TV Women in Wrestling Ring: PodSlam Live Recording
Welcome TV Herstorians to our first live-audience recorded performance. It’s pretty exciting to be here at the iO Theater in Chicago, sharing the line up with some of the area’s most ambitious, clever podcasters. Before I tell you more about Advanced TV Herstory and call upon the rich history of decades past for glimpses into women’s wrestling, I first want to thank a few people who lead this marathon effort. First, thank you to Dan Schiffmacher of Second Wind Productions and host of Talkin’ Wild, whose tweet sent me to the application page. Rich and the gang at Arcade Audio are the real heroes tonight. We’re bringing our best to a real audience thanks to this team’s work – all to benefit Connor’s Cure. Chicago podcasters are a big-hearted bunch! Proud to be in your company.
For the benefit of my listeners and because storytelling is part of what we do, it’s important to remember the work and generous spirits of others who got us here, and why we’re talking about wrestling. WWE and its fans are strong supporters of pediatric cancer research because of one young fan who touched the hearts of many - Connor Michalek – age 8 – was battling medulloblastoma, a rare tumor that affects the brain and spinal cord. Connor formed a special connection with WWE Superstars and Divas. When Connor lost his battle with medulloblastoma in April 2014, the WWE community honored him by creating Connor’s Cure, a fund at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
To date, Connor’s Cure has raised nearly $1 million and assisted more than 100 families around the world. Everyone in this room knows an 8 year old. And everyone in this room knows the power TV has over viewers. That’s a topic I’ll touch on in a minute. But I just need to pause for a minute to observe there are many wonderful people in this world. When focused on improving the lives of others, great things can happen. So please, join us at this moment of our marathon – or whenever you hear this - and get generous. Think about what the blessing that is good health – especially for kids. That’s why we’re here. Tomorrow thousands of families across America will wake up with a child living with cancer. Let’s make tonight count – and send the message that Chicago cares.
Being 8 years old - Connor’s age - is an impressionable time in someone’s life. Girls and boys that age are starting to see that what others do. The big world will soon be theirs. I certainly remember thinking that! Advanced TV Herstory likes to go back in time to find stories that show women at their most courageous or funny or smart – the ones that we saw on TV. The shows or moments of TV may have been scripted or directed by women – or performed. The mission is defined by two words: TV and Women. And sometimes, we get serious.
:07 But not tonight. How can you … when you have a theme of wrestling, which by its very nature encourages creativity and competitiveness. So in TV Herstory’s text book, women’s wrestling takes us back to the 70s and 80s. From the late 70s until the late 80s, TV viewers couldn’t go too long without stumbling into women wrestling on TV. And then, this year Netflix shined a spotlight on that period with its original series, GLOW.
What a time capsule! Reality TV before we knew it as such. Slotted into groups labeled Good and. Based on research of what life was like for the REAL Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, GLOW deftly weaves in gritty details like low pay, lack of solid financial backing and development of a wrestling personality.
In the 10 episodes, viewers have seized on the power of TV and seeing women on TV. Real and Netflix GLOW wrestlers received fan mail from men and women of all ages. Physically awkward and a bit campy – but it still had an impact on viewers. Young girls saw women perform, use their own voices, release emotion and compete. Only broadcast for an hour a week on 80s TV, the REAL GLOW bears little resemblance to today’s women’s wrestling but surely the same impact. Women competitors.
In a documentary about the Gorgeous Ladies, it’s asserted by one of them that the whole GLOW effort had been to run a loss to avoid taxes. Live matches were quite popular in Las Vegas, there were television rights and appearances – what was intended to be an expensive joke actually had financial potential. The GLOW documentary – also on Netflix - detailed the four-year run on TV and its abrupt shut down. No notice. Questions lingered about why. But from 1986 to 1990, women’s wrestling was a novelty, with GLOW wrestlers appearing on talk shows Sally Jesse Raphael and Phil Donohue and the night time talk shows too.
