For better or worse, I’ve lost any ability to enjoy a TV show without extracting some sort of political commentary. A divisive political climate, coupled with a never-ending news cycle, has saturated almost every aspect of my life, including my guilty pleasure: Netflix binge-watching. So when I sat down to watch Glow, Netflix’s new television series about women wrestlers in the ‘80s, I felt happy on a number of levels to see my old classmate, Britney Young. Her character embodied so many of the issues facing women in 2017, while also revealing the warm nature I remember from our high school days.
My shameless need for connection when the world feels like it’s burning, coupled with my fond memories of Young as a high school classmate, moved me to reach out to her to talk Glow politics, and what it’s like to suddenly find herself being a beacon of hope, inclusivity, and body positivity in a sea of vitriol, divisiveness, and hate. It had been almost 13 years since I’d spoken to Young. It was 2005, Livestrong bracelets were still cool, the Motorola Razr was the “hip” phone, preppy young men wore puka shell necklaces and layered popped collars for no discernible reason, and Barack Obama was three years away from being elected president. A lot has changed since then, but Young’s voice is just as I remembered it. Instead of echoing through the halls of Anchorage’s Chugiak High School, our shared alma mater, I heard her through my cracked iPhone as she recalled the night of the 2016 election; a night in which she worked with the cast and crew of Glow.
“We shot on election day,” Young explained, “and I was getting so many texts from people still on set after I left, saying people were crying. So many people were frustrated and in tears. But the next day, when we came in to shoot, we just said, ‘What can we do? How can we change this? How can we make our voices heard?’”
“How can I make my voice heard?” is a question Young has been asking herself for the majority of her life. Especially since she didn’t see herself in the characters portrayed in television shows or on the big screen.
“I know what it’s like to never see yourself represented,” she said, “and if you see your body type represented, the character is either a bully or the weird quiet girl in the corner who eats her hair and is picked on.”
Young, is spot on to identify representation in media as an ongoing problem. Researchers at the University of Southern California analyzed more than 21,000 characters on more than 400 films and found the only 33.5 percent of the speaking characters were female, and only 28.3 percent were non-white. Moreover, researchers at Chapman University, UCLA, and Stanford recently published a collaborative study on how media coverage shapes perceptions of weight and prejudice towards plus-sized men and women, concluding that a “visceral dislike of fatness makes anti-fat attitudes persist even after people are exposed to research showing that a person can be fat and healthy.”
Still, being seen as a role model within a broader movement is no easy task. I could hear the trepidation in Young’s voice as she explained why her position is daunting.
“I embrace the idea that I’m a body positive role model,” she said, “but I don’t necessarily want that title. My body type shouldn’t dictate my talent or the roles or the characters that I play. I’m happy that people are inspired by what I’ve done and I want to represent those people well, but I’m still going to be truthful to me and I’m still going to take roles that I believe in.”
Of course, Young’s ability to remain true to herself is exactly what’s so inspiring, motivating, and encouraging to people.
“It’s still very surreal,” Young replied when I asked what it’s like to have fans contact her to voice their gratitude for her work. “It hasn’t really hit me yet, the impact that this has all had. There’s definitely been moments when people will send me things and I’ll just be like, ‘OMG, I totally forgot there are other people out there watching.’”
While Young is humble about her impact, her role in Glow is clearly making a difference in our cultural landscape. The subtly of the show’s messaging, and Young’s portrayal of a complex plus sized character, added humanity to a discussion that often reduces people to their place on the body mass index.
“The show doesn’t make these cliched statements about size or ‘real women’,” Young explained. “There’s no ‘bigger is better’ or ‘smaller is sexier,’ and I was definitely drawn to that. There’s something very empowering and inspiring when you can look at the story, and life in general, from that aspect: a smaller woman can control the ring just as easily as I can, and a larger woman can be just as complex and interesting as any other woman.”
