Funny, sexy and totally empowering: why GLOW’s nudity is so radical

We have all heard the standard defences: “Nudity is empowering!” they say, as the female character pouts silently into the camera, topless for some reason. “It’s essential to the story!” In its third season, GLOW has actually managed to back up those claims, busting out nudity that is by turns ordinary, funny, realistic and, yes, sexy.

Given that it’s set in the world of wrestling, women’s bodies have always been central to GLOW’s stories, although the focus has been more on what those bodies can do than what they look like. We regularly see the actors themselves – not stunt doubles – hoist each other up on to their shoulders, perform daring leaps and impressive suplexes. They hit the canvas hard and simply get up again. But, until season three, the show had rarely explored what those bodies got up to outside the ring – with the exception of a season one scene featuring Alison Brie that seemed a bit like a cynical way to draw in viewers with the promise of Annie from Community’s boobs.

In season three, Brie’s boobs are out again, but in a scene infinitely less seedy and depressing than that season one sex scene with her best friend’s husband. This time, her character, Ruth, is trying to cheer up Debbie by donning a showgirl’s headpiece and launching into a terrible dance routine, jiggling her breasts as she and Debbie – and the audience – laugh. Female nudity played for comedy is vanishingly rare on screen. Male nudity is regularly played for laughs (and, indeed, GLOW did so with a naked penis in that very episode), but how often are women’s bodies allowed to be anything other than sexual on screen? The scene also served to re-cement the friendship between Ruth and Debbie, so it genuinely was essential to the story.

Alison Brie in GLOW season three.





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Female nudity played for comedy … Alison Brie in GLOW season three. Photograph: Ali Goldstein/Netflix

GLOW did it again a few episodes later as Tammé (Kia Stevens) eased her aching back in the shower. It depicts the female body as an athlete’s battleground, as Tammé deals with the physical effect wrestling is having on her. The scene is intimate and powerful, quite unlike the usual female shower scenes that invite viewers to watch as detached voyeurs rather than engage empathetically. Season three focuses a lot on the toll wrestling and performing takes on the body and the mind. They are treated equally seriously, as we see Debbie (Betty Gilpin) and Cherry (Sydelle Noel) worry about what having a child will do to their bodies and careers. Elsewhere, Debbie resorts to bulimia in an attempt to maintain the sort of body that she believes the viewers of their Vegas show want to see.

But the nudity in GLOW isn’t all about comedy and empathy – there is plenty of sex, too, whether its Yolanda and Arthie navigating Arthie’s first lesbian sexual experiences, Debbie working her way through the hotel’s valets with grim determination, or Madison arguing, naked, with a man about which one of them is the prostitute. You could say, perhaps, that the scenes could have been shot coyly, or that characters could have kept their bras on, and indeed that is the case in some scenes. But the show isn’t coy in the way its characters discuss sex and their bodies, so why would it be coy in showing them? The sex scenes are occasionally titillating, but they are very rarely shot with any male gaze creeping in. The focus is on the characters and their enjoyment – or lack of it – rather than on the audience’s enjoyment.

GLOW still has a way to go: the sex scenes, for instance, invariably feature the characters with conventionally “attractive” body types. It would be nice to see more diversity in the show’s approach to sex, although the show does show women of all shapes, ages and races in various stages of undress. GLOW doesn’t so much celebrate the beauty of female bodies as it does their complete ordinariness. After all, half the population of the planet is walking around with female bodies under their clothes, and when GLOW chooses to expose those bodies – whether in leotards or completely nude – it simply shrugs and says: ‘Yeah? So what?’ Seeing women’s bodies presented with such matter-of-factness feels oddly radical, and genuinely empowering.

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