The following contains spoilers for GLOW season 3.
GLOW’s spectacular, infectiously energetic first season was surprisingly devoid of LGBTQ characters. Yet in the intervening seasons, it has cultivated queerness in its storytelling in a way that feels organic, honest, and in line with the show’s sensibility. One of the best ways it does this is by having several different queer characters at different points along their journey of understanding their own sexuality and how it relates to the rest of their identity. Season 3, in particular, has allowed for a level of complex visibility that still feels all too rare, even in the era of peak TV.
In GLOW season 1, Bash’s faithful butler/best friend Florian was the only recurring LGBTQ character. In GLOW season 2, he died off-screen of what was most assuredly (though never explicitly confirmed to be) AIDS. As Bash (Chris Lowell) struggled with his grief, there was a beautiful story created almost entirely in gesture, facial expression, and other unspoken, quiet moments that showed him tussling with not only the loss but also what his feelings meant about his own sexuality, the stigma of HIV/AIDS, and internalized homophobia.
The specter of it HIV/AIDS haunts the series as a whole, and no doubt plays a role in the way Bash enacts self-hatred and homophobia in how he reacts to Florian’s death, his eagerness to marry Rhonda (Kate Nash) to keep her in the country, and his reaction to realizing his own sexuality. It’s heartbreaking to watch this come to a head in season 3 as both he and Rhonda feel isolated and unwanted in their marriage. Even once Rhonda understands what’s going and tries to give Bash the latitude to experience sex with men, his own fear and internalized homophobia gets in the way, leading to him discriminatorily not hiring Bobby, treating everyone around him horribly, and eventually crying on Debbie’s lap.
Bash breaking down with Debbie (Betty Gilpin) and confessing that he doesn’t want to die is one of season 3’s most moving scenes. Debbie is a big enough person and his emotions so raw that she recognizes that even though he has treated her horribly, in that moment, she can be mad at him for other things and still be there for him as a human being going through something on another level. After watching Debbie fail to be there for Ruth when an executive tried to coerce her into sex last season, it’s a positive development for Debbie. When he says he doesn’t want to die, Bash means HIV/AIDS, but his end-of-season decision to use his wealth to run away from who he is and pretend to be straight in another city is a different kind of danger. He may not be able to see it yet, but with the season of self-destruction from a once-buoyant character, GLOW makes sure the audience can: denying his identity is killing Bash Howard.
It’s entirely possible that a wealthy cis man like Bash, even if he eventually comes to terms with being gay, might always strive for assimilation. His only association with being LGBTQ is death and stigma, which while a real and terrifying prospect, is a one-dimensional look at a wide and varied community that GLOW shows us glimpses of through other characters.
Unlike Bash, Yolanda (Shakira Berrera) is clearly entirely comfortable in her own skin and only opts to “pass” as straight when it’s a matter of safety or financial necessity. As a lower income woman of color, she has fewer options to escape the potentially deadly or otherwise violent consequences of queerness in the 80s, whether illness or hatred, whereas Bash’s privilege and class insulate him in some ways. Of course, nothing can protect him from the sadness of denying who he is or losing a dear friend, something I hope to see season 4 explore further.
Arthie’s self-exploration of her sexuality in season 2 was a subtle slow-burn, with roots that could be seen as far back as the first episode of the series, when she was transfixed by Debbie, and repeatedly caught staring. A straight audience might have read that as awe, or a testament to Debbie’s beauty, but when Bash responded similarly to Debbie, it was automatically read as sexual attraction. Did GLOW choose to reframe their perspective on these events, or was the queerness always there, simply overlooked by the hetero gaze? GLOW’s decision to reframe important moments featuring Arthie (Sunita Mani) and Bash to believably explore their sexual identity is a great example of not just adding queer characters, but queering the narrative itself.
The heterosexual point of view, and the male gaze in particular, is something GLOW engages with directly for its show-within-a-show. In season 2 when Bash suggested a wedding in the ring, Sam (Marc Maron) laughed back, “who are they gonna marry? Each other?” Yolanda showed an astute knowledge for how Sam works: as he has said since the very first episode, who gets hired depends on whose face and ass he likes, and she likes her job. Whether it’s stripping or wrestling, Yolanda knows that Sam and other straight men want to project their own desires and fantasies onto her, so she lets them, while still living her life how she wants to, shame free. In season 3, a version of this subtext became text when she flirted with men and elaborated to Arthie that, “someone needs to keep us safe.”
While the occasional invisibility of passing might sometimes keep Arthie and Yolanda safe, it does take a toll on their relationship. They break up due to Arthie’s fear around what it means to publicly and unapologetically label herself. It seems Arthie isn’t ashamed of her relationship with Yolanda, but she was more hesitant about the permanence and stigma a label might bring. Beyond that, there’s the reality that some people can’t pass or won’t want to, and passing won’t always keep anyone safe. The season ends with homophobic violence against the gay nightclub during the HIV/AIDS fundraiser, which serves as a wakeup call for everyone, but seems to hit Arthie especially hard.
Unlike the show they’re creating, GLOW doesn’t rely on a male gaze-y “girl-on-girl!” style of representation, instead opting for naturalistic sex scenes that move the story forward. Arthie and Yolanda actually have sex on screen, just like the heterosexual couples on the show, avoiding a longstanding trope of extreme on-screen chastity. Rumors of shows with maximum PDA levels or numbers of kisses for LGBTQ couples are fueled by the likes of Modern Family, to the point where it’s noticeable when a show like Schitt’s Creek breaks that mold and shows a natural amount of affection within a couple.
One of the highlights of GLOW’s season 3 is Bobby Barnes (Kevin Cahoon), a drag performer, played with great depth by Kevin Cahoon. With drag captivating the mainstream American zeitgeist right now, it’s easy to just add drag queens as mere set decoration. GLOW dances with this fact knowingly, one the one hand using Bobby to usher along Sheila and Debbie’s plots and spice up a lagging season with too little wrestling, which is a shallow form of inclusion to capitalize on a trend. On the other hand, the show engages directly with real life issues drag queens face and lampshades the frustrating reality of a bunch of straight women showing up to an underground drag ball for a good time, giving that excellent quip to Yolanda, a queer woman of color.
Bobby is visibly queer and as a result faces a higher degree of discrimination which keeps him from playing any of the main stages in Vegas, in spite of the obvious financial benefit he would bring to an investor, given his ability to pack a theater. In Bash’s case, internalized homophobia and a fear of “guilt by association” is the culprit. Bobby is still largely an auxiliary player and drag still feels more like a setting for the regular characters to play in, but I’m hopeful that he’ll be back next season and will continue to challenge Bash, the gorgeous ladies of wrestling, and the audience, to think more deeply about what they expect from him and why they feel entitled to it.