Transcript — GLOW vs Cobra Kai: Grappling with Gender Norms

This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/GWMzG6cuvVk

Everywhere you look these days, there is 80s nostalgia — TV shows and movies eager to remind us of the glory days of walkie talkies, poofy hair and first dates at the arcade. And while a lot of us are more than happy to re-play these rose-tinted versions of our childhoods, taking a nostalgic view of the past runs the risk of downplaying or erasing things we’d rather forget. And media which aims to evoke nostalgia for the past can sometimes fall into the trap of uncritically replicating harmful social attitudes or tropes from the time. In this video, I’d like to talk about two recent shows which evoke 80s nostalgia, while also offering a gender-based critique of the 80s. Let’s take a look at Cobra Kai and GLOW.

Cobra Kai is a follow-up to the Karate Kid films, and tracks two characters: the original karate kid Daniel, now a happily-married family man, and Johnny, the antagonist of the original story, now an alcoholic with nothing going for him. Their rivalry flares up again when Johnny decides to re-start his old karate dojo Cobra Kai, and Daniel responds by founding his own dojo, Miyagi-do. Eventually, chaos ensues as the rivalry between the students of both dojos devolves into conflict and violence.

GLOW features the stars of a new women’s wrestling show. The central characters, Ruth and Debbie, are struggling to repair their friendship after Ruth slept with Debbie’s husband. Ruth is a wannabe actress who can’t get cast in a decent role because there aren’t any decent roles for women, and Debbie — a washed-up soap actress — is juggling work and motherhood in the midst of a divorce. The show follows them and the rest of the team, as their newfound love of the sport is jeopardised by sexism, racism, money troubles, and strained relationships.

Cobra Kai and GLOW share an unapologetic nostalgia for the 80s. GLOW is set in the 80s and captures everything that made the decade wonderful — from the poofy hair to the thick moustaches to the neon. And Cobra Kai might be set in the present day, but it has all the 80s-inspired cheesiness you can handle, including a soundtrack packed with 80s bangers. In the service of nostalgia, both shows feature a scene at the roller rink and, of course, a training montage. Not to mention plenty of over the top butt kicking in the form of karate and wrestling. Cobra Kai and GLOW don’t just reference the 80s — they celebrate the 80s with a truly addictive sense of joy and exuberance. It would have been easy for either of these shows to present simplified, sanitised 80s nostalgia trips for us to comfortably consume. But as it happens, beneath the hair spray and theatrics, there’s a thoughtful exploration of the impact of gender on people’s lives and relationships.

Both shows deal with two central protagonists who have a rocky relationship, but this conflict is expressed very differently in each show, partly reflecting the differing nature of male and female same-sex friendships. The problems between Daniel and Johnny stem largely from the fact that they are both emotionally stunted man-boys who can’t put aside their fragile male egos and stop posturing long enough to just talk through their problems. Notably, the one time they do come close to burying the hatchet is in the most adorably male way — over a beer or three at the pub. In contrast, GLOW is a show about female friendships, and all the subtleties and complexities that female friendships involve. Ruth and Debbie’s friendship is often fraught with jealousy, resentment, and subtle bullying, but also contains moments of intimacy and vulnerability. In a way, the shows present complementary messages: sometimes men need to fight less and talk more, and women need to sort their shit out more directly.

But beyond an exploration of the nature of same-sex friendships, both shows also grapple with the harmful effects of traditional gender norms. Let’s start, or rather strike first, with Cobra Kai.

Strike First, Strike Hard, Realise the Limits of Toxic Masculinity

Johnny, the star of Cobra Kai, is just about the most comically typical dudebro you can get. He likes beer, babes, cars, and Guns n Roses, and he is hilariously oblivious to modern cultural norms and standards. But, unfortunately, not all of his hyper-masculine traits are endearing. He leads a karate dojo that basically glorifies bullying, he’s got a fragile ego, he’s terrible at talking about feelings, he’s quick to violence, and he has some pretty worrying ideas about women. Cultural ideas may have moved on since the 80s — but Johnny has not. In many ways, his behaviour is a representation of old-fashioned toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity is a specific type of male gender role that emphasises traditional notions of masculinity, including adopting sexist attitudes, needing to always appear tough and suppress feelings, and a propensity towards violence as a way of resolving conflicts or showing strength.

And if toxic masculinity had a motto, it might as well be:

Strike first, strike hard, no mercy

And this show has something to say about where these kinds of attitudes and behaviours will get you. At first, the effects of the Cobra Kai training on the students’ lives are largely positive. Miguel beats up the bullies and gets the girl, Aisha gains self-confidence, and Eli the “Hawk” comes out of his shell (flies/hatches out of his shell?)…anyway he becomes a badass. Of course, as the show rolls on, things take a nasty turn. Miguel becomes a little too quick to violence and accidentally hits his new girlfriend, and Aisha and Eli become cruel and physically abusive to their fellow students. This all eventually culminates in a completely ridiculous full-blown karate fight in a school because, after all, it’s a soap opera.

But, despite the over-the-top ludicrousness of it all, the consequences of Johnny’s ideology aren’t trivialised — Miguel ends up in the hospital fighting for his life, and Johnny gets dumped by his love interest. This is when Johnny realises that his worldview is destructive and only leads to everyone getting hurt. But it’s too late. His even more tough and macho ex-sensei John Kreese has taken over Cobra Kai and is corrupting the kids’ minds …with Stefan Molyneux videos and stuff. Not really but the show does make it clear that the arrival of Kreese and his brand of cigar-chomping ex-army macho antagonism is not good news.

Cobra Kai revels in 80s nostalgia at the same time as using the character of Johnny — and later, Kreese — to depict and critique the kinds of old-fashioned ideas about masculinity that were prevalent in the 80s (and are still too common now). And although the show presents Johnny as relatable, it doesn’t condone the more harmful masculine gender norms that his character represents. Instead, it makes clear that being an outdated relic of the past like Johnny isn’t cool or awesome, but at best pathetic and, at worst, dangerous.

And If Cobra Kai is about the price you pay for following gender norms, GLOW is about the price you pay for challenging them.

I Am the (Social Justice) Warrior

GLOW is a story about women struggling to develop their identities and find empowerment in a society and an industry that isn’t accepting of women who don’t fit the traditional mold of wife and mother, or in the case of the film industry, the mold of “secretary or porn star”. Ruth can’t get a job because she’s too “unconventional” and the endless insecurity and failure leads her to desperation and a bad affair.

Debbie’s character, in particular, is a raw depiction of the frustration and powerlessness that come with being a fiercely smart and ambitious woman who is constantly overlooked and underestimated. Her acting career has been unfulfilling, she has to fight to be heard and respected as a fellow producer on the show, and she often feels undermined by her romantic partners.

The rage and resentment this creates in Debbie leads to her frequently being cruel and lashing out at people she sees as trying to hold her back. And we also see the heart-breaking rivalry between women that such social pressures create. When Ruth runs out on a sleazy TV executive who tries to hit on her, and looks to Debbie for support, Debbie instead berates her for rejecting him and not buttering him up. The tragic reality is that when women are held down and told they need to shut up, smile and submit, they can end up foisting those same expectations on other women because they start believing there’s no other option.

GLOW confronts us with the indignities, large and small, that these women are regularly forced to experience. Being ignored and taken for granted while men who are less talented than you hog the praise and the spotlight, having to sacrifice your dignity to accommodate creeps, and regularly being casually objectified and demeaned by sleazy dudes. All the while navigating the constant pressure to be thin, young and beautiful.

Cobra Kai shows us that the consequences of following the traditional male gender role are senseless violence and failed relationships. And GLOW shows us that the consequences of oppressive social expectations of women are rage, bitterness, and damaged friendships. Now I’d like to look at how both shows represent those same concerns in their central theme of parenthood.

