the grass really is greener

Where are the women of color in stoner films?

Columbia Pictures, FUSION

Between the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the general diversity crisis that is Hollywood, it’s clear that the dearth of people of color—particularly women of color—represented in media is on everyone’s mind. So, in light of the international holiday that is 4/20 (praize it), I’d like to know: Where the hell are the WOC in stoner movies?

Sure, there are individual women of color in the public eye who are very open about their cannabis use. We have Whoopi. We have Rihanna (thank god). Rapper Awkwafina’s even got a song about “Marijuana.” “It’s hard to get good data for rates of use by gender and race, but it’s not as if women of color are abstaining,” Wendy Chapkis, professor of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine, told me over the phone.

But if you look at the cult-favorite stoner movie genre, female characters of color are as elusive as smoke. I reviewed approximately 85 U.S. stoner films (as many movies as I could find in which the plot is driven by the acquisition or effects of pot) and discovered that only one cast a woman in a singular leading role: Smiley Face, the 2007 Anna Faris flick. The only film that I could find that starred a woman of color was 2013’s Newlyweeds, which follows a black couple in Brooklyn and their joint love affair with marijuana. For a film genre that does feature a lot of racial diversity—with iconic figures like Cheech & Chong and, more recently, the Harold & Kumar series—the lack of women of color onscreen is stark and depressing, if not surprising. Despite the efforts of the kweens of Broad City and laid-back Crazy-Ex Girlfriend neighbor Heather (Vella Lovell) on TV, stoner culture does remain largely bro-y and, uh, largely white.

Rory Cochrane in Dazed and ConfusedGramercy Pictures

Rory Cochrane in 'Dazed and Confused.'

“It would empower tons of women, just seeing people that look like them in this booming industry,” Charlo Greene, a cannabis activist best known for that time she quit her job as a news reporter on live television and set the damn world on fire, told me over the phone.

Despite being fueled by the chill, “nice, dude” vibes of progressivism, stoner culture as we know it is yet another example of a subculture that largely resides in a space of masculine whiteness, a space in which the role of women was largely perceived as ornamental until the arrival of Whoopi Goldberg. Not that this is news: Race and gender have always been blindspots for the more visible underground cultures.

Evan Elkins, a visiting assistant professor of media, journalism, and film at Miami University in Ohio, compared stoner culture to other subcultures like punk, hip-hop (though hip-hop, of course, is specifically rooted in black identity), and comedy. “You tend to see this in a lot of these so-called subversive or subcultural or transgressive communities or subcultures,” he told me. “In their gender lines, they often do tend to be sort of normative and masculine.”

Because white masculinity is effectively the default identity in our society, it has essentially served as a neutral vehicle through which films have toyed with topics as controversial as marijuana for sheer entertainment, without any fear of serious legal or social repercussions. That’s far from a new phenomenon: Back in 1969, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and Dennis Hopper smoked real weed in Easy Rider, according to Fonda. In stoner movies, white masculinity is a (figurative and literal) get-out-of-jail-free card.

Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda in Easy RiderColumbia Pictures

Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda in 'Easy Rider.'

“It’s easier to be playfully depoliticized with white characters,” Elkins said. As Wendy Chapkis pointed out in a 2013 paper, “The Trouble with Mary Jane’s Gender,” this stoner slacker vibe clashes with the reality experienced by people of color.

“The slacker’s refusal to work hard and assume ‘adult’ responsibilities doesn’t function quite the same way for people of color and women who are already saddled with a stereotype of dependency,” she wrote. For just about everyone other than white people, there are actually real consequences to consuming and interacting with marijuana. “If you look at the incarceration rates of black men and black women, minorities, you can see that they’re not allowed to playfully engage in the culture in that way,” Elkins told me.

Black and white people consume marijuana at about the same rate, but black people are about four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession. (In some counties, black people are 10 times as likely to be arrested for possession. TEN.) While women account for far fewer drug arrests than men, the racial disparity still holds up.

On top of that, women of color have played a significant role in neither the broader discussion regarding drug policy reform nor the lucrative “green rush”—that is, the post-legalization marijuana industry boom in states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

“There aren’t too many of us that are actively working on this that are taking a stand and putting ourselves out there,” Greene said of the lack of WOC in the green rush. “We know we’ll be scrutinized more.” Of the 523 medical marijuana centers and 426 retail marijuana stores in Colorado (there’s overlap between those two groups), only one has black ownership: Married couple Wanda James and Scott Durrah are the proprietors of Simply Pure.

“It’s a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you create an environment that does not reflect a diversity of consumers and activists, then consumers and activists who don’t represent that dominant demographic will feel out of place and won’t return,” Chapkis told me.

When it comes to something like marijuana, media representation and real-life inequality seem to be a chicken-and-egg problem. It’s hard to tell if the lack of diversity in stoner movies is strictly a result of the race and gender biases people face in real life, or if monochrome cultural representations also compound those societal issues. But either way, it’s about time for a change, which is why a female minority stoner movie is so important.

“I think it’s just incumbent on the people who are participating in that culture and are making film and television about that culture to sort of open up spaces for participation by marginalized people both onscreen and behind the scenes,” Elkins said.

“If there were more black women portrayed in more so-called stoner movies and shows and media and all that stuff, then I think that would wake more of us up to the opportunities at present and to heal our communities,” Greene told me. “It’s an invitation. It’s okay, you can win too.”

When women of color can star in a film about breaking the rules and having fun without shame and without worry (if not without some weed-induced paranoia), that’ll be a huge win, and not just in Hollywood’s battle for diversity. It would also mean that society has granted minority women the social capital to flout the law as freely as a white dude in a Judd Apatow movie.