By Sarah Osman
Señorita 89 isn’t an easy watch because of its stinging depiction of misogyny, but it’s a powerful one.
The new Mexican thriller Señorita 89, streaming on Pantaya, starts off with a literal bang: we see a contestant in the 1989 Senorita Mexicana beauty pageant hurl herself off the top of a building. She lands, with a splat, on a car. This opening does what it was designed to do, but, thankfully, Señorita 89 doesn’t rely on what has become conventional TV tropes — outrageous plot lines and melodrama. Yes, the series includes sex, drugs, and violence, but it is not interested in exploiting sensationalism so much as providing a nuanced look at the intersection of feminism and beauty.
Set in 1989, the series follows 32 contestants as they compete in the Miss Mexico pageant. In order to be part of the competition, the girls (as the pageant officials refer to them) have to complete training and publicity programs at the pageant organizer’s massive estate, La Encantada. (“The Enchanted” in English). The emerald forests surrounding La Encantada are indeed enchanting, but they also isolate the queens — serving the same role as the island in Squid Game. There’s nowhere for the women to escape to and no means to leave; they have to sign a detailed contract in which they trade away their personal freedoms for the sake of being in the contest. The contracts do not permit the ladies any outside contact, nor can they be pregnant or use any drugs. Thus the law (not force) is the primary tool used to dehumanize the girls, to the point where the contestants have no say when they are selected for plastic surgery by one of the pageant officials (who performs the surgery himself!).
Throughout the series, the girls are treated as props to be manipulated. They participate in photo shoots and are coached to give polite, beauty queen answers to questions. The contest’s organizers underestimate the intelligence and tenacity of their charges. In one of the most powerful scenes, Elena (Ximena Romo), a teacher who is there to help the women prepare their speeches, so they can prove they are worth more than their looks, quickly discovers that the candidates are far more clever than she initially realized. Elena hands Miss Yucatan (Natasha Dupeyron) a copy of Mrs. Dalloway and the woman tells her that she’s already read the novel. She wants a home of her own, but she doesn’t see why that means giving up her own hopes and dreams. It’s refreshing to see a series that treats pageant contestants as three-dimensional characters with their own narrative arcs — these are not helpless or silly victims. They have gotten themselves into a situation in which they are exploited by nearly everyone around them, but they aren’t willing to just sit down and accept bad treatment.
The women’s motives for taking part in the pageant is about more than becoming crowned “La Reina.” They are in a harsh culture and this is one of the only ways in which females can gain a bit of power. For instance, during a press conference, Jocelyn (Leidi Gutierrez, a real standout) uses the occasion to raise awareness about her missing sister. She knows that without the press her sister’s disappearance would simply be dismissed, yet another case of a vanished person. Some of the women, including Jocelyn, are willing to go to extremes in order to get some money as well as a desperately needed bit of power. It’s heart-wrenching to watch the sexual abuse of the contestants, but as writer and director Lucia Peunzo points out, this was common behavior in the ’80s. And sadly, in many cases, it is still true today.
In addition to the strong writing, Señorita 89 contains a number of powerhouse performances. One of the head pageant organizers, Concepción, is brought to horrifying life by Ilse Sala. Sala treats the contestants like children who are there to be taken advantage of. When it is learned that Dolores (Barbara Lopez) has a serious problem with drugs, Concepción informs one of the organizers to continue to give the contestant small doses — they don’t want a full withdrawal because that would cause a scandal. Predictably, Dolores’s addiction only becomes worse; it turns out that she’s using drugs to deal with a horrific past that includes sexual abuse. What makes this scene so chilling is how calmly Sala instructs the organizer to destroy this vulnerable woman.
Señorita 89 isn’t an easy watch because of its stinging depiction of misogyny, but it’s a powerful one. For centuries women have been told that their primal (and primary) power is beauty. The series explores what happens when women refuse to be stowed in golden cages. Because it features attractive women who are also strong and smart, the series mitigates charges that it is exploiting society’s mistreatment of women by making their victimization entertaining. In fact, the drama makes a number of feminist points: various characters learn not to underestimate the resilience of gorgeous women. That makes Señorita 89‘s vision of beauties in revolt surprisingly up-to-date.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman