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Netflix's Glossy Griselda Twists Feminism Into Justification for a Murderous Drug Lord

'Griselda' constructs a girlboss narrative scaffold to shield its protagonist from accountability—and to appeal to its audience. Credit -

To the tune of Ralph Robles’ boogaloo “Come and Get It,” a dozen young, attractive women strut across the crosswalk from Miami International Airport’s Avianca arrival gate toward a waiting Sprinter van. Picture Abbey Road, but late ‘70s, overtly sexy, and femme.

These women are former sex workers turned drug mules: Each one has baggies of cocaine stitched carefully into the lining of her bra. The Sprinter van belongs to the Colombian drug lord Griselda Blanco, played in this eponymous Netflix crime drama by Sofía Vergara.

Out on Jan. 25, the show follows Griselda as she flees from Medellín, where she killed her husband after he asked her to sleep with his brother to repay drug trafficking debts, to Miami, where she gradually establishes herself as a cocaine queenpin. Vergara stars as Griselda, Colombian superstar Karol G plays one of the drug mules, and Cuban actor Alberto Guerra plays Griselda’s bodyguard turned second husband. For months, Netflix has drummed up anticipation, promoting Griselda's "uncut ambition" on TikTok.

Griselda presents a story about a downtrodden woman—overlooked and underestimated by the men surrounding her—who rises up against all odds to take back what she believes is rightfully hers, and uplift other underdogs in the process. A flimsy shroud of feminism barely disguises the pulp fiction at the show’s core, which exploits the image of the exotic Colombian “other” to stir up intrigue. The show constructs a girlboss narrative scaffold to shield its protagonist from accountability—and to appeal to its audience. It joins Netflix’s long lineup of cartel content—Queen of the South, El Chapo, The Mule—following the popularity of Narcos.

Isabel (Paulina Dávila) waves as she walks toward Griselda waiting with her Sprinter van.<span class="copyright">Elizabeth Morris—Netflix</span>
Isabel (Paulina Dávila) waves as she walks toward Griselda waiting with her Sprinter van.Elizabeth Morris—Netflix

How pop culture refashioned the real story of Griselda Blanco 

The real-life Griselda reportedly had no qualms about killing with impunity and, according to many, zeal. There was none of the remorse or justification seen from the Griselda character in the show. No one can quite agree on the details of her murky past, nor exactly how many deaths she was responsible for—somewhere north of 200. But there is consensus on the fact that she grew into a cold-blooded killer before her death in 2012 and the subsequent refashioning of her legacy.

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In pop culture, Griselda has been turned into a “popular rogue heroine,” whosepath seems to derive from protest and rebellion against injustice rather than from an innate viciousness that spurred collective horror among her enemies and sicarios alike,” writes Aldona Pobutsky in her chapter on Blanco in the book Pablo Escobar and Colombian Narcoculture. Books, movies, and shows about Griselda tend to position her as an anti-hero, from the 2008 documentary Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin’ with the Godmother—which grants her “romanticized criminality,” in Pobutsky’s words, as soon as we meet her—to the 2017 Lifetime biopic Cocaine Godmother, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Griselda meets with drug world higher-ups in a Miami nightclub, blood still fresh on her face.<span class="copyright">Courtesy of Netflix</span>
Griselda meets with drug world higher-ups in a Miami nightclub, blood still fresh on her face.Courtesy of Netflix

How Netflix’s Griselda cements the girlboss narrative 

As a female drug lord, Griselda is a manual for how to have it all. She can provide for her family, be a loving mother, build a wildly successful business from the ground up, look good doing it—she can also kill and order killings along the way. As the show portrays her, Griselda was once a sex worker who taught herself how to counterfeit money and worked her way out of the brothel.

Later on, a drug world higher-up, Amilcar, tells a male supplier, Papo, that a woman offered him better cocaine at a lower price to force him to sell for less, then reneges on his deal with Griselda and freezes her out of the market. So she finds new dealers and builds an entirely new economy that eventually rules Miami. As her success and power grow, so too does her ruthless rule.  

Griselda sticks it to the man, literally and repeatedly. The show doesn’t ask its viewers to sympathize with her, but it does invite them, intentionally or not, to empathize with her by folding her more horrific actions into a broader portrait of Griselda as a “queenpin, innovator, mother, and killer.”

To clear Amilcar’s name, Griselda orders the killing of a murder witness and his young wife, leaving their infant an orphan. A mother to three boys herself, she wrings her hands. “What bothers me is you had to do it,” her bodyguard tells her. “That this is what it takes for them to see you.”

The infamous Ochoa brothers of the Medellín cartel want to encroach on the Miami trade, but Griselda wants all of their product to move through her. When she bombs Papo’s house and kills her supplier in a bloody liquor store shootout, Fabio Ochoa has no choice but to meet with her.

“I’ve been impressed not just by how industrious and clever you are,” Fabio tells her, “but also how ruthless.” Griselda replies: “In this case, it was necessary.”

Griselda (Sofía Vergara) gazes out at her sons — Dixon (Orlando Pineda), Ozzy (Martin Fajardo), Uber (Jose Velazquez) — playing carefreely on the beach.<span class="copyright">Elizabeth Morris—Netflix</span>
Griselda (Sofía Vergara) gazes out at her sons — Dixon (Orlando Pineda), Ozzy (Martin Fajardo), Uber (Jose Velazquez) — playing carefreely on the beach.Elizabeth Morris—Netflix

Griselda is the latest show in a string of Colombian cartel content

Ending on a wistful note, with the protagonist staring out onto the beach where her sons once played, Griselda is yet another depressing addition to an endless string of narconovelas and Colombian cartel content that feeds an audience’s bottomless craving for true crime. It is, after all, marketed as being “from the creative minds that brought you Narcos”, which became the blueprint for Colombian cartel storytelling when it debuted in 2015. This new addition to the cartel canon muddies the narconovela narrative by trying to feed us a feminist story that doesn’t quite work.

Sofía Vergara has said that Griselda was not a hero, and she should not be idolized, and the series was careful not to glorify her. She has also said that “beyond all odds, a poor, uneducated woman from Colombia managed to create a massive, multi-billion dollar empire in a male-dominated industry, in a country that was not her own.”

There’s an echo here: Vergara’s public image is inextricably linked to Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, the character she played for a decade on Modern Family. Gloria is the “feisty, fun-loving” Colombian trophy wife of Jay, a man 25 years her senior.

“I come from a small village,” Gloria says in the show. “Very poor, but very, very beautiful. It’s the number one village in all Colombia for all the murders.” Jay, on the other hand, runs a successful closets and blinds business. He’s wealthy, so now she’s wealthy too.

Those of us worried about representation and perception may be right to fear that audiences won’t be able to parse Vergara from the image of the exotic Colombian “other.” For Colombian women—Griselda, the women she “saved” from prostitution, Marta Ochoa (cousin to the Ochoa brothers)—to be positioned and viewed as alien and alluring further removes them from our reality. These are cocaine cowgirls, femme fatales, foreigners dangled tantalizingly out of reach—not real women whose actions had very real consequences.

Contact us at letters@time.com.