Did Seeing "Cool" People Smoke in Movies Make Me a Smoker?

When I look back and try to pinpoint the things that made me susceptible to smoking, I can never bring myself to fully acknowledge that the media I inhaled during my formative years must have left a mark.

Dec 17, 2012 at 11:30am | Leave a comment

If you had asked me, in the thick of my smoking days, if I’d been aware of smoking in movies before I picked up the habit, I would have been honest -- no, I mean, not really. I consider myself to be so the opposite of susceptible to any sort of advertising, no matter how creative.

So the idea that the smokers I’d seen in the movies I loved ("Reality Bites,"* I’m looking at you!) had coaxed me, even subconsciously, into lighting up was unthinkable. If you’d suggested it, I would have been all, “Fuck you, I am untouchable,” because I was a surly if dowdy youth.

I didn’t start smoking the second I watched Lauren Bacall catch Humphrey Bogart’s lighter in "To Have Or Have Not." The impact of smoking on screen wasn’t that immediate. In fact, I came to the altar of tar later in life -- in college. For a brief period in my pre-smoking life, I had actually been staunchly anti-tobacco, due to my capacity as a pre-teen to be easily swayed by authority.

My public elementary school had drilled in the dangers of smoking so thoroughly, that I, crippled even then by a fear of death (a.k.a. the coolest 8-year-old to hang out with EVER), spent many visits to my Grandmother’s house in rural Pennsylvania hiding her Kents and suggesting plastic baggies full of carrots as a healthy alternative. To say these efforts were unappreciated is an understatement of the highest order. 

My Grandmother was pretty emblematic of my whole family’s approach to life’s seemingly minor vices. While my mom wasn’t psyched that my dad went through a pipe phase, she took it in stride, knowing it would go the way of his “fancy hat” phase (tragically ended when he was in a car accident wearing the fanciest hat while transporting a minivan full of pies -- this is not even remotely a joke).

My mom was never a drinker the way the rest of her family members were, but the woman can get down on some Rolling Rock and is not above refusing a puff on a cigar. So while I had been taught by all and sundry that smoking was bad, I also recognized it as an affectation of some of the most fascinating people I knew. Like my grandmother -- while she feigned delight that I was concerned about her, I was pretty sure this classy Southern woman was a hair’s breadth away from actually looking me in my little prepubescent face and saying, “Bitch, step off.” 

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I regret the cigarette, but not the card of celebrity mini-horse Thumbelina pressed to my bosom.

I always thought that smokers had a certain air about them, something ineffable and cool -- qualities I aspired to. I knew from watching it happen that smoking could not just kill you, but make you incredibly sick -- for example, my grandmother’s quadruple bypass, her several strokes. “It’s nothing new,” my grandmother would purr archly, “We called them coffin nails when I was a little girl.” My grandmother knew she was doing something would kill her -- and she did it anyway.

I should have been horrified, but I was awestruck. I lived in fear that everything I did would have some disastrous consequence, but my grandmother seemed to be staring all her own consequences right in the eye and giving them the bird.

I was so besotted with this sort of devil-may-care glamourpuss persona that by the time I hit high school I had given it a name. If I told my friend Meghan that someone looked like they were enjoying an “implied cigarette,” it meant I thought they were not only beautiful, but fascinating, moody, and more adventurous than your average Jill. You know -- me. 

People smoking in the movies fit this description to a T. In fact, they seemed born to it. To me, it’s still more outre when celebrities make a stink about not smoking, or even posing with cigarettes, than it is to see them smoke.

I remember reading an interview with Salma Hayek where she refused to pose for the accompanying photos with a cigarette in her mouth -- opting to use a match instead. Because Salma Hayek is a badass, this worked -- she was basically breathing fire, you guys, while being Salma Hayek -- fire on fire on fire. But I chalked up her ability to pawn this off to the “implied cigarette” nature had seen fit to provide her.

While my feelings on Katherine Heigl have officially never varied much from, “People are always giving that woman a hard time, that doesn’t seem right,” I will admit to audibly snorting in the grocery line when I spotted a photo of her on a tabloid cover puffing away at an e-cigarette -- the epitome of uncool (says the deluded woman who now espouses the power of the Bedford Slim with all the fervor of a new convert). 

When I look back and try to pinpoint the things that made me susceptible to smoking, I can’t discount a genetic predisposition toward having an addictive personality, or figures like my grandmother. But the thing I can never bring myself to fully acknowledge is that the media I inhaled during my formative years had to have left a mark. While I’m no longer a smoker, I can’t quite bring myself to definitively blame the media -- even if there’s ever increasing evidence that this is true. To point the finger huffily, to me, still implies a sort of prissy uptightness, an uncoolness that flies in the face of the smoker’s allure I tried for so long to cultivate. 

Which is. Ridiculous.

To pipe up about the continuing  sexification of smoking in movies and TV should be as easy for me to do as it is for me to rail against the media for its oft sizeist agenda. I had no problem after watching "Skyfall," the new Bond, being all, “Woooow, so how about that objectified and then murdered sex slave?” The movie’s dark sexism -- a jarring shift from the  goofy sexism that was a hallmark of the franchise’s past iterations -- was easy to point out.

So, why was it so much harder for me to be like, “Yeah, and by showcasing her smoking that way, they’re subconsciously telling young men and women that if they smoke, Daniel Craig will probs bang them in the shower.”

As a proponent for self-acceptance (because yourself is awesome), my idea of what "cool" is has changed from when I was 14. And thank god, because, uh, JNCO jeans and the musical stylings of Everclear. "Cool" to me now means feeling at home in my own skin and in my own beliefs. It means my hackles not rising every time those beliefs are challenged -- it means listening and talking and thinking.

By keeping my mouth shut about this one, I’m conjuring up ghosts of the same 14-year-old who hated who she was so much that the idea of being a doomed film noir character actually seemed like the viable option. Being vocal about smoking on screen doesn’t mean I’m being a sanctimonious “Somebody Think of the Children!”-style jerk, it means being my absolutely unabashed -- if perpetually uncool -- self. 

But I mean weed, whatever. 

*...and then there was the time I fell into a black hole of YouTube’ing Reality Bites clips. ETHAN HAWKE. WHY IS YOUR HAIR SO FLOPPY? WINONA, I WILL NEVER NOT LOVE YOU!