By Riley McGraw Hart

Sex sells; everybody knows it. American corporations have used feminine sex appeal to attract customers for decades, enabling misogyny and the objectification of women to run rampant in Western society.  Massive substance corporations in the U.S. have historically used various spins on sexist tropes to seduce the general public, like the pinup and Budweiser Girl of the tobacco and alcohol industries. Such tactics have begun to poison the cannabis space with the “stoner girl” stereotype as the federal legalization of marijuana slowly but surely approaches. Now, the strategy is being transformed to fit the rising cannabis community, shaping gender roles and expectations both within the world of cannabis marketing —and outside it.

The tobacco industry of the 1950s famously endorsed the trope of the pinup girl. Busting out of their blouses, the featured women enticed potential consumers with their pouty and sensuous lips, just as they draped and fawned around businessmen suitors. Often, the advertisements included captions that mocked female intelligence. This cancer stick is sexy, the tobacco companies not so subtly said. If she’s smoking then she wants to screw you, they implied.

Such a marketing strategy capitalized on a chauvinistic outlook that regarded women as nymphomaniacs who were endlessly sexually available. Obviously, that is false and suffice to say that the majority of these mid-century tabacco advertisements were basically posters for rape culture. One brand, Winchester, publicly boasted that “no woman ever says no to [our cigarettes].”  Referring to second-hand smoke, the company Tipalet urged their male consumers to “blow it in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere.” But that’s not even the worst of it: Tiparello cigarettes endorsed a promotion featuring a heterosexual couple having what appears to be an “enlightening” conversation about gender roles. It’s an example of a patriarchal industry at its finest, “allowing” women to have dreams outside of the kitchen. The caption is smugly nauseating in tenfold, reading:

“It began about 10 years ago when we asked, ‘Should a gentleman offer a Tiparillo to a lady?’ A lot’s happened since then. Today, a gentleman not only offers a Tiparillo to a lady, but the lady is taking up the offer.

Yes, times have changed. And you can blame us. Pro football players go to hairdressers. Curvaceous young women are jockeys. Co-ed dorms are a part of education. The list is a mile long, and the head of it is Tiaprillo. . . . with its trim shape, comfortable size, clean tip.

And as smart looking as it is, Tiparillo is smart smoking, too. With flavor you can enjoy without inhaling.

Maybe you ought to start something. Start smoking Tiparillo. . . . before a lady offers you one.

Tiparillo: Maybe we started something.” 

The alcohol industry is another culprit in utilizing sexualized imagery of women as a primary component in marketing and media strategies. Most famously, perhaps, is the Budweiser Girl who gained prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. Although the term is now listed on Urban Dictionary as describing someone who “has a hot body, but [is] really ugly,” the Budweiser Girl was originally imagined and depicted as a young and nubile woman, clean-cut yet sexually provocative. Historically, she was the house maker and sex-toy who needed a man to explain and manage the world for her. Akin to big tobacco, the alcohol industry also profited from pinup style marketing techniques, stock full of condescension, mockery, and objectification. In the decades following the retirement of the pinup girl aesthetic, the alcohol industry increasingly pushed into ribald and risqué territory.

The carnal tactics so grossly manipulated by the tobacco and alcohol industries have been copied and molded to fit the cannabis community both in print and online. Dan Bilzerian’s lingerie models selling e-cigarettes and THC on billboards all over California is a perfect example of such tactics. Additionally, Bilzerian has been spotted internationally traveling with his barely dressed “babes” and hosting infamous vaping parties. At one such event, an eerily reminiscent picture of a vintage Winchester cigarette advertisement was taken of Bilzarian and his “babes.” Both depict a flock of young women draping themselves around a strong businessman, looking ready for a good time. Does history repeat itself or do things verily change?

In 2020, marketing on social media through blogs and platforms like Instagram or Pinterest play an integral role in the cannabis market. So too does social media perpetuate the image of the sexually available “stoner girl.” Thousands of cannabis companies use these sites for publicity by posting pictures of women, almost always in booty-shorts, bikinis, or lingerie. One such example is Cannafornia, a CBD company founded by Southern Florida native Paul King. Their sub-Instagram page @cannaforniagirlz features young women modeling small bathing-suits and posing with the brand items. Alternatively, private Instagram models are paid to promote products in compromising outfits or positions. On the one hand, it offers the girls an element of control over their work and depiction of their bodies. Such work can even be empowering. On the other, it can be nearly impossible to keep misogyny and potential manipulation of the imagery at bay.

As poignantly points out, there’s been a “misguided presumption that marijuana culture is primarily a male-centric party scene. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the owners of those brands seem unimaginably tone-deaf to what is happening in their industry and the cultural shift in the society at large…. 20% of cannabis business owners are women, that 36% of executives in the space are women, that 63% of heads of testing labs are women. Women are increasingly the entrepreneurs and consumers in the cannabis market. But despite this fact, some brands continue to behave as if their market consisted of stereotypical hormonal cis-gender bros who won’t buy a thing unless they affix a pinup girl somewhere on there.” also conducted research on the line between sexy and sexist in cannabis advertising. The results show that 7% more men found suggestive imagery in the promotion of recreational cannabis more appealing than women. Vice versa, 12% more women than men found the practice “extremely unappealing.”