So in telling the story of the real women of GLOW, GLOW the Netflix series showcases the real struggles of racism of women in the 80s – that subtle creep toward Reagan’s conservatism that women didn’t necessarily see coming. So a character of “Welfare Queen” – suggested by a man as perfectly fine – a woman brought to life. In 10 episodes, you see reference to men in the family (husband, father, brothers), questioned respect for this kind of reality show performance – was this legitimate acting and porn and coke – who was doing it … who wasn’t. Curfew for grown women…
GLOW on Netflix was created by 2 women: Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, directed and written by women.
Real GLOW from the 80s lasted 4 seasons. Can Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive keep it fresh for another 10 or 20 eps?
If you were a young adult in the 80s, this is a serious walk down memory lane. Netflix’s inaugural season delivered 10 episodes which bring us up to the development of the team and live show. Viewers have become familiar with a dozen – YES 12, MORE! women characters, as well as the men who function as gatekeepers to power: TV executives, the producer and director.
In their first live show, main character Ruth “Zoya The Destroya” and Jenny, who plays a derisive Red China stereotype face against 2 cream puffs. The live show had been built up to be a battle of The Russian versus Liberty Bell in a classic 80s themed salute to patriotism, but Debbie’s, AKA Liberty Bell husband had shamed her into leaving the project before that first show.
:14 Glow clip (1:59)
:17 Netflix! GLOW! Fun show with A LOT of perspective about American culture. Okay, but actually before the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling ever came to be, 2 other talented comedians took us even further back in time. GLOW took us back 30 years and Laverne and Shirley – a series that ran from 1976 to 1983 depicted life in the late 50s and early 60. You may recall that Laverne & Shirley was a spin-off of Happy Days – Fonzie’s acquaintances starred Penny Marshall as Laverne DeFazio and Cindy Williams as Shirley Feeney.
Schlemel, Schlamazal, Hasenpfeffer incorporated… For nearly 50 years the series creator Garry Marshall (Penny’s brother) who died just last year, brought us some pretty excellent entertainment, including The Odd Couple, Love, American Style, Happy Days and that series’ other spin off, Mork & Mindy. Garry Marshall also had a prolific career as a film producer and director. Five years before Laverne & Shirley, you might remember Penny Marshall was as a semi-regular on The Odd Couple. And she too has gone on to produce and direct – more so films than TV.
Most people know Laverne & Shirley – the slapstick acting, writing – gentle, corny humor with the sidekick team of Lenny and Squiggy – “Hello.”
In the style of I Love Lucy.
They nailed the gimmick sitcom plot – writing and physical, screwball comedy. Season 3, episode 2 – an episode you’ll only find on DVD – does not disappoint. Laverne & Shirley are organizing a tag team wrestling match for charity. Laverne and Terri Buttafucco are on the card opposite the Masked Marvellettes. Terri is a co-worker from the brewery. Tall, a bruiser.
As you might expect, fight night Laverne finds out that Terri can’t make it. Shirley takes her place – donning the red leotard, pink toule tutu, paper crown and black high tops. Laverne had counted on Terri knowing all the moves, but had received some training. Which of course is great, because after some trash talk to the Masked Marvellettes – who are wearing yellow shorts over body suits and orange winter face masks – the match begins.
Shirley bellows: “All right you women, you’re in for some rough stuff tonight!”
Classic ring moves, all the way to the 4 person headlock chair that rotates in a circle like a clock’s second hand… inside the ring. Laverne and Shirley win the match fair and square with this epic move. The Marvellettes are setting Laverne up for a big take down and Shirley pushes her out of the way – just in time for the Marvellettes to collide with each other – a sort of Malachi Crunch for those listeners old enough to remember THAT Happy Days episode.
A brilliant end to this episode is Penny Marshall’s out of the blue, 60 second impression of a Marlon Brando scene from On the Waterfront to a very patient Cindy Williams – Laverne and Shirley – family fare aimed at our inner 8 year old.
