How psychoanalysis and capitalist patriarchy tricked women into smoking

Personal Essay

How psychoanalysis and capitalist patriarchy tricked women into smoking

As one Dead White Man said, “Quitting smoking is easy, I’ve done it a thousand times.” In my tempestuous, on-and-off affair with cigarettes spanning over a decade, I have managed to call the habit quit five times – and counting. Every time I muster the will to walk away, it feels good. 

Though difficult, this reassertion of boundaries feels much like filing a restraining order from an erstwhile lover turned stalker – an episode of my life I hope to never relive. It feels, if you’ll excuse the much-abused term, empowering.

Smoking was once relegated to women on the margins of society – sex workers, “spinsters” and other women of so-called “ill repute.” Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, single-handedly rebranded cigarettes as Torches of Freedom™ in a campaign that in turn rebranded him as the Father of Public Relations.

The year is 1929, and a select group of wealthy debutantes appeared at a high-profile parade in Manhattan with cigarettes tucked beneath their garters. On cue, they each pulled out their packs, lit up and puffed on their nicotine sticks while the press documented the carefully orchestrated stunt. Sensational images accompanied by headlines framing the women as suffragettes challenging male power circulated the nation, thereby linking the once-detested act with America’s highest purported ideal: Liberty. 

By co-opting the women’s liberation movement and shaping the affective landscape of smoking, namely how we – as women – feel about it, nicotine found an entryway into our collective imaginations and, thereby, our bodies. In a Machiavellian tour de force still dubbed by some as the most successful advertising campaign in history, Bernays weaponized the “irrational forces that govern our behavior” to engineer our consent without our consent. This was no Freudian slip, rather a cold and calculated symbolic sleight of hand intended to couple smoking with women’s liberation.

This cataclysmic shift following the campaign reverberated across the globe. In crude terms, whatever happens in the West affects the rest. This culture of dependency thrived, for lack of a better word, in Lebanon, the country that I call home. A recent study reported that 50 percent of men and 35 percent of women smoke in my homeland. Lebanon also has the dubious honor of having one of the highest smoking rates in the world, according to the World Health Organization. The everyday manifestation of these statistics can be felt in the smoke-filled haze of bars and cafes, and the permanent waft of nicotine suspended in the air wherever people congregate.

Nicotine found an entryway into our collective imaginations and, thereby, our bodies.

As a teenage girl, I took to smoking as a rite of passage that affirmed my maturity. Shackling myself to nicotine became my misguided means of manifesting this transition to womanhood. I’d been schooled by movies, magazines and media at large that this was what empowerment and defiance looked like. Billboards of the effortlessly beautiful beckoned me to join this cult of emancipated womanhood, the price of admission insinuated by the crisp, half-opened cartons seductively hovering above my city. In an Orwellian twist, a Gallic winged helmet soaring above the slogan Liberté Toujours (Freedom Forever) can be found emblazoned on every pack of Gauloises, my smokes of choice. This symbolic subterfuge, among countless others, peddled this pipedream of self-liberation to me with every puff.

Internalizing the linkage between freedom and addiction, its oxymoron, was an exercise in self-deception, aided and abetted by Freud and his legacy. After the father of psychoanalysis coined the now (hopefully) outdated concept of “penis envy,” his nephew hoodwinked women en masse into craving a remedy for their missing member. In an interview, Bernays blatantly explains, “Now women would smoke because they would have their own penises.” How original. A masculinized worldview that casts the phallus as the supreme protagonist. And women? Mere damsels in distress. Take your proxy penises, your cancer sticks and your patronizing theories. They are not welcome here.

Listening to “dream pop” band Cigarettes After Sex lulls me into an ethereal lullaby but also jolts me to think about the association that inspired the ensemble’s name. How did this smelly cylinder become a conduit and symbol of seduction? 

At the heels of Bernays’ propaganda campaign, soon after smoking became accepted into the mainstream, Hollywood adopted the Hays Code in 1934. The motion picture set of guidelines, which dictated what could and could not be portrayed in films, prohibited “profanity, suggestive nudity, graphic or realistic violence, sexual persuasions and rape.” Though the gratuitous displays of sex and violence that make up our current media landscape might make it hard for us to imagine, there was an era that tightly regulated content that harmed “community standards” (in today’s parlance). 

In lieu of outright depictions of desire, lust shared between two lovers on the silver screen needed to be couched in euphemism, insinuated through an interplay between symbols and the audience’s ability to decode said symbols. Through repeated exposure, the gaze became conditioned to associate the performance of smoking with sensuousness, creating a chemical romance between nicotine and our brain. We learned to communicate unspoken desire through lustful drags and encode our longings in nebulous smoke clouds. In this smoky serenade masquerading as a courtship ritual, we seduced one another and, in turn, became seduced. The seduction to smoke went beyond the cadre of romancing and insidiously crept into every crevasse of my life. That’s when I knew I had to quit.

When temptation strikes, my mind meanders back to the anti-smoking mascot invited to my first grade classroom. The poor person donning the cigarette suit put on a performance to warn us of the perils of smoking. Laughable as it was, the intervention moved me to make a promise to myself. A promise that I perilously failed to uphold, as evidenced by the ashtray smell of my fingers and the smoke-heavy stench of my clothes. Channeling the dogged determination of those younger years gives me the courage to end my prolonged tryst with tobacco.

Put in historical context, each attempt to kick the habit is a symbolic win against psychoanalysis, public relations and the patriarchy. Though nearly a century has elapsed since Bernay’s infamous propaganda stunt, his nefarious influence can still be felt in the tightness of my chest, the ashtray aftertaste of my mouth, the rot in my lungs. When I’m able to align my knowledge and politics with my behavior, I can evict Bernays & co. from my body with ease – a victory worth celebrating. However, my newfound freedom is short-lived without my mind as a steadfast ally. And when my mind falters and falls prey to a script written by the puppeteer of public relations, the addiction comes knocking and I, despite knowing better, welcome it back in. Ad nauseum. Ad infinitum. 

Quitting sucks. The trifecta of irritability, cravings and anxiety experienced in the immediate aftermath are my body’s response to freeing itself from the toxic twinning of the capitalist patriarchy. That’s highbrow for breaking up with daddy Freud, his nephew and the prevailing economic world order. I have been smoking as I type this – an irony that is not lost on me – yet, like any smoker can tell you, I have the power to quit anytime. The fact that we don’t is telling. I do my best thinking while smoking, or so I tell myself. Or so I’ve been told to tell myself. 

Put in historical context, each attempt to kick the habit is a symbolic win against psychoanalysis, public relations and the patriarchy.

Once an idea has been internalized, the original author of that idea can become unclear. Which of my feelings, thoughts and associations related to smoking are received ideas and which are my own? Is it possible to distinguish the two? Can I unlearn one in lieu or another? 

Lest we forget that what we learn, we can unlearn. What the symbolic world forced onto us can be decoded, untangled, destroyed and rebuilt anew so that smoking appears not as an emblem of freedom or a metaphor for seduction but as it is: a parasitic prescription by the patriarchy in the name of maximizing profit.

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