June 8, 2020
By Patricia Sohn
My Covid-19 days were graced, in off-moments from working remotely on-line, with what I have been calling, “The Camila Vargas Show.”
The real name of the series, set in English and Spanish with subtitles, is Queen of the South. Camila is a predominating co-star part rather than lead in the show. Nonetheless, Camila Vargas’ model of feminine self-actualization and women’s power stands out as the leading woman character, Teresa Mendoza, lives the process of becoming a powerful woman herself. The latter seeks to do it with less bloodshed and more of a nod to ethnics than the former ostensibly does. And, all of this is in the context of the illegal drug trade, so I cannot recommend the show due to violence, drugs, and other inappropriate content for minors. That said, it is a very interesting cultural study of women’s power in the illegal drug trade.
Because our culture values violent assertions of power with such a premium, showing what women’s power looks like in this sort of context adds a fascinating dimension to our ideas (and debates) about womanhood.
Camila Vargas, played by Veronica Falcón, is a Mexican woman around 40-45 years old. She exudes self-confidence, intelligence, and sexuality while being the-woman-in-charge as a mob boss. She speaks slowly, with a deep voice, and in a way that sounds considered and strategic rather than pressured in any way by urgency – even in the midst of the crime-related conditions of exigency around her. She is tanned and athletic with dark, straight hair and brown eyes. She wears tight, short dresses, most typically in black, red, or charcoal grey, and the periodic off-white or gold. She wears 4” heels everywhere. The actress herself is 53 years old and manages a bed scene with the character of her husband with a grace and sultry power that I have not, personally, seen since Raquel Welch, Fay Dunaway, and Sophia Loren. That is, she is a middle-aged woman of dignity who can knock the heck out of any 20-something even in a scene like that. In that way, Vargas (and her actor) is an extremely brave character who steals the show; hence, my renaming of it as, “The Camila Vargas Show.” I say it as a term of endearment rather than critique in any way. The character is amazing and wonderful to watch.
The lead role in the series is Teresa Mendoza, played by Alice Braga. Teresa is in her mid-to-late 20s when the series begins. She grows from a somewhat timid mid-level drug dealer’s girlfriend with experience as a black market street money changer to a mob boss with her own small army. She is saved by Camila Vargas and is taken under Camila’s wing. Teresa learns all she can from Camila, meanwhile critiquing Camila’s hard, blood-cold tactics on some occasions. Theresa and Camila have a soft spot for one another. But, ultimately, as Camila says in Seasons 3 and 4, “There can only be one Queen.”
Teresa begins as everything that Camila is not. Teresa is genteel and timid. She is quiet and moralizing. She has soft, innocent eyes that take in everything around her with some horror. She is impressed and overwhelmed by Camila’s personal presence and raw power. She fights against it. She wants to be it. And, ultimately, she does become it. She agonizes more than Camila does with most executions and other acts of war and violence. But Teresa gives the command and/or pulls the trigger nonetheless.
We get to watch Teresa move from sweet and relatively innocent young adulthood (albeit with experience as a money trader on the black market) to the hard woman-in-charge emulating Camila in almost all ways: quiet, deep voice, slowly spoken strategy, and lots of big guns that she is willing to use herself. Teresa does not quite achieve Camila’s magnetism. But she comes in a very close second, hoping to replace Camila as the ultimate expression of woman-power in the drug trade someday. Teresa wears blue jeans; boots (combat or short western booties); and only wears the 4” heels on occasion. She is the earthy girl next to Camila’s powder-perfect sultry management style. Teresa wears her hair out and long with haphazard waves showing most of the time, whereas Camila is usually coiffed smooth and elegant. We get to see Camila in one-on-one combat a few times, and those are the primary occasions that we see her hair ruffle into a lion’s mane showing a different kind of raw power.
We briefly visit Camila as a young woman on the dance stage and see her once young innocence as well, requiring that we re-think the supposed stark contrast between the trajectories of the two women.
Without Camila, Teresa would have nowhere to go and nothing to which to aspire. Camila is Teresa’s role model, and, by the last couple of seasons, also her nemesis. These are not unknown models for femininity and women’s power. In Biblical terms, Camila is something approaching Delila to Teresa’s Ruth in the early seasons. By the late seasons, Camila is Delila-become-Deborah (or, at least seeking to do so) and Teresa is more akin to G.I. Jane. But, instead of caricaturing the women as Biblical critics do, this series treats these role models – with more empirical interest – as one set of possibilities for women’s power within the illegal drug trade, that is, within a specific empirical context.
These women are not as different from the men around them as we would expect from more genteel ideas about women and femininity. They are all acting within the constraints of context.
In these character trajectories, the series also has something substantial to say as critique (or realism) about how some people actually make their fortunes or make it into politics.
The two women re-think gender roles and gender models in significant ways for us. In some ways, the characters appear to be modeled on real women mob bosses in the drug trade. So, they are not matters of pure fiction; there are some empirical referents for them.
Both women are strikingly beautiful. Both have blood on their hands. And both are wealthy beyond imagination in their own right as managers and drug lords.
Since so much of what we value in assertions of “power” are military and other presentations of violent might, as well as money, Camila and Teresa make us re-think some of our ideas about women and gender roles in ways that are, despite the context of illegal and violent drug trade in the series, important. I do not want to call our ideas in this arena “traditional,” as there is reason to think that they are late-modern and secularist (e.g., part of the New Man movement) rather than being traditional at all.
All in all, “The Camila Vargas Show” knocks it out of the ballpark for pure entertainment, a bit of exposure to Spanish language, and an action-packed culture study of women and gender in the illegal drug trade, particularly that between Mexico and Texas, but also including Arizona, New Orleans, Bolivia, Malta, and other spots of interest.
Dr. Patricia Sohn, Ph.D. is associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. She specializes in Middle East (MENA) and Israel/Palestine politics, and particularly the intersection of courts and politics, religion and politics, and gender politics. She has interests in historical institutional, political sociological, micro-level, and grassroots analysis of state and society. A prime example of the American melting pot, she has heritage from Prussia, the Philippines, Spain, Ireland, and Holland.