Sigourney Weaver's Avatar Character Sparked A Surprising Controversy

Why are cigarettes cool? Because of The Hays Code

Installed in 1934, the Hollywood Production Code, colloquially called the Hays Code (after Will Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America at the time), was a self-censorship device that major film studios adhered to in order to avoid investigation by the government. The Hays Code was notoriously strict about depictions of sex and violence in American film, not only cutting nudity, profanity, and murder, but also any depictions of homosexuality, divorce, miscegenation, drugs, childbirth, and taking the Lord's name in vain. The Hays Code also included a list of "caution" items that urged "good taste." Things like the depiction of smuggling, scenes of deliberate seduction (of women; men could be seduced), theft scenes that could be misconstrued as instruction, men and woman in bed together, "heavy" kissing, prostitution, open criticism of another country, state executions, and "attitude toward public characters and institutions" were all frowned upon.

Noticeably absent from the list was cigarettes. Tobacco use was fair game in feature films, and it didn't take long for filmmakers to use cigarette consumption as a stand-in for sexual activity. Cigarettes involved the mouth and lips. If you were sharing a light, it involved holding a lit match between two people's faces. People could touch as they held a burning cigarette to the unlit tip of another. It was all very phallic and sexual. While the corollary may not be direct, the CDC did note that cigarette consumption went way, way up in the 1940s. A film critic would point to the Hays Code as a direct reason for that. Since the late 1970s, cigarette use has been on the decline. This corresponds with discovered health problems that cigarettes cause. 

Despite a youth surge in tobacco use in the '90s (it was those nasty grunge rockers, I tells ya!), smoking has become less and less popular an activity. In 2018, instances of smoking were as infrequent as they had ever been. Some might say this was the result of aggressive anti-smoking advertising campaigns. Others might cite changing fashions; it's simply not as "cool" as it once was. Smoking is no longer needed as a sexual code in movies. Now smoking itself is considered a thing to be noted by censors, and the MPAA (what the Hays Code became in the late 1960s) can give a harder rating to films that depict smoking. 

 The Smokefree Media project, based out of the University of San Francisco — cognizant of the correlation between movies and cigarette use — have a website devoted to tobacco use in feature films, grading every movie they examine on a scale of how glorified tobacco use is. In 2009, the project put the biggest movie in the world into their crosshairs. Evidently, James Cameron's "Avatar," specifically the character of Dr. Grace Augustine played by Sigourney Weaver, was awarded the dreaded Black Lung.

Dr. Grace Augustine smokes it up

In "Avatar," exobiologistDr. Augustine works on the distant moon Pandora, where she is seen drinking and taking drags on cigarettes while she works in her lab. Occasionally, she shunts her consciousness into a cloned alien body, which does not require drink or drugs. In an article published in the New York Times in January of 2010, only weeks after "Avatar's" release, Stanton A. Glantz, a representative from Smokefree Media, pointed out that Dr. Augustine's smoking was "like someone put a bunch of plutonium in the water supply." Dramatic language to be sure, but Glantz' meaning can be taken: A forthright and admirable actress like Weaver, lovingly taking a pull from a cigarette, may give a bad message to kids who look up to her. Although "Avatar" was already rated PG-13, Glantz was still incensed. Given the number of people who were watching "Avatar" — it made $77 million in its opening weekend, and would go on to earn $2.7 billion — the Smokefree Media project felt the need to step in. 

Cameron responded to Smokefree Media with a hard stance. Dr. Augustine, he argued, was not meant to be a role model. Indeed, in abusing herself with drink and tobacco, Cameron was making a statement: 

"She's rude, she swears, she drinks, she smokes. Also, from a character perspective, we were showing that Grace doesn't care about her human body, only her avatar body, which again is a negative comment about people in our real world living too much in their avatars, meaning online and in video games."

Depiction vs. endorsement

Cameron continued, arguing that depicting smoking was not the same as endorsing the activity: 

"I don't believe in the dogmatic idea that no one in a movie should smoke. Movies should reflect reality. If it's O.K. for people to lie, cheat, steal and kill in PG-13 movies, why impose an inconsistent morality when it comes to smoking? I do agree that young role-model characters should not smoke in movies, especially in a way which suggests that it makes them cooler or more accepted by their peers ... [smoking] is a filthy habit which I don't support, and neither, I believe, does 'Avatar.'"

Cameron's argument goes into a strange arm of film discourse that has arisen on social media in the last few years: That depiction always equals endorsement. Some feel that any activity seen on a screen is a tacit approval of said activity, and that showing something morally dodgy, illegal, or outright wicked is meant to be a commercial. This is certainly a problem with depicting war; François Truffaut once argued that there can be no such thing as an antiwar film because war, when depicted on a movie screen, turns into something exciting and dynamic. Although not always logical, this notion has been carried into drug use, sex, and, well, plenty of other things covered in the Hays Code. Many audiences seem to have internalized the Hays Code in its absence.

/Film's own Chris Evangelista, however, has a cogent argument when it comes to the phenomenon. And I quote him: DEPICTION DOES NOT EQUAL ENDORSEMENT, YOU CLOWNS!!