Where are the female stoners on television?
Usually, if they exist at all, they’re accessories — the “hot stoner girl” who sits bleary-eyed next to a male protagonist, giggling nonsensically, her mere presence a sort-of punchline. But real female stoner characters, with storylines and motivations and damage of their own, are thin on the ground across the television landscape. But now, thanks to a small-scale webseries-turned-half-hour-comedy on Comedy Central, female stoners may be getting a moment in the sun.
The female stoner is a rare commodity in mainstream pop culture, and arguably a precious one as well. It’s generally accepted as truth that regular marijuana usage in the United States skews heavily male — around 65-80 percent, depending on the study you’re referencing — while also being generally acknowledged that those figures are likely heavily skewed by the fact that many women still keep their smoking a secret, even in areas where it’s legal. This discrepancy stems from a variety of societal expectations of and prejudices against the idea of a female stoner, the stickiest of which have to do with motherhood (or, as NORML puts it on its Women’s Issues outreach materials, “[Women’s] maternal concerns understandably make them more worried about the consequences of expanded use of marijuana on their children and their communities”). But there’s a less morally/ethically/politically loaded issue at play here, too: simple visibility.
As pop culture becomes increasingly accepting/exploitive of stoners and the culture surrounding them, it remains comparatively uninterested in ladies who toke, a discrepancy most evident on the most stoner-friendly of media: television. In recent years, the stoner archetype has grown increasingly broader on male-driven shows like “Bored To Death,” “Workaholics” and “Wilfred” — all centered on male protagonists who also happen to be unabashed smokers, with plenty of other shows featuring supporting stoners, almost all of the male persuasion. And while there’s a smattering of recent television series that might be said to take a positive view of women smoking weed, it’s dubious any of them really merit the mantle of “stoner.”
The Stony-winning “Weeds” might be the most weed-friendly show in recent memory, but series matriarch Nancy Botwin rarely smoked her product — only three times onscreen in the series’ eight seasons. The dearly departed “Six Feet Under” featured multiple female characters who regularly partook, but their drug was more of a background characteristic, rarely influencing their narratives or character motivation. And while the women of “That ’70s Show” regularly sat in on the smoke circles in Eric Foreman’s basement, the show’s family-series-mandated obfuscation about the substance in question, combined with the fact that neither Donna nor Jackie ever acted all that stoned outside of that particular comic device, makes it difficult to crown them stoner heroes.
Then there’s the much more common image of female characters trying weed and determining it’s just not for them, for reasons that reinforce the aforementioned hesitancy toward open marijuana use. One of the all-time great episodes of “Roseanne,” “Stash From The Past,” ends with lapsed-hippie Roseanne admitting that being stoned isn’t so fun with the demands of adulthood/parenthood harshing your buzz. And in the “Chokin’ And Tokin’” episode of Freaks And Geeks — a generally weed-friendly show produced by the reigning king of stoner-friendly comedy, Judd Apatow — the show’s female lead tries weed at the behest of her boyfriend in a very funny sequence that nonetheless goes up in a puff of weak moralizing when she concludes that smoking and responsibility just don’t mix. The only recent context in which a female lead has openly and unashamedly used marijuana regularly is on NBC’s “Parenthood,” where Berkeley-dwelling wife and mother Christina Braverman used medical marijuana semi-regularly for relief during chemotherapy treatments. But unless they have cancer, women and open, regular marijuana use just don’t seem to go together on TV.
That is, until “Broad City,” the new Comedy Central series created by and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobsen and executive-produced in part by Amy Poehler (who, it must be noted, once performed at and judged the High Times Cannabis Cup). Two hapless twentysomething best friends living in New York, Ilana and Abbi — their characters’ names as well — are many things: clueless, irresponsible, broke, self-absorbed and, most notably, open and unabashed stoners.
But wait! Clueless, irresponsible, broke, self-absorbed — those don’t sound like the qualities of a desirable stoner role model! If culture is indeed to become more accepting of female potheads as actual people rather than accessories, shouldn’t we be asking for characters who are capable of getting stoned and being functional, contributing members of society? Well, sure, that would be nice, too, but A) baby steps, B) responsible behavior and comedy rarely go hand in hand, and C) since when do stoners need role models? This is a matter of visibility, of acknowledging that a lot of women do smoke, regularly, recreationally and without shame.
“Broad City” isn’t coy about its characters doing something that the majority of its audience is most likely doing as well, while they’re watching — it airs after “Workaholics” in what’s basically Comedy Central’s stoner-comedy block — and that is, sadly, still a big deal. As comedic constructs, Ilana and Abbi do plenty of shameful, regrettable things — sometimes while high — but smoking weed isn’t one of them.
In fact, smoking could be called a cornerstone of their friendship: Ilana is the more experienced stoner of the two, and Abbi has more than once looked to her friend to help her get high, either by providing out of her own stash or, in the so-far series highlight “Pussy Weed,” helping her procure her own. This sets off a sort of minor, extremely low-stakes quest narrative that turns into a series of comic setpieces as Abbi and Ilana struggle to perform “adult” tasks while ripped out of their mind. It’s ridiculous, cartoonish and not at all responsible behavior — but it is hilarious, especially to those on Abbi and Ilana’s wavelength. And, most importantly, it doesn’t end with the two women expressing regret or shame about getting high — Ilana is right back to smoking a joint in the toilet at work in the next episode. The girls’ marijuana use isn’t a one-off catalyst or a springboard for lesson-learning — or some sort of metaphor for an internal struggle they’re going through; it’s a part of the fabric of the show, part of what makes these characters so strangely lovable and compelling.
Are Ilana and Abbi going to turn the public’s perception of the female stoner around and make women who secretly partake come bursting proudly out of their smoke-filled closets, bong in hand? Probably not; their general behavior is not anything most women would want to point to and say, “She’s just like me!” But there are kernels of truth in their outlandish behavior — the frustrations and humiliations of being broke and adrift and young and dumb, often while high — that make them if not quite relatable, then at least endearing. By not shaming Abbi and Ilana for their behavior, “Broad City” makes it easy to accept them and all their flaws — of which being a stoner is definitely not one.