Jane West, the co-founder of Woman Grow declared that “in the not-so-distant-future, women are going to become the dominant purchasers of cannabis products,” since according to Wikileaf, women hold 70-80% of the general purchasing power. Boiled down, objectifying women to sell substances is not only bigoted and archaic but straight up brainless. Why alienate the future majority of both the industry leaders and consumers with misogynistic advertising?

The stereotypes of female sexual availability that saturate cannabis marketing have also influenced attitudes outside of the advertising industry. THC as a female aphrodisiac has gained public traction, and major publications have released articles on the subject. For example, Forbes reported a study surrounding sex and marijuana that was conducted around solely women. Another study published at the beginning of 2017 divulged by Insider Magazine, “found that 68% of women who used cannabis before sex reported finding it more pleasurable.” It’s interesting to note that cannabis’s influence on the male libido wasn’t statistically indicated or discussed. The driving idea, of course, is that women are infamously “hard to please” sexually or otherwise. Even if consent hasn’t been verbally communicated, women who smoke cannabis are apparently ready and willing to have sex. Unfortunately, the majority of articles on the subject generate a tone (likely unintentionally) that conveys sexual availability in “stoner girls.” Decades of marketing and media have already prepped the marijuana community for such a stereotype.

The tropes that are perpetuated by these tactics have even begun to influence how women navigate the cannabis community in the real world. An everyday marijuana consumer to whom I’ll refer as Zee, a young woman who wishes to remain anonymous for personal and professional reasons, hopes she isn’t viewed by others as a “stoner girl.” Zee doesn’t “think a drug should define who someone is, or how people interact with them.”

I asked Zee if she’d experienced negative sexual attention in the marijuana space and if she believed it was a result of the marketing tropes that muddy the nubile hemp industry. Zee revealed, “[male] dealers [from the street] will try to have sex with me in exchange for a lower price on weed. In general, they’ll try to get me to stay and smoke with them. They can get really handsy, you know? But like, we’re not friends. . . . I don’t get why none of them can keep it professional; they’re supposed to be my dealer.”

image28529-6003473cigarette_adpot-png2 Zee, who is a survivor of sexual assault and uses street marijuana to self-medicate as she isn’t able to obtain a legal card, has been smoking since she was in high school. She commented, “Now that I look back, I realize there were some times where I’d get high on weed with boys that I liked. . . . . They’d smoke me up, none of it was my weed. Now I know better, and I think they were doing it to make me more susceptible to hooking up. Or at least, I guess that’s what they were trying to do. It sucks because they were my friends, too.”

Such lack of social boundaries and respect reminds me of the time-old insult that men audaciously created: women are only for sex; women are less intelligent and/or weaker than men. Today, instead of the “women can’t open bottles on their own,” mockery from the height of the Budweiser Girl era, society has circled back around to the parallel quip, “girls can’t roll a blunt” or “girls can’t rip bong.” 

In honor of International Women’s Day in 2019, Budweiser revisited and edited past advertisements that objectified women in an effort to modernize their company policies and direction. The imagery in question placed wives in sexualized, subservient positions to their male counterparts. Budweiser is among kings in a notoriously misogynistic industry. Yet even they can recognize—and more importantly—alter their behavior. Thus, it easily follows that the rising misogyny in the cannabis community can be nipped in the bud.

That a burgeoning industry has already succumbed to the endorsement of tactics which dehumanize and demean women is simply heartbreaking, especially within the resounding echoes of the #MeToo era. I hoped our society could doubtlessly, genuinely, see change by now. Sarah Hanlon, a Toronto based cannabis advocate and media expert for the Digi-mag Lift&Co told The Bluntness Magazine, “I used to think the cannabis industry could stand out on its own and be different. [I thought] it could be ‘better’ than other industries because cannabis can be healing and because it felt like we were kind of starting fresh.” Like Hanlon, I want to believe that a new era of respectful media and treatment is feasible. I’m equally disappointed and enraged that such an environment has yet to be solidified. It’s evident that substance industries in America are a prime element to focus improvement upon.

American culture shouldn’t be recycling patriarchal emblems in the surging cannabis space. We should reframe our question from how can we use the representation of women to how should we represent women in all their complexity? Today’s society knows better than yesterday’s. We should strive to reach equilibrium in the cannabis industry’s marketing and media, nascent as it is, which means abandoning the misogynist appeal. A great example of positively portraying a “stoner girl” in selling cannabis paraphernalia is the brand LiveStoner. Their Stoner Chick Collection sells cannabis themed products without stooping to dowdy sexualization. Their clothing is chic and cute without being scanty, unlike so many other brands and their accessories lack derogatory slurs altogether. Neither does their site throw objectifying imagery down the viewer’s throat.

Deferential portrayal of men and women is a lot more simple than society makes it out to be. The core factor that’s required is superbly uncomplicated at that. It’s the same concept as one plus one does not equal three. . . . substance use plus femininity does not automatically equal sex. Misogyny is not a marketing strategy— there are undeniably other ways to appeal to people.