Thursday, August 30, 2007

Where There's Smoke

There is something graceful about the silver curl of smoke across a black and white screen. Marlene Deitrich's leisurely exhale wreathed her beautiful face in a haze of smoke and mystery. Bogart and Bacall's side-by-side cigarettes at the end of The Big Sleep hinted at what happened when the screen faded to black.

Hollywood spent years glamorizing cigarettes, and even after they stopped, the images cigarette companies paid to produce live on in some of our most cherished films. Parents ranted and railed about Joe Camel when I was a kid, but it wasn't a poorly animated spokes-dromedary that prompted me to pick up a smoke when I "grew up" and left for college. It was Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Lauren Bacall and a hundred other golden-age actors (most of whom died of lung cancer).

Yes, classic films made me smoke.

About fifty percent of college students who take up smoking quit, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them. I had a brief relapse a year after graduating when I fell in with chain-smoking Europeans (my French friend's secret to keeping her perfect size 6? "Eat less, smoke more."). But smoking is lethal, expensive, and stinky. And I hated the idea of being an addict.

Smartass and I have been watching Mad Men, AMC's new show about advertising executives in 1960. I'm still not sure whether I like it, but one thing I think is genius is the way the show makes smoking look disgusting by constantly depicting smoking. Instead of the silver-screen glamor of Hollywood, Mad Men shows the way ordinary people smoked. Characters smoke while driving, while eating, while pregnant. Doctors smoke during exams, office workers smoke at their desks. It's positively awful. And, I'm told, completely accurate.

Lately, I've been thinking about smoking, and my experience as a smoker versus the glamorous image I still have in my head. In my writing, I often use smoking to indicate a character's self-destructive tendencies. When I'm writing urban fantasy or paranormals, many of my immortal characters smoke. And they look good doing it.

I have my doubts as to whether or not this is OK. When Buffy and Angel didn't use protection on Buffy the Vampire Slayer angry parents lambasted the creator, Joss Whedon. Whedon's response was, the show is fiction. Angel was undead, for goodness sake! People know the difference between fiction and reality.

But that was sex, and this is smoking. Given the power that glamorous images have in our society, is it ethical for a writer to glamorize smoking, even in impossible, clearly fictitious circumstances?