By Kelsey O’Regan
**GLOW Season 3 Spoilers ahead**
I’m used to getting burned by poor LGBTQIA representation. I’ve watched my favorite queer characters die immediately after a moment of pure joy, watched showrunners dance around labels for the sake of plot, and watched one stereotype after another get introduced and then promptly written off.
What I’m not used to is getting burned by what otherwise would be great LGBTQIA representation, which is why I was taken completely off-guard when Netflix’s original series GLOW had me fuming in frustrated disbelief not once, but twice within a single season. Both instances coming from two of the three canonically queer characters on the show—and the only queer ship at the moment, not to mention that they’re both women of color—made this experience particularly tough to swallow.
I was thrilled when Yolanda (played by Shakira Barrera) showed up in season two, and even more so when Arthie (Sunita Mani) showed immediate interest in her. So why did season three make me feel so disheartened? As an asexual person who is attracted to multiple genders, I saw perfect setup for nuanced, less common forms of representation in what Arthie was experiencing with Yolanda, but I was ultimately left with gaping holes where poignant reflections of my own identities could have been.
First, episode 3×02: “Hot Tub Club” and Arthie’s “intimacy issues.” The opening sequence showed each of the show’s couples getting hot and heavy in their hotel rooms, including Yolanda and Arthie. The latter is going down on the former, then their positions switch and Yolanda begins heading south, Arthie looks visibly anxious and tense, and finally tells Yolanda “I’m good” and stops her from pulling down her underwear. Yolanda looks confused and acknowledges that she didn’t do anything yet. “You don’t need to,” Arthie tells her. “That was fun! Let’s go to sleep.”
By the end of this scene, I had broken into a cold sweat and my heart was racing—not because I was worried about their relationship, but because I felt so seen.
I’ve spent the past year and a half coming to terms with being asexual, which for me entails a very frustrating and awkward combination of things: I don’t crave sex, when I don’t have it I don’t miss it, and when I do have it, it’s… fine. My body doesn’t respond to physical stimulation the way most media portrayals of orgasms suggest it should, and it takes a lot of time and effort to climax, and when (if) I do, it’s not satisfying enough to be worth it.
And so watching a queer person happily give to their partner but opt out of receiving meant the literal world to me, and I was utterly floored at the idea that GLOW was going to be the series to put mainstream ace representation on the table.
My “Oh my god, is this really happening?” anxiety was through the roof for the rest of the episode as I waited to see how this subplot would conclude. I watched them fight, watched Yolanda blow off Arthie, and watched Arthie look confused and hurt as Yolanda brought up her lack of experience over and over (and over) again.
“I don’t want to break up with you,” Yolanda finally clarifies. “I just want you to let me touch you.”
(This line made my stomach lurch, because I’ve had that conversation before and it’s excruciating).
“You touch me all the time,” Arthie counters, but Yolanda isn’t having it: “In the ring. But in bed, you get all weird about it.”
(More stomach stuff. “Weird” is a really shitty way to describe your romantic partner’s reaction to sex).
Yolanda points out how much Arthie likes giving. “You see how satisfying that is for you? To make me feel that good? I want to feel that way too. But every time I try to go down on you, you make me feel like shit. Do you actually even want me? Because you don’t have to.”
(I was literally holding my breath at this point, waiting to see how Arthie would describe her own experience.)
“I do,” she replies sincerely. “I just… I’m not sexy like you. I’m not comfortable all splayed out like that, and I don’t… I just get in my head, and then I can’t—”
And then Yolanda cuts her off with a bunch of stuff about how sexy Arthie is and how she wants to pin her to the bed when they’re in the same room, and Arthie takes a deep breath and says “Okay. So, pin me. Do it before I start overthinking.”
Yolanda does, and Arthie relaxes, and that’s it.
The episode ended, and I deflated. Almost immediately burst into tears, too, which forced me to explain to my roommate (the former partner with whom I’d had those difficult sex conversations) why I was so upset, so angry, so frustrated. I felt like a big, juicy asexual carrot had been dangled in front of my face for forty-five minutes only to be tossed into a dumpster that refuses to acknowledge people who simply don’t want to have sex.
