I haven’t been blogging for a while, but I have some thoughts to share about two cool things that I streamed on Netflix recently: Catfight and GLOW. I love how these two pieces dig into what it means to be a woman fighting, like, physically, viscerally, guts-and-blood fighting. It reminded me of a Roland Barthes essay about wrestling, in which Barthes contends that the sport is a spectacle of sorts that signifies good versus evil and the defense or defeat of justice. It’s quite interesting how screenwriters and filmmakers are bringing a nuanced, feminist perspective to this theory.
Upon reading its description about “two college frenemies,” I had reasonable doubt about how good this movie was going to be. But because I saw Sandra Oh’s face on the movie image, I decided to give it a shot. And the film turned out to be actually pretty good, kind of an action movie meets a moralistic Maupassant or O. Henry short story meets modern day. In addition to exploring the dynamic between two women full of rage, the film also explores themes such as humanity’s emotional reliance on technology and the fruitlessness of violence. I’ll be talking mostly about the feminist thing, though.
If you’re mentally attached to Oh as Cristina from Grey’s Anatomy, you’re in for a surprise. There are Cristina-like attributes in Oh’s character Veronica in Catfight. She’s recalcitrant, stubborn, and sharp-tongued. But Veronica is also a complacent, snobbish housewife who doesn’t seem all that interested in hard work until fate punches her in the gut—quite literally. At her husband’s business party, Veronica encounters a friend from college, Ashley (played by Anne Heche), who’s a struggling artist who works as a caterer in the ritzy party. Ashley feels strongly about her art, perhaps even more so than her fizzling relationship with her girlfriend (who’s played by a glowing Alicia Silverstone). Anyway, the two get into a fight. And it’s a really nasty fight, nails-and-claws-and-fists fight—I had to look away on occasion. Suffering from a brain injury, Veronica enters a coma for two years. She wakes up broke and unemployed. In an ironic twist, her frenemy Ashley gains success as an artist whose work resonates with
Suffering from a brain injury, Veronica enters a coma for two years. She wakes up broke and unemployed. In an ironic twist, her once waif of an archnemesis Ashley gains success as an artist whose angry, emotional artwork seems to resonate with the political climate of the times—America is now in a war on terror with the Middle East—yes, it’s that vaguely described in the film. Veronica learns how to pull herself up by her bootstraps. And she goes on a rampage to hunt down Ashley after coming across her artwork in a magazine. And when they finally encounter one another again, you can probably guess what happens next.
The film’s use of woman-on-woman fight scenes can be a psychological, political, and/or sociological message depending on how you read them. Catfight simultaneously employs violence as a trope while ridiculing it. In its commentary on the political use of violence, it seems to suggest that violence is a meaningless way to make money and gather hollow patriotism. In the personal, visceral depictions of violence between Ashley and Veronica, it’s about how one employs violence to hold onto power, to have the emotional satisfaction of being bigger and better even when one has nothing, be it money for Ashley or a meaningful, fulfilling life for Veronica. It’s unconventional, maybe even subversive, that Catfight stars two women. Perhaps the film is commenting on how masculine assertions of power have calcified a dynamic of internalized misogyny between women. Perhaps the film aims to unwind meaningless conventions of civility in its unadulterated depictions of violence. In any case, it’s an enjoyable, hilarious worth that does a superb job of creating two nuanced female characters.
Netflix’s new show, GLOW, on the other hand, embraces sisterhood and female empowerment. Think Girls, but with less privileged white women. But, of course, in a nuanced and interesting way. It’s a show about a show, the notorious Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a real professional women’s wrestling series in the late eighties and early nineties. It stars Alison Brie (yes, *the* Alison Brie from Mad Men and Community) as Ruth Wilder, a struggling actress in Los Angeles. Ruth is a little bit of a waif when we first meet her. But she’s not a perfect protagonist that most people will get behind. We learn by the end of the first episode that she does something really bad that really hurts one of the most important people in her life. Though waifish and at times self-victimizing, Ruth is scrappy and persistent when it comes to her career. After undergoing a dry spell of callbacks, she comes in for an audition for a women’s wrestling show that’s directed by a smart, but washed-out has-been, who’s hilariously portrayed by Marc Maron. This director is offensive. He’s downright mean. But Ruth is persistent and takes this opportunity earnestly. The wrestling
The wrestling show, of course, plays on satire, women’s sexual appeal, right-wing patriotism. It’s twistedly scripted. It’s derogatory. But the women behind the show? They’re complex. They’re taking this job to help their families or to prove something to themselves. Most of the women are aspiring actresses or looking for gigs to earn a little more money. Their self-interest, of course, blooms into a strange, but sweet rapport by the end of the show. The wrestling part is awkward to watch sometimes and that’s the point. They’re actresses trying to pull a show off. Even though what the audience sees is two women in a ring beating each other up to a pulp, there’s real artistry and sisterhood backing up that artificial spectacle.
Here’s my biggest problem with the show: It’s a little thin on its portrayal of women of color, though makes a stronger attempt than most Netflix shows (looking at you, Love and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). Its satire of stereotypes—black women on welfare and brown women being terrorists can be horrendously offensive taken out of context. To be fair, GLOW is based on real events. These things really happened. Perhaps there is something more meta to this satire—that young, impressionable women of color keep up with this kind of abuse to keep a job or to be palatable in a white, male-dominated world. My impression is, though, is that this portrayal isn’t completely satisfying, just slightly off the mark from Tina Fey’s horrendous expansion of conversations about race in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It seems as though women of color are included for the sake of being women of color, being tokens to initiate uninspired and trite conversations about diversity. Why not show the characters of color as complex, just as Debbie and Ruth are complex characters with a range of different emotions and motivations? But I’m hoping Season 2 will do better.