Southern Views

Weeds TV showAmong the cable television series dramatizing subject matter deemed too controversial for broadcast television and violating FCC standards against indecency and obscenity, Showtime’s highly rated[1] Weeds stands out for the sophistication of its challenge to the official narrative in the War on Drugs. How the challenge is executed bears analysis.

On first encounter, many critics dismissed Weeds. Struggling to place it one critic described it as occupying the middle ground between HBO series like The Wire and softer fare like Desperate Housewives.[2] The series seemed merely one more satire exploring the emptiness of suburban life and the central character of Nancy Botwin, played by Mary Louise Parker, just a familiar take on the “dirty-mouthed nice girl whose life is falling apart.” Another critic struggling with the problem of categorization ended by calling Weeds a “screwball comedy.”[3] However no suburban satire or screwball comedy ever dared as much. An older generation of critics might have recognized an equally superficial similarity to serial cliffhanger ‘damsel in distress’ narrative exemplified by The Perils of Pauline.[4] That too would have missed the mark, not the least because the character Nancy Botwin proves far more risk acceptant and resourceful than her sisters in earlier serials.

The people responsible for the series would seem to agree with the contemporary critics. In a July 28, 2009 panel discussion at the Paley Center for the Media, series creator and executive director Jenji Kohan reduced marijuana as the perfect vehicle and foil. Actress Elizabeth Perkins, who plays the villainous character Celia Hode, described marijuana as a metaphor for the “dirty little secret inside the clean environment” of “flying under the radar” in the reality of the society in which the characters live.[5] If they are being truthful then the series is an exploration of efforts to maintain individual autonomy in a society that has been emptied of meaning by runaway consumerism by not drawing attention to oneself. Yet if the message is actually about concealment—the traditional modus operandi of the stoner as both survival strategy and inside joke—then far too much of the dramatic action in each episode is devoted to subverting the institutionalized moral panic of the War on Drugs. Indeed, the characters seem to suffer remarkably little of any psychological harm because they conceal activities involving drugs. Their suffering has other sources. How then might the characterization of the series by Kohan and Perkins be explained? Perhaps the answer is precisely the disingenuousness that is required for “flying under the radar.”

Works of fiction often serve not only as entertainment but also as effective instruments for political persuasion. They are effective because their audiences are typically larger and more susceptible than audiences for non-fiction. Colin McGinn describes fictional stories as the important if overlooked basic unit of persuasive discourse in analytical moral philosophy.[6] In his The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud likened the repression of disturbing material safely revealed in the dream analysis to the expression of officially censored ideas in works of fiction.[7] Conversely, material too disturbing for treatment in non-fiction might be more safely explored in fiction. Examples abound of the power of literature for moral education. Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist transformed 19th century public opinion about social welfare provision by making the alleviation of poverty appear not only worthwhile but also feasible. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest challenged the institutionalization of the mentally ill in the 1960s. That a Showtime comedy series might serve as a vehicle for skewering the absurdities of the War on Drugs is altogether plausible.

The War on Drugs was launched by President Richard M. Nixon in a June 18, 1971 speech that evoked threat themes common to American drug focused moral panics. The threat, he warned, “comes quietly into homes and destroys children, it moves into neighborhoods and breaks the fiber of community…”[8] Nixon’s new drug policy was executed through requests for increased enforcement funding in the 1972 Federal budget and the establishment by Executive Order of what would become known as the office of the Drug Czar. What it institutionalized was the recreational drug focused moral panic. Unfamiliar recreational drugs, typically identified with a threatening ethnic or social group, have been a recurring focus of American moral panics since temperance and nativist crusaders condemned opium smoking and the Chinese immigrants blamed for its popularization in the mid-19th century.[9] Moral panics occur when a condition, episode or deviant behavior of a social group is presented as threatening societal values or interests and the “moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people.”[10] Journalists perform prominent roles in launching moral panics about drugs,[11][12] by making some folk devil, the visible reminder of the deviance, the focus of the news coverage. Cocaine would be associated with African-Americans in the early 1900s, marijuana with Mexican immigrants in the 1920s, LSD with hippies in the 1960s, and crack cocaine with African-American impoverished youth in the 1980s. In each of those moral panics, official statements and news coverage generated public hysteria by misrepresenting the addictiveness of the drug, the specific risk of irrational violence committed by its users, and the general threat posed to society.[13] The most threatened victims are invariably adult women and adolescents,[14] individuals susceptible to manipulation and abuse by deviant adult men and in need of protection from adult men charged with defending the conventional moral order.

