Armed with a black belt in taekwondo, actress Ellen Wong knows how to fight. But after playing pro wrestler Jenny Chey in the women’s wrestling Netflix comedy GLOW, Ellen Wong is learning to survive.
“What I love about GLOW is that I’m not the only one pushing for diverse storytelling,” Wong tells Inverse. “The show empowers me to speak up. When you bring a diverse group of women together, something very special happens. Our show is an example of what happens when women come together.”
A workplace comedy in a league of its own, GLOW takes place in the locker room of the 1980s wrestling league that boldly spoofed the silly (and male-dominated) world of pro wrestling by cranking up the crazy dial. The series, from producers Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, explores the women’s lives outside the ring, which can be just as unbelievable as a steel chair to the head.
Season 2, which premiered in June, is more than a laugh riot. It’s earned critical acclaim for the emotional depth and complexity of its ensemble cast. While the series is set firmly during the Reagan administration, the show is immediately aware of 2018 and directly tackles the #MeToo movement, immigration, and Trump conservatism (mostly through bedazzled starlet Liberty Belle, played by Betty Gilpin, who is one red trucker hat away from “MAGA”).
Among the show’s returning vets is Wong as Chey, a jubilant twenty-something whom Wong says “is much more comfortable in her own skin” this season after her first year wrestling on TV.
“In the first season she’s naive to this world she doesn’t know about, among these women she doesn’t know she’s going to know closely,” Wong says. “In Season 2, she is not as naive. She asks for what she wants, and is having fun with what she wants in this world.”
Jenny’s wrestling ego “Fortune Cookie” also makes a return to the ring. Yes, Fortune Cookie, she whose samurai sword is slung over her kimono and Vietnamese farmer’s hat. Fortune Cookie is a stereotype, a bad one at that, and that is precisely the point.
Before Wong came on board, Jenny was a blank slate to Flahive and Mensch. While the real GLOW trafficked in racial stereotypes, the Netflix dramedy was an opportunity to own up to and satirize its politically incorrect past. It was only after the show cast Wong, a Chinese-Cambodian actress from Ontario whose immigrant parents fled the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, did Jenny’s identity become more than “Asian.”
“I still have conversations with Liz and Carly. It was important that Jenny had a specific identity, and that is that she is Cambodian,” Wong says. “A lot of times there is no specificity in the Asian identity. [Often] Asian means ‘fortune cookie,’ and that’s what she’s playing in the ring. But she is Cambodian.”
Wong teases that Jenny’s Cambodian heritage will be explored further in upcoming seasons. “It was important to bring a background that is not seen a lot in TV and film because it’s important to really understand where she’s coming from.”
The industry has only started to reckon with its history of whitewashing and its omission of diverse talents. Viral hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite and public outcry to castings like that of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell have brought attention to this erasure. But diversity is more than just about having non-white actors on screen. Wong argues that allowing actors of color to inhabit a spectrum of characters is how true diversity is achieved. And audiences benefit, because more exciting stories get to be told.
“There’s this [idea] within Hollywood where just because there is a diverse cast, we are given this prize,” Wong says. “The prize comes when women of color are truly represented through their stories. When women of color are represented, all women are, because it actually knocks down walls of privilege and allows everybody to sit together equally in this place of transparency and understanding and validating each other and being empowered together as individuals.”
“That’s what I love about Jenny,” she adds. “It’s not just about her being Cambodian. She wants to look her best, to make out with boys and have fun. I love that it’s not just her backstory.”
Through the roles she inhabits, from the neon-haired Knives Chau in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to Misaki Han in Dark Matter, and now Jenny in GLOW, Wong is determined to make herself seen and heard, even as it pushes her far outside of her comfort zone. It happens when you spend your childhood feeling invisible to the world, she says, and absent in the stories you grow up with.
“When you don’t see yourself represented on screen, you wonder where you are supposed to exist in this world,” she says. “A lot of times we’re entering a world of men. We live in a white man’s world. It’s unfortunate that has been the world we had to grow up in. Seeing somebody who looks like you doing great things, you finally wonder, ‘Can I do great things?’”
Wong is indeed on a path to great things; she’ll have a recurring role in AT&T’s Condor later this year, and her latest film In the Life of Music is now entering the festival circuit. But Wong confesses she still feels held back by the kind of self-doubt internalized from living a lifetime as a woman of color.
“I’m worried I’m not being honest to myself,” she admits, citing fear of “consequences” that plague “difficult” women in Hollywood. “I could lose my job by demanding more. And I don’t know if that’s me living into my stereotype as a submissive Asian woman. I come from generations of women who have been taught to stay silent.”
Then, along came GLOW, where bright spandex and bright lights enable the loudest to shine the most. “Now I’m on this show, I have so many examples of women speaking up, feeling empowered to be themselves,” she says. “And I go, ‘Where have I been? What am I doing?’”
Last year, in an emotional essay for Glamour, Wong’s co-star Gilpin described an awakening she felt from her time on the series, which included intense physical in-ring training that demands teamwork, trust, and support. She wrote GLOW was like “Studio 54 in 1600s Salem, Massachusetts.” Wong agrees.
“We see the strength in every one of us. I’m in every one of these girls and these girls are in me,” she says. “There’s this little voice inside of me that’s been pushed aside, and it’s going, ‘No, it’s not okay.’ I deserve a place in this world too. I deserve to have my voice heard. And when you put a bunch of women together who have that voice inside of us, that voice becomes big. We all go ‘No, this is not okay.’ That’s what happened in our show. We brought together fifteen women and that little voice is not so little anymore.”
GLOW Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.