Smoking and Gender

Smoking, in relation to what we associate with a ‘normal’ gender identity, presents something quite peculiar. Initially smoking was considered to be ‘mannish’, an exclusively masculine activity and pleasure. Freud, himself a roller of big cigars saw smoking in males as a sign of “constitutional intensification of erotogenic significance of the labial region…‘It’s a pity I can’t kiss myself,’ [the aggressively sucking child] seems to be saying.” Thus, for Freud smoking is strongly linked with masculine sexual desire, namely his penis.


The cigar as a theatrical or cinematic prop is often used as a test of “manhood”, reinforcing smoking as a masculine trait. Julie Andrews in her disguise as ‘Victor’, the apparent ‘female impersonator’ in Victor/Victoria fails the test, ruining her cover. In Hollywood movie, The Girl Next Door, Ethan whilst at a strip club for the first time, attempts to smoke a cigar, as a sort of initiation, to prove his masculinity. Smoking has long been associated with masculine customs.


During the 1920-30’s in Paris, a cigarette in the mouth of a woman, however, was considered to be the most recognizable and readable signs of a lesbian. Smoking became an activity for empowerment and change in social meaning. However, as lesbians are sexually attracted to females, as are heterosexual man, is this all a mimic of a ‘norm’? Were these lesbians just mirroring this masculine activity, as this was what was associated with feminine desire? Perhaps. However, women, straight women also began to smoke. Thus, the cigarette was not simply a signifier of sexual orientation or erotic style, it was deemed an expression of freedom.

Women becoming smokers had started in the 20’s encouraged by the suffrage movement, which actively pushed to give women the sense of freedom and entitlement men had. Tobacco companies played a great part in exploiting this movement by starting various cigarettes aimed at young impressionable women. American Tobacco company, ‘Lucky Strike’ in particular encouraged and convinced women to smoke through outrageous and tactful claims-after all smoking was seen as dirty and masculine a few years prior! Lucky Strike featured strong independent women such as feminist icon Ameila Earhart as well as persuasive slogans “Everyone’s doing it!” all to entice women to reach for a Lucky Strike!

However, the most aggressive campaign of all was Lucky’s “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” an outrageous claim promising a slimming effect from smoking. The campaign was ironic in the sense that it was trying to sell a strong, confident image of a woman, which would appeal to the new breed of freer modern women whilst also keeping them under control, reminding them that they need to be mindful of their weight. The cigarettes were portrayed as elegant and glamorous, important feminine traits to embody at the time. Despite the ridiculousness of the campaign, Lucky Strike’s efforts had excelled, making them the most smoked brand within a decade.

By exploiting the vanity of women and their obsession with slenderness, the tobacco industry was able to release a whole variety of different cigarettes, each one with a unique twist and selling point. Smoking had evolved into a sort of socially accepted and encouraged diet pill. By the time that Virginia Slims came on the scene in the late 60’s, with their iconic tagline, “You’ve come a long way baby” it was reported that nearly 34% of women were smokers. It was the first brand of cigarettes created solely for women and were even made longer, slimmer and therefore deemed more elegant and feminine. One could argue that the physical changes in the cigarettes reflected the idea that smoking would make you slimmer.

In the 1970’s Liggett and Myers Tobacco company released their line of cigarettes aimed at women entitled, “Eve”. Eve cigarettes were beautiful and feminine with floral motifs on the outer packaging as well as the actual cigarettes themselves. The adverts suggested that smoking Eve cigarettes was the epitome of ideal femininity and beauty, reinforced through enticing slogans such as, “Farewell to the ugly cigarette. Smoke pretty”.

These advertisements were featured everywhere, encouraging you not only to diet and deny yourself sweets but also to pick up smoking as a habit. Cigarettes focused on freedom and independence whilst evoking feminine glamour, beauty and equality. However, the promise of thinness and the enticing advertisements meant that many girls picked up smoking as a life-long habit. Below are some photographs and images of current brands and fashion advertisements. In spite of the raised awareness of the health implications smoking causes, cigarettes are still being depicted as fashionable. Numerous drag performers to accentuate and give the impression of an ideal feminine beauty also use cigarettes.


Sigmund, F (1905) ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’ SE. 182

Garber, M (1991) Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety. London: Routledge. 153-157

La Progressive (2012) Let Political Ads Go the Way of Cigarette Commercials [online] available from <>[18 February 2014]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s