From Reefer Madness to Pineapple Express, marijuana has been depicted on-screen for decades. But while the dude with the doob has become a trope, ladies’ parts in these films have either been exaggerated into ridiculousness or downplayed into oblivion. As more and more women become cannabis users, will they finally get their fair share of stoner screen time?
In the late ’30s, a slew of films warned of the deathly menace of marijuana. During this era, Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry J. Anslinger mounted his anti-marijuana campaign, largely fueled by sordid stories about the horrors of marijuana; he testified before Congress that marijuana causes “women to seek sexual relations.” A slew of films warning of (and wallowing in) the menace of demon weed immediately followed.
These preachy pot movies allowed characters (and audiences) plenty of sin and sex before a final five minutes of repentance. In Marihuana, a group of ladies declare, “We tried their giggle water, now let’s try their giggle weed!” and wind up stripping for a nude swim, leading to vague images of naked white backsides in the water overdubbed by endless, shrill laughter.
Weedsploitation movies featured two kinds of women: The platinum-blonde pot pusher and the big-eyed brunette who gets her life ruined by dope. Both appear in Assassin of Youth. Doused in peroxide and mascara, Linda struts into a party, whips off her cape and pulls out a handful of doobs, announcing, “No credit-cash offers only,” surrounded by a bevy of evening-gowned young ladies clutching bills. At the same time, sweet young Marjorie smokes a joint-then sets her clothes on fire, tries to stab her boyfriend and lapses into a coma.
During the ’40s, marijuana paranoia gave way to the horror of war, but at the end of the decade, She Shoulda Said No brought weedsploitation back with a dash of proto-reality TV: Star Lila Leeds, who was caught in a highly publicized pot bust with Robert Mitchum. The arrest emphasized his bad-boy image and brightened his star power, but the bad girl label immediately ended Leeds’ career. Here, she begins as a naïve dancer putting her brother through college, but winds up as a dope-dealing trollop, puffing and passing through a series of droll montages, horror-movie Theremins whining menacingly as the smoke rises. It was a kickoff to the ’50s, when tight-sweatered loose ladies indulged in the devil’s lettuce in movies like High School Confidential and on the covers of pulp novels such as Reefer Girl.
Through the ’60s and ’70s, the sexual revolution and the rise of the drug culture turned the potentially dangerous druggie into a simple, sexy stoner chick. From the girls in the graveyard with Peter and Dennis in Easy Rider to the groupies that latch on to Cheech and Chong in Up in Smoke, they’re along for the ride, defanged versions of the sex-and-drug-crazed vamps of the ’30s.
Women smoking pot made it into big-budget films with 1980’s Nine to Five, about three secretaries versus their boss. The scene in which Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton toke up on some Maui Wowie and share surrealist fantasies about overthrowing the asshole in charge is the film’s comedic zenith. It also provided the rare filmic glimpse of grown-ass, successful women getting high to unwind and enjoy themselves-something Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign would soon put a stop to.
The ’90s brought in a new batch of stoner movies-Friday, Half-Baked, The Big Lebowski-but women remained on the sidelines, often with a slightly disapproving gaze. The few who managed to roll with the boys were throwbacks to the ’70s, both in cutoffs-and-a-bong style and (lack of) substance; Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown, Milla Jovovich in Dazed & Confused. But there was 30 minutes of real women smoking on a 1993 episode of Roseanne where Roseanne, her husband and sister try to relive their hippie days by getting stoned-each one with their own distinct high style, from goofy to paranoid to “This isn’t working!”
With the new millennium, ladies began playing a less passive role. The 2002 British film Saving Grace concerns an upper-class British widow whose husband has not only left her bereft, but broke. She applies her green thumb to her gardener’s straggly pot plants and grows a huge, healthy, mortgage-paying crop. She even hits London to sell it, dressed up in a white suit and picture hat like teatime Superfly-the drug-pushing sexpot in it for dollars and debauchery turned into a humble housewife trying to keep a roof over her head.
A similar plot also powered the series Weeds, although this time the pot-dealing widow was younger, prettier and in California. The show’s ads styled star Mary-Louise Parker in a similar busty pinup style to the girls who used to grace ’50s novels, and her move from mom paying the bills to mogul, felon and cartel associate puts her closer to the wicked women of the ’30s.
The aughts were about the stoner adventure/comedy, although as a dudes-only genre. In 2009, Smiley Face offered a female protagonist, with Anna Farris as an unemployed actress who eats a plate of pot brownies and embarks on a strange, solo journey through L.A. Unlike Harold, Kumar, Franco, Rogen or any of the Hangovers, all of whom emerge from their shenanigans unscathed, Farris ends her exciting day with a suspended sentence and a few hundred hours of community service.
With the rise of web series and streaming services, the female bud buddy comedy finally had a place to blossom. While not every episode of Broad City is centered around cannabis, it usually wafts across the screen at some point each episode. And, for all the over-the-top nuttiness, the show is rooted in smoker reality, from the friend who never has their own weed to being out and scrounging through your apartment for stray nugs, to getting high and busting your credit card at Whole Foods.
And as consuming marijuana has become more common among older women, TV has followed suit. Grace and Frankie brought back those potsmoking O.G.s, Fonda and Tomlin, as a mismatched but devoted pair of pals-of course, hippie artist Frankie is a regular cannabis consumer, but when uptight businesswoman Grace gets high with her daughters, it shows how women are really smoking now.
Netflix’s Disjointed stars Oscar-winner Kathy Bates as a California dispensary owner; it’s a laugh-track 30 minutes that drips with hippie references and pot puns. As marijuana merges into the mainstream in society, it also becomes part of mainstream media: The dangerous dame pushing the demon weed has become a mellow mom proffering pot brownies. After all, when Hollywood gives you a sitcom, it’s means they’re no longer scared of you-and no one else is, either.