The War on Drugs institutionalized the moral panic in American political life, both by giving the bureaucratic apparatus of drug suppression a higher profile and by accelerating the pace at which new drug/folk devil dyads would be generated. Philip Jenkins has written that over the last quarter century of the 20th century, a “new nightmare” about an unfamiliar drug erupted approximately every three or four years.[15]

Episode after episode of Weeds directly subverts the drug focused moral panic with the portrayal of a widow with money problems acting not as passive victim but as gutsy entrepreneur solving her own problems, most of which are caused by the men in her life. Far from being the guileless and frightened female in need of masculine protection, Nancy Botwin is unendingly resourceful in saving adult male family and friends—brother in law Andy Botwin, accountant Doug Wilson, lawyer Dan Hodes—from their own folly. Nor are the adolescents and children in need of protection from marijuana. Nancy Botwin’s son Shane and Doug Wilson’s son Josh find their own niches in the ganja biz. Her other son Silas and Hodes’ daughter Isabel also demonstrate more resourcefulness than many of the adult characters. DEA Agent Peter Scottson might be charged with defending the moral order but proves one of the most dangerous and morally bankrupt adult males in her world. She solves her problem with Scottson by marrying him and making him her partner in marijuana growing, and then collecting his life insurance policy after he dies at the hands of rival Armenian indoor farmers.

Nancy Botwin also deals with a succession of drug dealing folk devils, including the African-American gangster U-Turn and the Mayor of Tijuana/Mexican drug cartel boss Esteban Reyes. Although dangerous, each ultimately proves more vulnerable than monstrous. An episode involving her intimate relationship with Reyes is also sued to subvert the ‘new nightmare’ of a novel drug. Symbolic of her willingness to take risks for the sake of self-realization, one of the few episodes in which Nancy Botwin uses illicit drugs involves not marijuana but ayahuasca. Her business associates, oldest son and brother in law might be avid marijuana smokers, but she prefers alcohol. Long used in Shamanic religion practice in the Amazon, ayahuasca is a vehicle for entering trance states and for spiritual healing. Following the immediate unpleasant physical effects, the psychedelic ‘teacher plant’ causes “visual and auditory stimulation, blending of sensory modalities—synesthesia—and psychological introspection that can include great elation, fear, illumination, or depression.”[16] Despite violating some of the norms associated with its consumption,[17] she experiences the enhanced self-awareness and mental clarity sought by practitioners.

The official narrative about illicit recreational drugs, reproduced for decades through official statements issued by law enforcement agencies, news coverage, public service television advertisements, and television crime dramas, legitimates only the role of bystander for the majority of Americans. Cast as non-drug users alarmed by the threat posed to their families or as naive potential drug addicts, they are assigned the passive tasks of believing claims made by public officials about the risks of drug use and of endorsing the actions of law enforcement agents. Because marijuana use is widespread in the United States—more than four out of ten Americans have smoked marijuana, as have more than five out of ten Americans in the twenties[18]–the assignment of a bystander role in the official narrative is not so much false as it is much too simple. Most Americans, including those who partake, are passive observers of the repression that resulted in three-quarters of a million Americans being arrested for possession of marijuana in 2008. They “live inside the lie,” participants in a public culture in which it is entirely normal to feign belief in the official representations of reality.[19] Millions of individuals choose to fly under the radar because responsibility for opposing the repression is diffused among large numbers of passive observers, because of their paranoia about becoming a victim of repression if they voice public opposition, and because they are desensitized to the damage done to others by repression.

Weeds subverts the bystander role constructed in the official narrative by portraying a southern California in which marijuana is the norm: the overwhelming majority are members of distribution networks that honeycomb society. Identification rather than anger is evoked as viewers watch innumerable minor characters deal with absurdity of marijuana prohibition through the contemporary American equivalent of the practice of blat in the Soviet Union.[20] The growth of Nancy Botwin’s network of lower level dealers and their customers closely resembles the description of the growth of blat networks. “[O]pportunity for blat arose throughout a person’s life: through family, education, army service and occupation.”[21] Informal networks of distribution supplied Soviet citizens with consumer goods unavailable through the creaking mechanisms of official allocation. Private exchanges conducted through informal distribution networks compensate for the failure of the law to catch up with socially accepted behavior.