Body positivity wasn’t the only feminist issue that Glow’s first season touched on. Not only did the show include an abortion plot line in a matter of fact, nonchalant way — and when asked about the scene, Young replied, “We didn’t say abortions were good or bad, we just showed that women get abortions. We just showed the experience, and left politics out of it.” — but the in-depth, complex characters and their layered relationships highlight what it looks like when the “us vs. them” mentality is overshadowed by women’s collective desire to work together towards a common goal. An actress-turned-stay-at-home mom wrestles a career-driven woman who made the conscious decision not to remain pregnant; a pair of so-called “welfare queens” work alongside characterized white supremacists; and a plus-sized woman of color becomes the potential love interest of the conventionally attractive, rich white guy.
“Because of the way the show kind of paired people together,” Young explained, “You’ll always see — whether we’re doing an actual match or scrapping in the background — us together with different people. There’s even a line when a wrestler asks, ‘Can you match me with someone who is the same size as me?’ but you really don’t want to do that. Once you get into an agreement to communicate, keep each other safe, and make each other look good, you have a collective source of energy and strength. It’s not really coming from a physical place, but from a mental place.”
The parallels that can be made between Republicans and Democrats working together for the common good, and the scene in Glow when White Power fights Cherry Bang and The Welfare Queens, write themselves, but Young didn’t necessarily approach the show, or her character, politically. Not at first, anyway. Still, politics were swirling around the cast and crew during filming, and they weathered the storm as a unit.
“What was in the script wasn’t the reason why we ended up talking politics, honestly,” Young said. “It was just the political atmosphere. Every couple hours there was some sort of breaking news, and we’d have to ask ourselves, ‘Okay, what did Trump say now?’”
There were plenty of “What did Trump say now?” moments leading up to the election, including how he thought of and spoke about fat women. In 2006, Trump called Rosie O’Donnel “fat, a loser, a farm animal pig, and a beast.” Hillary Clinton made it a point to highlight Trump’s comments about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, when he called her “Miss piggy” and publicly threatened to take her title and crown if she didn’t lose weight. These comments, though unable to sway the election or change the hearts and minds of Trump voters, perpetuate a stigma that makes it harder for overweight people to receive necessary health care, jobs, and equal pay. A study published by the The New York Sociologist cites both the lack of representation of plus-sized bodies in media, and the stereotypical characterization of fat people in which a “fat person is used as stand-in for all fat people,” leads to the “objectification of fat bodies, and objectification leads to the belief that a group of people are less than human — and therefore less deserving of basic respect and dignity.”
Perhaps that’s what makes Young’s character, and the cast of Glow in general, an amnesty of sorts: arbitrary labels that work to divide the masses become meaningless when you’re inside the ring.
“Going in I was very nervous,” Young explained. “Because here I am, this bigger girl and I’m going to be doing something physical with these much, much smaller actresses, and I didn’t want to hurt anyone. But then our wrestling coordinator, Chavo Guerrero Jr., was like, ‘Get over it,’ and showed me that these girls could throw me around just as easily as I could throw them around. It’s not because one is more aggressive or strong, but because we’re working together.”
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Some of my favorite pieces of fan art from @asthma.attack @dfsaracino and @reinaduende So grateful for all the love everyone has shown Carmen and myself. Thank you so much to all the fans out there, I appreciate every one of you and for you taking the time and energy to show your love for GLOW. THANK YOU! #glownetflix #carmenwade #machupicchu
Just as Glow highlights the teamwork necessary to produce a successful wrestling match, the show proves that when you give a platform to different voices, it doesn’t mean you’re silencing others. Instead, you’re creating a collaborative movement that just makes everyone louder. It’s not us vs. them. It’s just us, together.
“It’s incredible to become a character that so many people from so many different walks of life see themselves in,” Young told me as we wrapped up our almost hour-long interview turned walk down memory lane. “I’ve had so many people send me messages that really make me step back and realize that not only do I relate to Carmen, but so do other people. They see themselves in her and, by extension, in me. And that right there? That’s enough fuel to keep going and keep doing this work for as long as possible.”