Sometimes it is a temporary intimacy issue, and sometimes it is something that clear and honest communication can overcome… but asexuality as a formal identity isn’t something to overcome. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with not wanting to have sex, a concept that GLOW isn’t even the first series to breeze right by—in season one of The Bold Type, Katie Stevenson’s Jane experiences a similar “problem” and finds a similar “solution” in finally sleeping with her guy.
Weeks later I’m still baffled by why the GLOW writers chose to spend so much time on Arthie’s ambiguously-coded reluctance and about thirty seconds explaining why she felt that way. Maybe I’m biased given my own relationship with asexuality, and I, in no way, intend to dismiss or belittle anyone who needs a confidence boost from their partner every once in a while. It’s not even that Arthie’s experience is invalid or objectively inaccurate—it just could have easily become groundbreaking representation, if only it had been taken a step further.
Secondly, episode 3×06: “Outward Bound”: This was the one that, combined with the season finale, felt like a slap in the face and made me angry enough to yell at the TV.
The frustration begins with Arthie and Yolanda tucked in their tent (the ladies are camping in the desert for a night) discussing some ignorant comments that Dawn and Stacey said earlier. “This is the type of shit you have to deal with when you’re gay,” Yolanda concludes.
Based on Arthie’s expression, we know she has something to say about this. “And what if you don’t know?” she asks. “If you’re… you know.” What does she mean, Yolanda wants to know. “I know I’m in love with you,” Arthie says with a soft smile, “and I want to be with you. But… I’m not sure if I’m… that word.”
My heart leapt. Was bisexual-Arthie about to be canon?
“So…” Yolanda struggles. “So what are you, then?”
“Why do I have to be anything?”
Yolanda turns to ice. “I can’t fuck with a straight girl who doesn’t know who she is or what she wants.”
“I didn’t say that,” Arthie counters, more or less in unison with me shouting “SHE JUST SAID SHE WANTS YOU” out loud at the TV.
“You did,” Yolanda decides, and the scene cuts there.
At this point I was frustrated with Yolanda for her ignorance but silently pleading with the show to give me the canon bisexual rep I felt I was owed because of it; the rep that I hoped, assumed, was being set up right in front of my eyes, because what other reason could they have to go down this particular road in this particular way?
That was episode six, and I had to watch Yolanda cold-shoulder Arthie until the tail-end of the finale, episode ten, when all the women are sitting together exchanging Christmas gifts, and it went down something like this:
Yolanda: *being a dick to Arthie*
Me: *glaring at Yolanda being a dick to Arthie*
Arthie: *abruptly stands up and says “I’m gay” to the entire group*
I was livid—that the writers wouldn’t give Arthie the time and space to come to this conclusion in a way that was more accessible to the audience, rather than this feeling like a “surprise twist”; that they forced what should have been Arthie’s coming out moment to be about Yolanda; and that they framed it as Arthie’s way of “proving” her love for Yolanda, who is never made to apologize or even acknowledge her shitty behavior.
By the time the credits rolled, I felt gross. I couldn’t believe they’d taken the one queer ship on the show and teased me not once, but twice with the kind of representation I’m starved for. I’m used to heterosexual ships leaving a sour taste in my mouth, because they tend to be portrayed in uninteresting, repetitive, and overdramatic ways; but what’s new for me is feeling betrayed by an LGBTQIA+ couple for reasons other than Bury Your Gays (I write bitterly from underneath my Lexa blanket) or a man getting involved.
Was there not a single bisexual person in this season’s writer’s room? Not a single otherwise queer person with bi friends, or basic knowledge of bi discourse? Did no one think Arthie’s “journey” might cause some whiplash from queer viewers who aren’t lesbians?
Yes, sometimes people are uncomfortable with the same labels they eventually claim as their own, and that’s perfectly valid—but to have Arthie consistently be as honest as she can and for her supposed love interest to punish her for it repeatedly, to refuse to engage with her, to act as though Arthie is doing something wrong by being confused and hesitant, is shitty and inexcusable.
I still adore Arthie and how willing she is to accept radical newness into her life with open arms, but the GLOW writers will have to give me several good reasons in the upcoming fourth and final season to put any emotional investment into Yolanda. She doesn’t fuck with “straight” girls? I don’t fuck with cruel ones.