Of course the doctor asked me to quit smoking. And of course I had to lie and say that I wanted to quit, even though I have no intention of quitting. I nodded prettily but lied all over the place like she was a Catholic priest or a headshrinker (Although I told her I’d been smoking for 15 years, I’d actually been smoking since I was 15 years old). I went along with her assumption that my addiction to cigarettes was a chemical dependence on nicotine. This, I’m sure, is partly true (although I have no way of really knowing what lurks in the heart of my innards) but the truth I withheld from the doctor is that I will always smoke because I smoke because smoking is what women do.
In the great Korean film Yeo-baewoo-deul (Actresses), six famous Korean actresses play fictionalized versions of themselves, gathered together one Christmas Eve for a Korea Vogue photoshoot. I’ve become quite obsessed with this movie, and there is a particularly gorgeous scene I’ve been watching over and over: the youngest actress (Kim Ok-Bin, age 23) bums a smoke off of the eldest actress (Yoon Yeo-Jeung, in her 60s). As the actresses sit side-by-side smoking their slim cigs, the decades that separate them become pronounced and then rendered irrelevant. Not just through physicality, but the idiosyncratic femininity of each woman’s smoking.
Yoon Yeo-Jeung holds her cigarette like an old-school screen diva. She leans back comfortably in to her chair and yet her spine retains a stunning uprightness; it’s the confidence of accumulated experience. She holds her smoking arm slightly away from her torso to create a classically willowy silhouette. Cherrytopping that silhouette is her hand. The knuckle is arched back just barely enough to break a flat line. The fingers are curled and separated, the cigarette flowering out from the very tips of her index and middle finger. The open palm that faces her allows Yoon to create a downward gaze expression that elongates her body into a haughty coolness.
By contrast, Kim Ok-Bin is slumped over. Her smoking arm does not look arranged, it looks broken: held tight against her torso. Her smoking fingers are glued tightly together. Where Yoon’s classic smoking femininity creates a fluid openness that verges on a contrapposto, Kim’s smoking arm is a black hole which seems to suck in her entire body.
What’s fabulous about this scene is that after a few beats, Yoon notices this difference. She turns to Kim, watches her take a drag, and says: “You learned in the bathroom, didn’t you?”
I’ve been smoking since I was 15 years old, but I’ve been smoking like a 60-year old woman. My smoking stance is pretty much standard faggy but it is faggy it is also Yoon’s actressy one. I probably watched the same old movies that Yoon watched in order to learn smoking. But this scene was revelatory to me because I was struck by the utterly feminine beauty of Kim Ok-Bin’s adolescent smoking pose. I love how she holds her cigarette, not like a lady (gently between index and middle finger, palm turned inward) but also not like a pothead/ thug (pinched hard between thumb and index finger, rest of the fingers curled flagrantly and threateningly outward). Instead, Kim holds her cigarette as if it were a pencil: between the index and middle finger, and pinched between the thumb and index finger. I learned to smoke by watching middle-aged actresses in black-and-white films: learning to smoke was a solitary act and expression of my nascent faggotry through film diva-worship. Now, in my thirties, I want to have a renaissance of femme adolescence: I want to smoke as if I learned to smoke in the bathroom. From and with other girls. Kim’s smoking produces a femininity that is secretive, furtive. Her heavy hair acts like a hood and covers her face. Yoon’s smoking is a trophy of femme life lived. Kim’s smoking is a bare history of that life: shame, secrets, but also community and quiet rebellion. Smoking seems to add to natural gravity and pull Kim’s body down and gives its slimness a protective mass. She looks beautiful.
This I realize is an awful confession, to connect a carcinogenic health hazard to the allure of femininity. So lest you mistake this for a regressive Virginia Slims advertisement, here is my own Surgeon General’s Warning Label: CIAGRETTE SMOKING WILL NOT MAKE YOU MORE FEMININE. But if you are homosexual, living in Iowa City in the1980s, fifteen years old, covered with fresh pimples, nearsighted like blind, and in full-time depression, then a pack of Marlborough Menthols may do as well as anything to help will away that sad-sack male genitalia that is the cause of all your woes. Twenty years later, even though I’m more comfortable with my body and myself, I still need smoking to be that core girl that fought hard to break through my male skin. My increasingly obsessive running has naturally cut my cigarette intake. But a few times a day, I still need to make the movements that the cigarette forces out of my body in order to feel reassured of my femme self. In this way, the cigarette is a tool of my self-making as a true woman—which is not a static adherence to a specific idea of “woman,” but a softly and strongly evolving identification with femininity.
So I’ve been studying hard Kim Ok-Bin’s way of smoking into femininity: the way it forces you to break your wrist: palms down, knuckles get the featured role. When you hold the cigarette like a pencil it feels too close to joint-holding and also too masculine. Thus, you have to make sure the three free fingers (middle, ring, pinkie) are stowed underneath the cigarette at all times, in alignment with the index finger, especially making sure they don’t go flying up and out too much when you pinch and puff.