“Señorita 89” Delves Into the Dark Side of Latin American Beauty Pageants
Content warning: The following story contains brief mention of sexual abuse and drug abuse.
Premiering Feb. 27 on the Spanish-language streaming service Pantaya, the new thriller “Señorita 89” dives deep into Mexican gender norms, using the 1989 Miss Mexico beauty pageant as its fictional setting. Filled with drugs, sex, and violence, the show has plenty of drama, with its main concern being feminine power, outdated beauty standards, and its love-hate relationships with beauty overall.
It starts as the year’s 32 contestants sequester themselves in the pageant organisers’ remote estate, “La Encantada.” It’s a mansion combining the vibes of the houses in “Mexican Gothic” and “The Bachelor.” There, the power imbalance is immediately clear. The “girls,” as everyone keeps calling them even though they’re in their early twenties, have to sign super-intense contracts, giving away their legal rights as a precondition to participating. The pageant organisers, headed by Ilse Salas’s Concepción in the part of the madame, use these contracts as cudgels, choosing when and how to enforce them. Mainly, they’re tools to get the “girls” to represent the pageant’s ideal of feminine attractiveness – no drugs, babies, or opinions. The pilot ends by revealing just how hypocritical this whole system is. One of the stipulations of the contract is that the “girls” don’t have plastic surgery, but there’s a secret operating room hidden underneath La Encantada. And Concepción’s husband is the surgeon! He selects the procedures for the various contestants and she gets them to agree as part of their participation.
Something similar happens around drug and alcohol use. Dolores (aka Miss Guerrero), played by Bárbara López comes to La Encantada with a serious substance abuse problem. Dolores has been abusing substance as a means to escape the compromising situations she’s in, such as brokering sexual favors with powerful men to stay safe and get ahead. When Concepción finds out, she agrees to keep Dolores lightly dosed to stop a full withdrawal and a potential scandal. Not exactly the help a young woman in the thrall of addiction needs.
Ángeles of Oaxaca, played by Coty Camacho, is lactating, and Concepción can’t have that either. This time, Concepción is wary of appearing racist as Ángeles is more Indigenous-appearing than many of the contestants (although no one is Black Latina, so clearly there is a race problem). Concepción has her assistant meet with Miss Oaxaca to pressure her to stop breastfeeding. During the meeting, Ángeles agrees but she’s not so easily intimidated. Instead of complying, she sets up regular, secret rendezvous with her child to keep her milk production up.
The contest is exploitative, which has long been a feminist critique of beauty pageants. But “Señorita 89” doesn’t leave it at that. Instead, it gives the contestants agency and humanity. For example, Isabel of Yucatan, played by Natasha Dupeyrón, pushes back on a teacher (Ximena Romo as Elena) who gives her “Miss Dalloway” to read. Miss Yucatan has already read it and rejects its thesis. “I also pick flowers and throw feasts, and I want a beautiful house, children, and a husband,” Dupeyrón says. “But you’re wrong if you think that means throwing my life away. Because I want that, but I also want to work. I want a home, but I want a place in the world too. And I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive . . . I think you’re the one trapped in a prison, thinking a woman can’t be free and feminine at the same time.”
The contestants are there not out of vanity, but because the pageant promises them a rare route to power. It promises them the chance to change their lives – if not by garnering a direct fortune, then by meeting the powerful and having influence with them. In the second episode, Chihuahua’s Jocelyn, played by Leidi Gutierrez, uses a press conference to garner attention for her missing teenage sister. She knows something bad has happened and without her pushing, everyone will forget about one missing Chihuahua girl. And she keeps pushing, using her place as one of the most beautiful to try to protect her sister.
The thing is, beauty – and particularly the idealized versions of beauty that pageants sell – is fraught. It is sold like a path to women’s power. Studies show that being attractive makes you more likely to get ahead at work. Hell, even just wearing makeup will make people more likely to think you’re competent at your job. But beauty is a limited path to power. The same study that showed makeup can help women at work revealed it can also be a negative if you wear the wrong kind of makeup, too much, too obvious, or too outside of the male gaze and what it deems ideal. And there’s science on how people think beauty and intelligence relate – mainly that if a beautiful woman is in charge, many believe she must not have gotten there on her professional merits.
“Señorita 89” knows audiences tune in to see beautiful people, and provides plenty to gaze upon. But it also interrogates our ideas of what it means to be the object of all that looking. It reminds us of beauty’s racialised nature, as Miss Oaxaca’s indigeneity takes center stage repeatedly. It confronts our ideas about beauty’s ties to intelligence, particularly with teacher Elena surely learning as much from her pupils as they are from her. And it shows the ways skin-deep beauty can function as a betrayal, as Concepción exploits the women coming up after her. Two episodes in, it’s clear “Señorita 89” is a show with thoughtful questions about women rooting their power in their appearance and why the causes and consequences of “beauty” are still worth exploring.
“Señorita 89” premieres February 28 on Pantaya.