Few propaganda campaigns in history better demonstrate the desperate selling of a fallacy as does the wildly inaccurate and insanely biased “anti-reefer” campaign of the 1930s which sold the public on the idea that marijuana was innately evil.
Each ad in this assault on common sense displayed different manipulative visuals, some obvious in intent, like displaying images of the devil blazing a joint or a man with wide, swirling, cartoon vertigo eyes. Yet, one image is consistent, either off to one side or in the background, one icon of the 1930s anti-marijuana campaign slouched ever-present: the scantily dressed female junkie.
Why the need for an apparently doped-up, submissive, sexually compromised, promiscuous, or seductive woman in nearly every one of these ads? In 1930s America, an exposed crevice of cleavage would cause pause, if not outright moral outrage. No nipple even necessary. What was the game plan here? Were the creators of these ads trying to shock people from using cannabis?
“I think it all comes down to the contemptuous virgin/whore dichotomy that has always bound women’s behaviors, decisions, and appearance,” said Professor of English and Women’s Studies Kendra Birnley. “Since virginity is so valued and ‘whores’ are a disgrace, at least in theory, it’s likely we are supposed to see her as a cautionary tale. Women shouldn’t want to try pot because it would make them into worthless whores, and men shouldn’t want to try pot because they are ‘supposed’ to find themselves a nice, pure girl, at least to marry. Parents are supposed to be up in arms and hyper vigilant of their children -- correction: their daughters -- because a woman who doesn’t follow society’s sexual scripts disgraces her family, too.”
The 1930s bore witness to the fledgling signs of women coming into view as equals. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in 1932, and the public outcry over her phenomenal accomplishment was not words of admiration and support, but “lesbian” and “freak.” As FDR entered his presidency, Eleanor Roosevelt redefined the role of the first lady in countless ways and held her own press conference in 1933, in which only women journalists were permitted to attend, at which the media scoffed. And later that same year, Francis Perkins was appointed as the first U.S. cabinet member, a controversial pick if ever there was one.
On the cusp of such progress, is it possible that the anti-cannabis campaign attempted to re-sexualize women in these ads, making them appear as submissive, weak, and easily influenced, especially in the presence of “the sweet pill that makes life bitter?” Perhaps the audience may have needed to be reminded of a woman’s perceived purpose and role.
“We are supposed to have contempt for the woman in the picture. She is worthless, ruined, dirty. In one ad, she appears to be sexually engaged with Satan himself, begs us to judge her for her loose morals. There’s a lot of fear in this reading of the ad because the cultural value of virginity and scorn for women who owned their sexuality was so incredibly strong. You can see this in the language [of these ads]: ‘Shattered hopes’ for a bright future full of babies and white picket fences. That cultural fear about a woman's sexuality would then effectively be negatively associated with doing drugs,” Birnley said.
Of these women portrayed in the ad, if their dazed and oversexed eyes are not closed or staring past the audience and off into space, they are fixed upon the assumed “marihuana” proprietor and supplier. Rarely was this figure a middle-class American man, but rather he was presented as a Hispanic or African American caricature in keeping with the assumptions of the time that most pot smokers were Mexicans and/ or African American jazz musicians. If he were not a minority male, he was a demon incarnate, suggesting that ad campaigners saw little difference between the two and that women needed to be saved from both.
The message: if marijuana use were not criminalized, the American middle-class would lose their white women to these devilish, hashish-peddling men of color. The virgin. The whore. The dark man.
“Any way you read these ads, the women are helpless props. They are objects to be regarded with fear, contempt, pity, shame, and even desire. As usual, women and their bodies have no autonomy and are strictly tools for the white male establishment to utilize to achieve its goals. In this case, these ads do not just try to warn people about drugs but also serve a larger purpose of taming women’s sexuality.”
In retrospect, the game plan here seems simple. This form of media exploitation is the same brand of exploitation that would insult other minorities in the years that were to come. The brand that comes from a fear of “the other,” a compulsion to control the perception of the public, an age-old need to scare, shame, and manipulate women into covering themselves up in the modesty of an apron. This propaganda aimed to extinguish the fledgling spark of feminism and stamp out the light of an innocuous plant. Funny that now millions march in pink caps to remind modern propagandists that they will not pose quietly and still as victims on a poster. That after decades of profitable criminalization, voters will no longer tolerate the title “illegal.” More than 80 years after this campaign, both flames blaze more feverously than ever before.