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Queens of the Stone Age

Can women in stoner comedies overthrow the social order?

Illustration by SEAN MCCABE

It’s a hard world for women who want to see realistic representations of themselves in American media, but it’s even tougher for women who like to get high. Movies about women and weed have long depicted female characters not as merry pranksters, but as the butt of the joke: Think of Linda Cardellini in Freaks and Geeks panicking after she gets high for the first time, or Drew Barrymore unknowingly eating a pot brownie and humiliating herself in front of her entire school in Never Been Kissed. These were the images I grew up with in the 1990s, and their message seemed clear: If you were a girl, weed would probably overpower you, and it would definitely humiliate you. It was a lot like boys in that way.

MTV’s new scripted comedy series Mary + Jane is the latest of a handful of shows that are working to break that mold. The series follows Jordan (Scout Durwood) and Paige (Jessica Rothe), two millennials who have started a weed delivery service, and vow to become “the great ganjapreneurs” of their neighborhood. Since it began airing in September, the show has been much more about ganjapreneurship than ganja itself: In the first few episodes, Paige and Jordan grapple with being mistaken for prostitutes after word gets out that they’ve slept with a few of their customers, they deliver product to a Brangelinaesque couple of A-listers, and they worry that an old rival will steal their business model. After all, as their nemesis points out to Paige, “We’re both girls, and we both deliver weed.”

These plots, inevitably, invite a comparison with Comedy Central’s Broad City. Abbi and Ilana (Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer), the broads of the show’s title, wander through a New York City where joyful chaos lies around every corner. Being high mostly serves to make them ever more game for the adventures they stumble into: chasing a purse snatcher to his petrifyingly blue-blooded home, tracking down a stolen phone, trading identities for a day. While Mary + Jane is about business acumen and getting ahead, Broad City is about reveling in the moment. In this sense, the shows have little in common. But both are about female stoners, which makes them almost unique not just in today’s media landscape, but in film and television history.

It’s not Mary + Jane’s fault that there’s so little else in the weed-comedy genre, at least on television. High Maintenance and Weeds are its closest relatives, but subject matter aside, they’re as different from Mary + Jane as Maui Wowie is from Strawberry Cough. High Maintenance is a downbeat comedy that strays into the lives of a new, differently dysfunctional set of New Yorkers in each episode, as seen through the eyes of their weed deliveryman, while Weeds is a family melodrama. Mary + Jane has more in common with a classic sitcom, playing for big, mainstream laughs. It stakes its ambitions on America’s green rush: the sweeping state-by-state legalization that has made cannabis not just a lucrative industry, but a safe one—and has made stoner comedy both newly relevant and newly innocuous.

America’s first stoner comedy was not intended to be funny. Reefer Madness, a 1936 film, was a cautionary tale, produced to warn Americans about a “violent narcotic” responsible for “destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers.” The movie’s characters are presented to demonstrate marijuana consumption as a cause of violent crime, sexual assault, murder, suicide, and insanity—all this from a “vicious plant,” the movie’s trailer noted, that could be “rolled into harmless-looking cigarettes.”

The first stoner comedy that knew it was a comedy was Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, which came out in 1978, about a decade after pot began to shed its reputation as what Reefer Madness termed a “burning weed with its roots in hell.” The movie culled a decade’s worth of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong’s standup material, and articulated the ethos of the stoner genre: It’s not the destination but the journey, man. In Up in Smoke, Cheech and Chong meet by chance, become fast friends, and lament the fact that no one in town has any smoke to sell, even as they unknowingly drive a van made of pure cannabis across the border from Tijuana. The exhaust fumes alone make traffic cops giddy and give a straitlaced narc squad the giggles and the munchies. Cheech and Chong fell their enemies without realizing anyone had it out for them to begin with.

Up in Smoke was so popular—spawning five sequels—that it’s easy to forget what it actually accomplished. It may have been a movie about weed, but it was also one of all too few American movies—even to this day—to achieve mainstream success without a white protagonist in sight. Cheech Marin, a Chicano born in South Central L.A., met Tommy Chong, the Canadian-born son of a white waitress and a Chinese truck driver, when he moved to Vancouver to avoid the draft. Their comedy was about getting high and slacking off, but it was also about subverting social order. Nearly every stoner comedy since, from The Big Lebowski to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, has been built on the premise that it’s better to have fun with your friends than to expend all your energy on competition and success.

