The Women Behind “Señorita 89” on Making a Sexy Feminist Thriller
The new feminist thriller “Señorita 89” is out this month on the Spanish-language streaming service Pantaya. The hour-long drama tells the story of 32 Mexican beauty queens vying for the country’s 1989 crown amid exploitative pageant organisers, lecherous sponsors, and their own secrets. For her part, star Ilse Salas wants the show to inspire conversations around beauty, stereotypes, and violence. She plays Concepción, the woman running the pageant and the show’s erstwhile villain. In the first two episodes, Concepción shows her evil streak, nudging the young women in her care toward sex work, worrying about appearing racist, and generally using her power to only advance her own agenda.
But simmering underneath the surface, it’s clear Concepción is a very nuanced individual. She’s a woman who’s achieved success by being both hyperfeminine and hypermasculine. On the feminine side, showrunner-slash-executive producer Lucía Puenzo says the character has “an angel face,” adhering to and maintaining traditional ideals of womanly beauty. But Concepción wields her power like a cudgel in what Salas calls “patriarchal” machinations, always trying to prove her worth. As the show goes on, both Salas and Puenzo promise more exploration into the character’s contradictions. Or as Puenzo puts it, “her emotional arc is to open her eyes and understand her own scars and who she is. And that is basically, for me, the heart of the series.”
Puenzo classifies “Señorita 89” as a “political thriller,” with its fictional characters like Concepción including politicians, moneyed king-makers, and the titular pretty young things. But the treatment and agencies of the beauty queens are political for Puenzo too, noting how their exploitation explains something greater about Mexican and Latin American society: mainly how women can be used up by destructive systems, whether that’s media, politics, or beauty. Puenzo remembers watching pageants growing up in Argentina and what big events they were for her. Now she sees her viewership as “complicit” in an exploitative practice. In fact, when she was first approached about “Señorita 89,” she wanted to run in the opposite direction, still carrying complex and negative feelings from the ways pageants defined women’s sense of self-worth when she was a teenager. Instead, she applied herself and her scholarship to the show. There’s a scene in the pilot where a young academic gives a lecture on the meaning and construction of beauty, and Puenzo says that comes from her experience. She wrote her thesis on the subject: looking at how beauty informs power and “the very deep ways” society inscribes it with meaning.
Part of the problem with how we think about beauty is how limited it is. “If you see the 32 states of Mexico, women don’t look the same . . . and that’s something that should be celebrated, how different they are,” declares Puenzo. But instead, the pageant system makes them all look the same, a process we see happening in “Señorita 89.” Puenzo notes that we’ve come a long way, observing “everything that scandalises us today was completely normalised” back then. But we still need to do more, and examining our past is an important part of that. Of the show’s being set 30-plus years ago, Puenze says “it’s important to look back into the recent past to understand what has brought us to the present.”
She’s inspired by the green wave of the last fifteen years and how it unites women across Latin America against femicide. “Señorita 89” depicts some of the violence that these feminists rally against, including sexual abuse and the thousands of Mexican women who “disappeared” in Chihuahua. Now, Puenzo hopes “Señorita 89” will teach people in the United States a few things: mainly, to throw out the stereotypes around what it is to be a Latin American woman. With so many distinct woman characters, “Señorita 89” nudges viewers to “see us in all our differences.” And by telling the story from the women’s perspectives, it centers our agency too.
That approach is compelling and rare. It makes “Señorita 89” distinct from so much of what we watch in the US, which usually centres Anglo, male perspectives. And it mostly refrains from lecturing its viewers, rather relying on its rich story to do the work. The show has plenty of intrigue to keep audiences tuning in: we’re talking a set of characters representing the most beautiful women of Mexico, dealing with murder, conspiracy, and lies. It’s the type of show you can lose yourself in. And, luckily for viewers, its feminist message is interwoven in smart, interesting television.