In the fifth episode of GLOW season 2, Ruth (Alison Brie), the earnest and starry-eyed member of the show’s team of wrestlers, enters a hotel room under the assumption that the TV executive with whom she’s meeting wants to further her career. Tom Grant (Paul Fitzgerald) really admires her character, Soviet fighter Zoya the Destroyer. He wants to help her get ahead.
In some way, Ruth's instincts are spot-on. Tom will help her — if she plays along, if she puts him into a signature headlock while they're sitting on the couch, if she bathes with him. Ruth, after realising the terms of Tom's deal, scurries away while he prepares the tub. Her gut decision has major implications for everyone involved with GLOW. As retribution for being abandoned, Grant pushes GLOW to a terrible time slot, ensuring its cancellation.
For anyone who’s paid attention to the news since October, the specifics of Ruth's sexual harassment storyline will strike you as remarkably familiar. As was revealed in the explosive New York Times exposé, powerful producer Harvey Weinstein’s MO had been setting up meetings in his hotel room with rising stars, and using these meetings to leverage their careers or blackball them depending on how they responded to his advances. In GLOW, we see one of the first pop culture responses to the #MeToo movement — but the storyline's initial idea had been outlined even before the Weinstein allegations emerged. We spoke to GLOW's creators, Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive, on how they devised a sexual harassment storyline to fit the context of GLOW, and how it actually predated the #MeToo movement.
Refinery29: Let’s get right down to it and talk about the scene of Ruth going into the hotel room, not really knowing what is happening to her. When did you first conceive of putting Ruth into this situation, and why?
Liz Flahive: “We definitely started by talking about a storyline involving some sort of sexual harassment.”
Carly Mensch: “We were starting with Ruth’s story. We were in this magical wonderland of female empowerment — she was on this team, and she felt so good. We needed to burst her bubble because she felt a bit naive about the industry. So we started with that. We also always build our seasons thinking about the Ruth and Debbie friendship. It felt like an exciting opportunity to put them on two sides of something and to further deepen their divide. We wrote the couch scene so that we could get the conversation that came after it.”
Had this idea for "the couch scene" come up before all the allegations about Harvey Weinstein emerged, or after?
Mensch: "We had outlined this before. Our writer, Rachel Shukert, outlined this before Weinstein. I think Weinstein happened right as she was about to go off [to write the] draft."
Flahive: "It was all sort of swirling at the same time. The thing that was interesting was the conversation around taking on power dynamics between actresses who didn’t have any, and then suddenly being part of a network with males in entertainment who had power over them, was something we’d talked about a bunch. When the news about Harvey Weinstein broke, we were emboldened to go further with the story. Our agenda, in terms of the story, was always based on character. Our eye was on what was going to happen to Ruth and Debbie as a result of this. It wasn’t really the event in the hotel. It was the fallout afterwards that we were interested in for our show."
Can you elaborate what you mean by the timeliness of the scene allowing you to take it further?
Flahive: "We weren’t shying away from anything. I don’t think we would’ve shied away from anything, especially in the Ruth/Debbie conversation, but in terms of where we set the scene, how far we took the scene."
Mensch: "Like to a hotel room."
Flahive: "That was informed by what was going on in the world. We wanted to be responsive but we wanted to stay in the show. It can be tough when you feel like you’re responding to something in the world. It pulls you out of the world that you were creating. We take a lot of pains to hold onto people in our story. We were really mindful of that."
So, let’s talk about what you've been referring to — that conversation between Ruth and Debbie. Can you elaborate on the different opinions Debbie and Ruth have on how women in entertainment should deal with lecherous and powerful men?
Mensch: "Debbie’s reaction is grounded in a very different experience than what Ruth would have. This is probably the first time Ruth has ever been invited in the room. Debbie has been in the industry more, she’s had a bit more success. Debbie has experienced this a lot more than Ruth. She’s probably thought about it differently and maybe made certain decisions or sacrifices. Her answer is not so much a global prescription of how women should behave, so much as a defence of how she behaved or how she expects Ruth to."
Flahive: "Or how she rationalised her behaviour. We wanted to root her in the time. She’s a soap opera actress in 1985 L.A.. I don’t think that’s an actress at the height of her powers. Number 12 on the call sheet for a soap in ‘85 is not a place where she was asking a bunch of questions and calling a bunch of shots. We wanted to be really particular to her character’s experience of the industry and the world."
Mensch: "We also wanted her to land punches. She says some things that resonate no matter what side of the argument you’re on. Whether it’s right or wrong, Ruth is taking 20 other people down with her. This line, 'The one time you keep your legs shut,’ which is a great line by Rachel, is true. Out of all the characters, she’s made sexual mistakes in the past, so this is a funny line for her to draw. We didn’t want to be so black-and-white, so that one side is right and one is wrong, or one side is modern and the other side is old-fashioned. We wanted Debbie to land punches and be informed by where they were."
Debbie has one stark reaction. Sam has another. Can you speak to his response in the cinema and why he was able to come down so hard in support of Ruth, whereas Debbie wasn't?
Flahive: “This is a guy struggling with certain elements of his ego and his relationship to power and authority. For the first time in a long time, he’s trying to do a job. He’s trying to get along, and it’s not working. He doesn’t understand why. And then the system is laid bare for him by Ruth. And he’s like, ‘Oh, fuck it, that’s it? Great. Fuck that guy. I see.’ He’s not vulnerable to it in a lot of ways. He’s able to respond in a way that is about him."
Mensch: "Sam definitely has some kind of protectionist impulses in him, like when he smashes [the executive's] car window. He’s going to white knight Ruth a little. First it’s neutral — he doesn’t have the baggage Debbie has, so he can have an organic, ‘Fuck that guy' reaction. But then, just because of who he is, there’s a definitive protectionist quality in him that’s related to his feelings to Ruth and to his ego."
When preparing the scene, did you consult with any actresses about the casting couch or base this scene on stories that you’d heard?
Flahive: “I don’t think we were basing it off of any particular story.”
Mensch: “I mean, we have six women sitting around.”
Flahive: “There are a lot of women in the room. We had information. I think the other thing that we talked about that was very particular to GLOW was this idea that crystallised when we were talking about the story and how it connected to the larger group. When wrestlers are seeing their fans and out in public — and this happens sometimes the actresses on our show — the idea that you take a picture with a fan and put them in a headlock. That’s all well and good. But also, that's a person incredibly close to your breast. I’ve seen pictures with our actresses and thought, ‘That makes me uncomfortable!’ Do we have to do that for this picture? That’s a very small thing, but it started the conversation and made it relevant to our girls and our show."
Debbie and Ruth's conversation shows how complicated this topic is. The scene demonstrates how pop culture at large can further the #MeToo dialogue by situating the topic in context of a larger story, featuring characters that people are attached to and really understand. What are your thoughts on how pop culture might tackle this topic in the future?
Mensch: "There’s definitely power, but something we were excited about was not just to show you what you might expect in headlines. What people weren’t talking about was what it felt like to be in the room when these kind of things happened, and how complicated it is. It's not like there's a villain. We were excited to show how easily a woman can fall into a position like this and how complicated navigating that conversation is. It felt exciting to take the conversation a step further."