:22 Actually, two years earlier, The Bionic Woman, Jamie Sommers, entered the ring amid trash talk, colorful characters and of course, because she was an agent for the U.S. government – the OSI – international intrigue. Season 2 – and this too was a series that loved its gimmick plot but has been celebrated as a model series for girls and women – this episode was set right in Washington D.C. The side plot – important to the final scene in the ring - is that a lady Russian engineer had defected to the U.S. to be part of the government’s micro-chip development community. Detect a theme here – Americans vs. Russians?
A male OSI agent who is on the case, undercover in the world of wrestling, goes missing. Jamie has to infiltrate the band of Lady Wrestlers who perform weekly on TV. They practice in a dingy gym but fill an arena quite handily. Played by the charming, athletic Lindsay Wagner, of course Jamie Sommers gains the temporary trust of the treasonous Norman Fell – gearing up for his big role as Mr. Roper in Three’s Company? I have no idea – anyway, he’s the seedy bad guy wearing polyester pants. You can practically smell the cigarette smoke.
Okay, cut to the chase: Jamie’s character is Savage Sommers – politically incorrect but remember, it was the 70s. They figure out she’s with the OSI and drug her. She endears herself to another lady wrestler, Amazon April, who in the end reveals details about the nefarious Russian plot – the Russian engineer in fact would don the costume of Spider Lady, who wears a full hood and is never seen – and escape the U.S. with the micro chip (it appeared about the size of a jewelry store box – so maybe not so micro by today’s standards). Jamie bounces back from the Mickey that Mr. Roper slipped her and goes all bionic in the ring. Once again, the bionic woman saves the day – American 1, Russia 0. And Amazon April earns the respect of the U.S. government and probably a little immunity for her part in the treasonous pretext.
:26 Saving best for last isn’t so much a wrestling match as it was a good old-fashioned cat fight, considered by many TV scholars to be the #1 cat fight ever held on TV. Dynasty, April 13, 1983, season 3, episode 23. Maybe by 1983, real life wrestling industry was growing more sophisticated, as were prime time TV viewers. However, it seemed that a good physical exchange – well choreographed and colorful – still had a place – repeatedly – in the campier dramas of the 80s. Dynasty began its run on ABC in 1981. Good vs. evil wasn’t necessarily only seen as an American/Russian thing, it was hmmm, American/British? Ethical vs. Unethical? Demure vs. Opinionated and bossy? One way or another, it ALWAYS boiled down to Joan Collins as Alexis Colby Carrington’s verbal sparring and ended up with….
:30 YouTube clip https://youtu.be/nW0mK81UTG8 (NOTE: reduce audio level of clip to point that allows on air commentary/voice over) Fade out at 2:31
:33 Dynasty’s legacy in TV Herstory – the clothes, the hair and the best cat-fights and trash talk on TV – all Baby Boomer generation hallmarks at their most competitive. What have we learned? TV viewers like seeing competitive women. While Laverne, Shirley and Jamie were borderline parody, as we look back on them today they are clues that women’s wrestling was considered family-friendly and a not-so-serious display of women actually competing. This, alongside the advancement and then stagnation of the women’s movement – many of us lived it. It’s seared into our characters – seen either as girls or women.
As always, I leave you with a LOT to think about and I hope, if you’re a new listener, an understanding of just how much of an impact TV has on girls and women. Then and now.
Advanced TV Herstory. Subscribe on Google Play, Radio Public – great for Android phones - Apple Podcast and Otto Radio. Play it directly on Player FM, Libsyn or our podcast website – www.tvherstory.com. Our Twitter handle is AT TVHerstory, our email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Again, I want to thank Rich, Arcade Audio, the super helpful volunteers who’ve made this experience fun & not scary. Thank you to David Brown, the podcast’s regular Audio Wizard, thanks to husband Dave Abrams who can match TV herstory trivia with the very best of them. After nearly 28 years of marriage, we never run out of TV to talk about.
Ladies and Gentlemen, loyal listeners, we’re here tonight to celebrate creativity and community. Do right by Connor’s Cure and the V Foundation and give generously. This is why I podcast. I’m your host Cynthia Bemis Abrams