Mani), to the point it’s evident why the production design team (Todd Fjelsted, Harry Otto, and Ryan Watson) just won an Emmy. In the Season 2 episode “Nothing Shattered,” Debbie accidentally fractures Ruth’s ankle, and the ladies and Sam comfort her in the hospital. Arthie stands in front of a well-lit vending machine containing familiar packages of Cheetos, Ruffles, Tostitos, Mr. Goodbars, 5th Avenues, M&Ms, and Brach’s candies. Archie, who munches on Nutter Butters, confesses to Sam she dropped out of medical school to do wrestling. He then tells her, “I let my mother slowly deteriorate in a place like this instead of dying in a beach in Italy like she wanted.”

This touching scene is accented by familiar snacks, as if the production designers wanted to remind the audience that, no matter how hard the GLOW stars try to move up in this world, they are still in places in their lives where they’re likely to reach out for nourishment where it’s convenient, as opposed to finding food in a more thoughtful or considered kind of way. The ladies could eat in the hospital cafeteria, but they choose the vending machine. And they later give Ruth a pile of candy as a means of comfort.

Part of the joy of watching GLOW is seeing the ladies attempt to make something out of nothing. The final scene of Season 2 shows the ladies on a bus heading to Vegas to perform live wrestling shows (the ’80s version of the show took place in Sin City). In the meantime, Ruth and company will probably continue to eat Tato Skins and drink Fresca, but in Vegas perhaps they’ll finally graduate to grand, all-you-can-eat grand buffets, and feel like they’re finally getting somewhere.

Garin Pirnia is a freelance arts and culture writer, and author of the books The Beer Cheese Book and Rebels and Underdogs: The Story of Ohio Rock and Roll.
Editor: Greg Morabito

Content source