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Women in high places: The rise of the female stoner in popular culture

 Weed culture has moved away from a “stoner bro” stereotype towards a more feminised aesthetic.

The image of the stoner in popular culture has long been male-dominated. From stoner duos such as Harold and Kumar to slacker bromances in Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen comedies, weed culture has been portrayed as a boys’ club, in which women featured occasionally as plot foils or accessories. Women were either thinly characterised but hyper-sexualised “hot girl” stoners, or uptight harridans who chastised the male leads as much for their friendships as their drug habits.

In the past few years, however, the image of the female stoner has undergone a transformation. There has been a slew of female-led TV programmes, from Girls to Broad City and Fleabag, in which “normal”, relatable women smoke yet are not defined or characterised by their drug use. In the past, a female character’s cannabis use might have been presented as an “issue”, or else a plot device to indicate inner struggle. Now, we see female characters who smoke on the same terms as men. And we are seeing, for the first time, women who smoke with other women.

These images are part of a change in how cannabis use is represented on TV. Rather than being a sign of rebellion, or denoting membership of a subculture, weed has become a ubiquitous cultural reference point, a casual aside for fully functional characters with just a frisson of nonconformity. Think Peggy smoking a joint over her typewriter in Mad Men, or the cast of How I Met Your Mother giggling as they pass around a “sandwich”. In this golden age of television, it’s difficult to think of a programme that hasn’t featured otherwise conventional characters unexpectedly sparking up.

The prevalence of weed on our screens has gone hand in hand with a broader destigmatisation. The decriminalisation of cannabis in some US states has been driven by a liberal consensus that cannabis use no longer carries the same social status.

Once seen as the preserve of slackers, weed has been refashioned as both a lifestyle choice and a neutral pastime. The media have coined a variety of epithets, from “alpha stoners”to “marijuana moms”, to describe the phenomenon of men and women who use cannabis in their orderly daily lives. The figurehead of this cultural shift is less California hippie than Silicon Valley start-up. Weed has moved away from its burnout pothead image and is now big business, with serious money to be made in high-end vaporisers and precision hybridisation.

Most noticeable of all has been the change in how stoner culture is gendered. Weed culture has moved away from a “stoner bro” stereotype towards a more feminised aesthetic. Thousands of young women use Instagram hashtags such as #stonergirl and #girlswhosmoke to share memes and images of themselves, joint in hand, with flower crowns and dog ears. Rihanna, the patron saint of lady stoners, often incorporates blunts in her photo shoots. Online journals such as Ladybud have emerged, combining lifestyle advice with drug reform activism and progressive commentary.

Driven by social media, smoking paraphernalia is being aimed towards a female market, capitalising on kitschy trends for sparkle-loving millennials. “Cannabis couture” has become widespread: from diamanté weed-leaf jewellery to weed-print leggings and slogan T-shirts. Online are rainbow-coloured rolling papers, glittery pipes and bongs shaped like Hello Kitty or vintage teapots – even bongs disguised as bud vases for hipster-friendly posies of wildflowers.

Is the female stoner’s new prominence a feminist statement? We should celebrate women’s participation in areas of life from which they were excluded. On the other hand, twee weed commodities such as My Little Pony bongs and vest tops proclaiming “Real mermaids smoke seaweed”, are just another example of the relentless infantilising of everything from cosmetics to frappuccinos. But these are strategies of fourth-wave feminism: refracting gender politics through historically female cultural forms, whether knitting pussy hats or embroidering feminist memes. Perhaps those bud vases are a little bit radical after all.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning

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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder