Narcos: Failing female characters and the Magnanti test

narcos title card

I’ve only watched two episodes of Narcos. Two. I say this up front because

  1. when I slag it off, I will have people asking ‘oh but did you not see the bit with X or Y?’ to which I can reply ‘not unless it happened in the first two episodes’ and
  2. I need you to know that there are spoilers in this for the first two episodes. However if you haven’t seen it, then I hope I can save you ninety minutes of your life by telling you it’s probably not worth watching. I should also warn you that Narcos contains some scenes of graphic violence, rape and assault, and I’ll be discussing those below too.

Here’s the deal: in the first two episodes of Narcos, women do hardly anything at all.

Hardly anything? 

Hardly anything. Some of them lounge around looking pretty in the credits. One of them is someone’s wife. Some of them smuggle drugs by being pregnant and swallowing the drugs. One of them is a sex worker (we will get onto her in a minute because holy fucking shit). One of them is a TV presenter. One of them gets kidnapped. Another is a wife of a drug lord. One holds a gun. Another, we hear from the narrator, is resourceful, which means that she sews pockets into a coat so that it can be used to smuggle drugs.

Wait a minute, that sounds like the women actually do LOADS OF STUFF!

OMG you’re right! Now that I write it down it looks like the women do LOADS OF STUFF. But that’s weird, because although these women do loads of stuff, hardly any screen time is given over to them.

Bollocks. Give me an example.

I will give you three.

1. The woman who is kidnapped is seen for approximately 10 seconds in total – five when she’s bundled into a car and five when she’s released. Her kidnap ordeal all happens off-screen because, well, what is more interesting – the terrifying experience of kidnap, or what Some Drug Men think about the kidnap while drinking whisky?

2. The Wife of the Drug Lord is a very important character, but we do not know this by virtue of her doing anything. In episode one she wanders around and we get a lingering shot of her arse, and in episode two her Drug Lord husband chokes his mistress because she had the temerity to say something bad about his wife. To be honest if I wanted to let an audience know that a particular character was important, I’d try to do something more exciting than show their arse, then have the villain get violent when someone slagged them off later.

3. The Cop Wife’s motivation. There are a couple of Significant Moments for our hero (a cop with a ‘tache who looks like an ageing Milkybar kid) during which we learn why he hates the Bad Guys. Long story short, his partner gets shot. It’s pretty sad. We also get a glimpse into why his wife (who’s a doctor) is keen to fight the Bad Guys: she has to try and save one of the aforementioned pregnant drug smugglers, when a package of coke explodes in her stomach. Smuggling pregnant lady dies. It is very sad. The former event takes quite a lot of screen time, while the latter takes just thirty seconds. What’s more, the former event (Milkybar kid’s sadness over his dead mate – keep up) gets him hero status and the majority of the rest of the screen time. The latter event (Cop Wife’s sadness about the death) is pretty swiftly forgotten, leaving her instead to play the ‘supportive partner’ role and carry a cat in a box.

Come on, there’s way more to it than that! Women also get their tits out! 

Oh my bad sorry, yes there’s that.

What about the character of Helena, the sex worker? She is complex and deep. 

I am glad you mentioned Helena, because Jesus Christ the treatment of that character is appalling. The first time we see her she is fucking. Fair enough, I guess, fucking is her job. But we then learn that she’s actually madly in love with [Generic Cop], and this isn’t work, it is True Love. So far, so Pretty Woman. She gets a conversation during which we learn about her motivation (she has a child, mentioned very briefly, as a means of establishing that this Bad Woman has a reason for sex work and actually we should pity her, also I think to hammer home the fact that women care about and will do anything for their children, because otherwise we couldn’t possibly understand why Helena would be taking a job that pays her absolutely fucking shitloads of cash).

Then she goes to a party with the drug lords and she gets horrifically gang-raped.

