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 appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning