Welcome to the Age of the Smart Stoner

The lazy, dumb stereotype is so outdated. Meet the new class of potheads.

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Complex Original

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Through the years in pop culture, smoking weed has always gone hand in hand with a very specific type of character mold. That mold, of course, is of the stoner—bumbling and silly—as can be seen in Sean Penn’s frequently shirtless Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the dudes in Dude, Wheres My Car?, Pineapple Express, and countless other stoner movies. While this archetype is still being maintained, thanks to likes of Judd Apatow and Doug Benson, a new strain of pothead has entered the scene in recent years. This pot smoker does not function as the token idiot of the friend group, the kind usually portrayed by a stringy-haired, video game-playing bro with a “fun t-shirt,” but someone with more depth. Not only has this stoner bro evolved outside of the usual realm, but there has also been more space for women, like Ilana Glazer of Broad City, the reigning queen of green.

This proliferation of pot use is mostly owing to the screen time it is given in indie productions. New spaces like YouTube and Vimeo give creatives nearly endless possibility as the spaces have very few strict guidelines. Without the necessity of network approval, weed reigns. The no rules attitude behind these streaming services allow characters to act more realistically, rather than maintaining more conservative views of the drug. High Maintenance, a hugely successful Vimeo-to-HBO series, is by definition a weed show, but it’s also much more than that, and it gives more than just a single face to the pothead. The show follows a dealer based in New York City known exclusively as “The Guy,” who travels from client to client dropping off product. The variety of these customers is as diverse as that of New York citizens, including yuppies, Airbnb hosts, pretentious artists, comedians, among many.

The yuppie pothead type, for one, has become so much more pervasive. This type of stoner is usually uptight and very dedicated to their work, but they use marijuana as a way to let loose from the demands of their career-oriented lifestyles, and whatever relationship-related issues that follow. The 2014 film Celeste & Jesse Forever, starring Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones, explores the relationship between two live-in ex-spouses. Upset about cutting ties with Jesse, Celeste sits on an outdoor couch with a friend, smoking from what seems to be a five-foot bong, wondering, “Do you think the Obamas really love each other?” Celeste, a trend forecaster with a house, a mortgage, and a silly demeanor only when Jesse teases it out of her, is a willful smoker. Her pot use isn’t a means of maintaining a playful attitude, but rather a route for bringing it about when Jesse is no longer around to do the job. She is using it with purpose—the purpose being to diffuse the stress surrounding her divorce with her best friend.

For years before Celeste, women were hardly shown smoking weed, but now we’re seeing stoners who are women and professionals. It is presented as it is: completely normal. We’ve passed the point of having movies announce their marijuana use with their title, like 1994’s The Stoned Age or 1997’s Bongwater. By introducing weed into scenes incidentally, and as casually as, say, alcohol, we're undergoing a recreation of the perception of stoners. This likely has a lot to do with the legalization of marijuana in many states (and the conversations surrounding it for many years, including studies showing lack of correlation between pot use and lower IQs), as well as many in writers' rooms fitting into the pot-smoking demographic. The people who write and direct these indie films likely use pot recreationally, so it's only natural that they depict marijuana as a normal part of life. While women are notoriously missing from big picture studio projects, much more are involved in indie productions, and get to portray female characters as normal, functional, smart—even pot-smoking!—people. 

In movies and TV, parents are often shown playing filling the repetitive, unoriginal roles: fighting with the children, spouse, or their own parents. Weed seems to be making quick work of opening up rigid character roles, allowing parents and adults at large to be more than just a catalyst for familial relations. In Patrick Brice’s 2015 comedy The Overnight, married couple Alex and Emily (played by Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) move to a hip L.A. neighborhood with a good school for their young child, but have a hard time meeting new friends. When Alex and Emily visit a child’s birthday party they end up meeting the kooky but friendly Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) and are almost immediately invited over for dinner with him and his wife, Charlotte (Judith Godreche)

While their story is intertwined with parenthood—this is how they met the other couple—the vast majority of the movie is spent without kids in the picture. Over the course of the dinner date, they realize that the couple they’ve found themselves sharing the night with is a bit more eccentric than they’ve expected. Between Kurt’s explicit butthole paintings and the sexual desire for Emily and Alex that he and his wife clearly share, the bong reveal seems like the least of their eccentricities. While Alex and Emily are clearly less experienced with a bong, they attempt the same tricks and continue to smoke and dance even through coughing fits. These are middle-upper-class parents letting loose, and weed doesn’t stand in as a hindrance to their bougie, otherwise put-together lives. Just as alcohol is an assumed part of adulthood socializing, pot use is being portrayed as one too.

Of course, traces of the old goofy stoner still remain. Even Broad City’s Illana Glazer isn’t exactly a portrait of maturity, yet she and Abbi Jacobson are undoubtedly TV’s most important weed users. Their mere womanhood is enough to make their presence on TV as pot smokers norm-subverting, but they are also politically conscious in a way that the average screen stoner rarely is. They aren’t defined by their cannabis consumption, but it is a regular part of their lives, similar to a lot of real pot users' relationship to weed. Right off the bat, on the first episode of the first season, the two scramble for cash so they can buy weed and Lil Wayne concert tickets. The show has countless episodes in which characters smoke pot and Broad City, more than any show, reaffirms that pot use isn’t solely incidental.

Realistically, one of pot’s major uses is as a means of stress relief, and pop culture is opening up to the possibility of displaying it as something used outside of social situations, too. Pot’s antidepressant use is also displayed on film. In The Skeleton Twins, the Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig film featuring the two as dysfunctional siblings, Hader’s character is shown smoking weed in a stressful situation. While we’re not quite at the point of regularly seeing pot used for anti-anxiety before bed, it is being displayed in more medically necessary situations. Prior to the 21st century, film watchers would be led to believe that pot was exclusively used by people who are naturally goofy.

What we’re getting from film’s current depiction of pot use is so far from the stoner archetype we were once presented with. It’s entirely diverse. Realistically, pot is used by a wide range of people of all ages, and it’s refreshing to see this finally reflected on screen. While the bumbling stoner is still present, indie productions are offering much more than that.

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