Fuck the Bechdel test, earlier this week Brooke Magnanti proposed the ‘Magnanti test’:

And OMG yay because maybe by this rule Helena’s traumatic ordeal was not actual death. But advanced stages of the Magnanti test include:

And DING DING DING we have a winner. Because after Helena is saved by [Generic Cop], giving ample opportunity for the director to give us a skeezy long shot of her naked body being carried out, [Generic Cop] and [Milkybar Kid] have a conversation about what happens. It basically goes a little like this:

Milkybar: How is she?
Generic: Physically? Fine. Mentally? No idea.

AND THEN THEY CHANGE THE SUBJECT. The topic rapidly switches to why our Cops care so much about ending the drug war, and this short snippet is is all we hear at the end of the episode about what Helena has just gone through. All. We. Hear. From the cop who is supposed to be a good-guy hero and the other cop who is deeply in love with her. Her trauma is literally just a passing note in a conversation that piles one more reason onto their motivation to fight the Bad Guys.

But it’s based on a true story! So it’s not like the writers/director can make the women more significant than they were!

Oh. Ho ho ho. Really? Like, all true stories should only focus on men? If this was a ‘true story’ about how Bob and Derek went to the shops together then came home and ate pies on the couch, fair enough if it doesn’t have interesting female characters. But this is a show about the rise of cocaine in the 1980s and the subsequent war on drugs. Bull shit did women do nothing.

What’s more, there are plenty of women in the show – as mentioned above. Clearly they did do something, it’s just that the writers chose not to show us, choosing instead to focus on the guys.

It was the 80s! Women didn’t do much in the 80s!

Scooby Doo is set in 1969, but Velma and Daphne still get to do shit. Downton Abbey is set back in ye Olden Days before we even had telly, and there are plenty of women in that who do shit. Don’t give me this crap.

God you’re so ANGRY. Why are you so ANGRY. 

I’m not angry: I’m fucking disappointed. If this were a show that had been panned by critics, or a low-budget student film shot on an iPhone, I wouldn’t care. But this is a show that quite a few people have raved about and told me is ‘excellent.’ A show that has been (blasphemy, I tell you) mentioned in the same breath as Breaking Bad or The Wire. It is not either of those things: not even close. Both of those had more male than female characters, but both also treated women as individual characters with motivations, desires, hopes etc of their own. That’s partly why they were good shows.

Maybe you need to watch more episodes. Apparently it gets better. 

Maybe it does! In fact, someone sent me a link to a Guardian article which raves about how brilliantly written the female characters in Narcos are. It does also describe them as ‘subtle’, though, which I think is a vague hint towards the fact that they get drastically limited screen time. I’ve read the review, and it does indeed sound like the series might get better.

However, given that Bechdel’s got one and Brooke Magnanti’s got one, I’ll let you in on the fucking GOTN test of good TV: if I can watch two entire episodes of your brand new ‘groundbreaking’ series, devoting a full ninety minutes of my life to embedding myself in the world you’ve carefully drawn, then at some point during that time I want to see women I can relate to. Women who have conversations, motivations, and characters. Women who are not two-dimensional. Women who are there as something more than a reason for a male character to do something, or a cheap way to crowbar tits (or a fucking rape scene) onto the screen.

It might get better in episode three, but I will never know, because ninety minutes of women-as-wallpaper is about as much as I can handle. Two episodes already feels like a waste of my life, and it would take all of the coke in Miami to persuade me to waste any more.

About Girl on the Net 3 Articles
London-based sex blogger, writer and person-who-rants-when-drunk. Find more of her wonderful words on her website


  1. I never got on with Game of Thrones because rape and sexual abuse was one of the main cornerstones of it’s appeal, at least to other people. “It’s a little bit rapey” is never an appealing description.

  2. Thank you. I started watching Narcos two days ago, and I’m shocked. They could have focused on the victims more, but instead they are glorifying Escobar. Women are just sexualised objects, with no voice or deeper meaning in the show. I’m dissapointed in what they are focusing in Narcos. Like, I get it, they are trying to show us how things were and went, but is it REALLY necessary to feast on females bodies and raping. The screen time women get is minimal, and if they get it, it’s either their naked bodies or women seducing men, or just women talking to men about other men.

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