What Weeds does not subvert is the common decision to remain politically passive in the encounter with repression. Characters might violate the law with uncommon courage but they do not challenge it through activism. The individual liberty celebrated in the series is economic and cultural rather political. Unfortunately, the problem with self-help in the real world is that it inevitably means assisting the same coercive authority that compels such measures in the first place. Just as blat helped to prop up the socialist economy of the Soviet Union by supplementing mass consumption without offering overt challenge, flying under the radar sustains the War on Drugs by meeting demand for a commodity in a manner that drains the potential for public protest. For all that it manages to subvert, the drama in Weeds is played out within those entertaining limits.

The limit to the challenge to the official narrative of the War on Drugs in this portrayal thus mirrors the limit to the challenge presented to the official apparatus of the War on Drugs by millions of marijuana growers, dealers and smokers for decades. In their collective withdrawal from the public sphere into a private sphere of recreation that is dependant on exchange rendered artificially profitable by prohibition, they effectively collude with the authority that they hold in contempt.

 

 

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[1] Kimberly Nordyke. “’Weeds’ Sets Showtime Ratings Record: Pot-Themed Comedy Most-Watched Premiere.” The Hollywood Reporter. June 17, 2008. http://hollywoodreporter.com/hr/content_display/television/news/e3i79825b157551fdb95671fd8ae4c8916e

[2] Dana Stevens, “Chronic Condition: Showtime’s Weeds Offers a Fresh Toke—I mean Take—on Suburban Satire,” Slate, August 5, 2005. http://slate.com/id/2124089/

[3] Troy Patterson, “All About My Mother: Mary-Louise Parker in Weeds,” Slate, August 25, 2006. http://www.slate.com/id2148341

[4] Ben Singer. “Female Power in the Serial-Queen Melodrama: The Etiology of an Anomaly.” Camera Obscura. Vol. 31. (1993). Pp. 121-147.

[5] Elizabeth Perkins. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whBwRUsWTsk”>

[6] Colin McGinn, Ethics, Evil, and Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997)., Pp. 171-178.

[7] Sigmund Freud, The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. A.A. Brill, trans., (New York: The Modern Library, 1995)., Pp. 190-192.

[8] N.a. “Excerpts From the President’s Message on Drug Abuse Control.” The New York Times. June 18, 1971. p. 28.

[9] Timothy Hickman. “Drugs and Rce in American Culture: Orientalism in the Turn of the Century Discourse of Narcotic Addiction. American Studies. Vol. 41, No. 1, (2000) , 71-91.

[10] Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics. (New York: Routledge, 2002)., p. 1

[11]

[12] Mike Males. “Raving Junk: Few Outlets Dissent From the Latest Teen-Drug Hysterias.” FAIR: Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. November/December 2000. http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1052

[13] Steven R. Belenko, Crack and the Evolution of Anti-Drug Policy (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999)., pp. 23-24.

[14] Nachman Ben-Yehuda. “The Sociology of Moral Panics: Toward a New Synthesis.” The Sociological Quarterly. Vol. 27, No. 4. (1986). Pp. 495-513.

[15] Philip Jenkins, Synthetic Panics: The Symbolic Politics of Designer Drugs (New York: New York University Press, 1999)., p. 2.

[16] Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Roger Rumrrill, A Hallucinogenic Tea, Laced with Controversy: Ayahuasca in the Amazon and the United States (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008)., p.1

[17] Sati. “Prime Time Ayahuasca.” Reality Sandwich. No date. http://realitysandwich.com/prime_time_ayahuasca

[18] Paul Waldman. “Can Reason Win the Drug War?” The American Prospect. November 3, 2009. http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=can_reason_win_the_drug_war

[19] Stanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2001)., p. 143.

[20] Alena V. Ledeneva, Russia’s Economy of Favors: Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[21] Ibid., p. 124.

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John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.