As I stared at the back cover of Slouching Towards Bethlehem by literary goddess Joan Didion, I could not help but notice how, first, she was so damn pretty and, second, that cigarette held gently between her pointer and index finger was everything.
Sorry health nuts, but it’s true. As a millennial, I want to put on five serums and two sheet masks even thinking about smoking a cigarette… yet, the extra-ness of holding a cig for your professional headshot is the type of thing that makes Joan Didion all the more iconic. It is partly what inspires women to collect copies of her books like limited edition OPI lacquer.
But why is it that we idolize something that can ultimately lead to our demise?
In the current age of e-cigs and people “juuling” in the club, the cigarette seems more sexy and niche than ever. So what, exactly, made the cigarette the record player of carcinogens?
Iconography is powerful and so, let us focus on the archetypes of smokers that tend to enchant us. Starting with THE REBEL — for a rebel, the cigarette is the physical embodiment of a bad attitude. The perfect reason to cut class for a bit. I recently had a date who told me he had smoked cigarettes from the time he was 13 until college. If I was using logic, I should have been alarmed that he’d harmed his body since he was a wee boy. Instead, I was turned on! Suddenly, he was Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet (‘96).
Cigarettes are beyond logic. My date told his mortality to buzz off… and it was sexy! Folk singers, grunge singers, and rock stars are all most likely to smoke a cigarette. Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and Johnny Cash smoked like chimneys. The grittier, rougher, and raspier the voice, the better! Hurting your vocal instrument to make it better? It feels rebellious in nature… because it is downright masochistic.
How about the DRAMA KINGS AND QUEENS? Every starlet of yore smoked cigarettes with opera length cigarette-holders, little embellished boxes full of Lucky Strikes laid out on an art deco coffee table, big fancy silver lighters, and a pocketbook just big enough for your powder, lipstick, and cigarettes. It was all so deeply glamorous. Shining stars like Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, and Elizabeth Taylor all accessorized their ensembles with a cigarette.
It’s also a good way to master aloofness. Don’t want to talk? Light up a cigarette and look off into the distance instead!
After pin curls and string pearls went out of style, the cigarette remained the hallmark of the Hollywood star.
Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp, thee 90’s power couple, were rarely seen without a light-wash pair of denim and a cigarette in hand or mouth. The drama of the cigarette makes it timeless for thespians everywhere.
The WAIF is yet another romantic cig-smoking archetype. “Waif” comes from the Old French word for “stray beast.” A waif is a creature removed by hardship from its former life. Imagine a baby-faced model from the Midwest tossed into the cutthroat NYC fashion industry. Give her a few months in the rough and tumble city and suddenly “Jeannette” is Kate Moss skinny and hooked on nicotine. Her life is a series of rejection and Diet Coke, but when we see her on Astor Place smoking a cigarette in nothing but a white tank and leather mini, we are enthralled by her.
Desperate housewives can also fit into the waif category because what is more displaced than being in a loveless marriage in the middle of an isolated cul-de-sac? These women will hide their nasty smoking habits from their husband and kids, but the pool boy or Dustin Hoffman Jr. next door will for sure notice. These young men will think ol’ Mrs. Robinson is tragic, hot, and definitely in need of their company.
Have you ever seen someone outside an event smoking? They look lonely, yet cool. They decidedly ditched what’s going on inside because it was too square or too overwhelming — they are sensitive and independent all at the same time. They are Matt Dillon in The Outsiders. They are the LONERS. Loners are always smoking. It adds to their mystery, to their pain. The bad kid in school and your tortured ex who likes to “sketch” both smoked. The more nicotine, the less time to roam this Earth… alone. Smoking is a way to take control of your demise; it is a ‘Choose Your Own Grim Reaper’ novel. No more shouting into the void — Mr. Lonely has the answer and it’ll get you buzzed!
Now let’s review. We have the rebels, the drama-heads, the waifs, and the loners but what does smoking look like to a MILLENNIAL? Smoking to a millennial is vintage. Puffing on a cig is popular amongst 30-something hipsters, NYU Tisch students, your cousin Michael who’s a freelance photographer in Bushwick, and teenagers in Los Feliz who hang out at diners. Oh, and also people who move to New York because it’s New York.
These types may not be as chic as what we saw in previous decades but the scanned film photos they put on Insta of them opening a pack of American Spirits wearing t-shirts they thrifted from Goodwill are oddly not unappealing either. It’s a little more posed, a little more calculated. They are drawing from Winona and Johnny and it is not subtle.
The one inescapable truth, however, is that all these vintage obsessed millennials are just as tragic as the OG rebel James Dean — they’re still willingly chopping years away from their life. They can’t imagine growing old. They have hubris. They have anger at the reality of the world they were thrusted in. They’re talking back at God with attitude — and that attitude is a cigarette.
Or maybe, they just want to look cool for social media. Regardless, the result is similar: yellow teeth, heart disease, cancer, and those pesky wrinkles around the mouth.
It is clear that cigarettes have and always will be the most rebellious, most dramatic, most waif-ish, most lonely, and most nostalgic accessory. But smoking is a sickly habit, an addiction, a deadly disease.
During the days of people dying from consumption in droves (19th century — think Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge), the pale-sickly-laid-out-in your-nightgown look became totally in vogue. Consumption, heroine chic, and cigarette smoking have all been in fashion before. So it’s not too far off to say that humans are enticed by those straddling life and death… as long as it’s done well, as long as it’s sexy.
To be frank, e-cigs and “juuling” could never have the same staying power as the classic; they just don’t have that same je ne sais quoi.