Mothers and Fathers

Both Cobra Kai and GLOW look at fatherhood and motherhood respectively, and the impact of gender stereotypes on families.

Cobra Kai tackles two of the more traditional ideas of fatherhood: the absent father and the abusive father. Absent fathers are a common consequence of the attitude that parenting is a woman’s job, and that fathers aren’t important in their children’s development, and therefore shouldn’t be involved. And the abusive father is a result of the belief that fathers should be involved, but only in the role of the strict or violent disciplinarian. The absent father and the abusive father are more conventional ideas of fatherhood, as opposed to more modern ideas of dads as being actively involved with childcare and parenting.

We can see examples of both the absent father and the abusive father in Johnny’s character and background. Johnny’s biological father was absent growing up, and the only father figures he ever had — his stepfather and his karate sensei — were both bullies. As an adult, Johnny has a biological son whom he has abandoned, and as the new sensei of Cobra Kai he becomes a surrogate father to Miguel, and teaches him the same destructive ideology he was taught as a child. Johnny, growing up with fathers who were either absent or abusive, has himself become an absent father teaching an abusive ideology. In Johnny’s story, the show highlights the intergenerational nature of these harmful father roles and how they are passed on from father to son.

GLOW presents three characters who are experiencing conflict due to the social expectations of motherhood. There’s Debbie, who has a child, Cherry, who isn’t sure if she wants children, and Ruth, who doesn’t yet want children. Debbie is anxious about being judged by others for being a working mother and secretly feels guilty and worried that she is letting her son down by not giving up her career. Cherry starts out wanting children, but as she comes to realise that having a child will probably damage her body and destroy her career, she becomes deeply ambivalent about it. When she tells her husband she isn’t ready for kids yet, he leaves her out of a sense of betrayal and disappointment. Ruth becomes accidentally pregnant and has an abortion which she keeps a secret from all the other women, probably because she is scared of being judged. All three women are struggling against the weight of social expectations regarding motherhood: that women should want a child, that women shouldn’t choose a career over kids, that women should be completely satisfied by their role as a wife and mother.

Cobra Kai and GLOW are about characters who feel restricted by what traditional values will accept and allow in terms of motherhood and fatherhood, and we see how this harms both parents and children. Johnny, in replicating the same traditional role modelling of his own father figures, ends up losing his son and harming his students. And Debbie, Cherry and Ruth each pay a price for choosing to go against the grain — alienation, relationship breakdown, and a bitter cocktail of resentment and guilt.

But just as GLOW and Cobra Kai demonstrate the harm that can be done by rigid, outdated ideas of motherhood and fatherhood, they also show us that these limitations can be challenged. Debbie achieves success in her career even with a baby in tow, Cherry and her husband eventually reconcile, and Ruth ends up finding love and support in the GLOW sisterhood. And in Cobra Kai, Johnny starts taking steps to reconcile with his son, and even stands up to Kreese and abandons the Cobra Kai philosophy.

Conclusion

Cobra Kai and GLOW are both shamelessly joyful celebrations of everything that made the 80s unique, ridiculous and bombastic. But they also feel like very modern shows, in their decision to cast a critical look back at the less savoury aspects of this time period and explore the consequences of gender norms that are rooted in the past.

Cobra Kai is an exploration of how old-fashioned ideas about masculinity and fatherhood lead to a repetition of the same cycles of hostility and conflict in the next generation. And GLOW is about the nasty results of the intense social pressures placed on women to be conventionally beautiful, submissive and maternal. But both shows share a message — that rigid and outdated gender expectations can do all kinds of harm, regardless of whether you choose to follow them, or fight them.

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I (Kat) have a PhD in psychology but I’ve decided I would rather rant excitedly about games instead. I make video essays and write blog posts and articles. ​