Big ideas flourish in genres the critical mainstream doesn’t pay much attention to; it’s easier to be daring when no one takes you seriously. This is especially true of the 1995 movie Friday, which details a single day in the life of a neighborhood in South Central L.A. The film stars Ice Cube as Craig, a 22-year-old struggling to find direction, and Chris Tucker as a small-time dealer. It’s a lighthearted comedy whose final act includes a drive-by shooting, and whose last moments show Craig putting down his gun and de-escalating the violence that fills his neighborhood. By giving up on trying to “be a man,” he becomes one. His decision is the result of countless factors, but the movie suggests that smoking weed is one of them. So much for the destruction of society.

Which brings us back to the current green rush and the ganjapreneurs making bank off of it. Snoop Dogg is one of Mary + Jane’s executive producers, but watching it makes you wonder how much attention he actually paid to the show’s content, in part because its writers seem to have very little understanding of what being high is actually like. In one episode, Paige and Jordan accidentally get stoned at a bridal shower, and find that they can telepathically connect not just with their own vaginas, but with the vaginas of all the women around them. In case you haven’t had the pleasure, I’ll save you some time and tell you now: Cannabis doesn’t make you telepathic. (Of course, don’t let that stop you from trying.)

Realism aside, the talking-vagina gimmick is droll until the moment you realize that Jordan’s blaccented vagina is one of the show’s only characters of color. Paige and Jordan, like nearly all their friends and clients, are white, fashionable, and middle-class. Their lives revolve around Instagram and trendy restaurants, and they regard weed as a substance that might make them rich, but could never land them in prison. The series milks laughs from having Jordan exclaim “We’re drug dealers!” because it’s just so cute for two nice white girls to describe themselves that way when they are so obviously immune to drug laws that have directly fueled the mass incarceration of people of color. While marijuana use is roughly the same among black and white Americans, blacks are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for possession, and more than ten times as likely to receive a prison sentence.

It might seem unfair to go easier on Broad City than on Mary + Jane, since both shows are about young white women flaunting the same privileges. But Broad City, like Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, arose organically from its stars’ longstanding work as a comedy team, while Mary + Jane feels more like a gimmick that was focus-grouped into existence. In the world of Broad City, even the fearlessly impish Ilana is wary of the police, and she doesn’t aspire to start-up CEO-dom. Substitute “Kween” for “Man” and you’ll find the spirit of Cheech and Chong’s comedy all but unchanged—only this time, the girls get to be in on the fun, too.

Broad City is, after three seasons, not just a show but a millennial manifesto. My friends and I often describe ourselves as Ilanas and Abbis. It’s a shorthand that lets us talk about our careers, our sexualities, our taste in bras. The show puts a new spin on the dyad that describes most fictional friendships: the free spirit and the homebody; the slob and the neatnik; Oscar and Felix, Laverne and Shirley, Chrissy and Janet. Mary + Jane wants its viewers to see themselves as Jordans and Paiges, which should be easy enough, since the two are less characters than archetypes. Jordan is the freewheeler who loves sex, but somehow she always seems to be listing her one-night stands, rather than enjoying them. On Broad City, Ilana displays her sensuality in her sheer joy at inhabiting her own body; Jordan’s sexuality is not about experience, but acquisition. And for Paige, life is about pining after relationships with men but never actually having a good time in their company.

Sex, like weed, gets a lot of lip service in Mary + Jane, but always seems to exist just beyond the frame. In the series’s emotional landscape, even Paige and Jordan’s friendship feels flat. It seems as though the show’s writers have realized that female friendship in all its feral, affectionate glory is suddenly a hot prime-time property, but they have no clear idea what these friendships look like.

No matter how hard Mary + Jane tries to emulate Broad City, it can’t bring itself to cast off the cultural expectations that until so recently made the female stoner comedy impossible. Their pot business aside, Paige and Jordan are endlessly focused on their careers, relationships, and sex lives. Are they having enough sex? Too much? Are they on the path to marriage? Are they getting old? Are they winning?

In the stoner-comedy canon, women have traditionally been visible only as enforcers of social order: shrewish wives, disappointed girlfriends, disciplinarian mothers. Such stereotypical casting persists largely because social norms continue to dictate that women have to keep their wits about them, not just to succeed in the world, but to be accepted or stay safe. Life as a woman, we are given to believe, is a walk on the razor’s edge between prude and slut, workaholic and feminist failure, bitch and bimbo. But if we let women embrace the ethos of the stoner comedy, something remarkable happens. The underlying social norms don’t vanish overnight. Instead, we just stop caring about them.

And in this way, Reefer Madness was right all along. Marijuana is destroying American society as we know it: by helping women do not what they’re told to, but what they want.