No character on film or television – at least in good film or television – does anything without a reason. If they’re smoking, or drinking, or wearing a red scarf, it’s because the filmmakers want to us to draw conclusions about them from that activity. So what does it mean if a character is vaping on screen? The big screen is still trying to figure that out – but a few examples already point the way.

First, a little history

Since the earliest days of cinema, the screen was fascinated by smoking. It’s almost impossible to imagine the great films of the 1930s and 1940s without it. Think of the endless flirtations as a heart-stoppingly glamorous femme fatale – Rita Hayworth in Gilda, maybe – holds out her cigarette for a light, or of those private detectives who stood under a streetlight in a gentle haze of cigarette smoke.

Image of Rita Hayworth in Gilda

Image courtesy of chicagotribune.com

Fred Astaire’s dandy dancers often smoked, and Marlena Dietrich used it to add to her characters’ exoticism. There was a language to smoking in the early days; those clouds of smoke added an air of mystery and intrigue, or told viewers that the smoker was a person of elegance and consequence.

But as the dangers of smoking became better-known, the portrayal of cigarettes changed. Smoking became a sign of danger: bad guys, like John Travolta as Castor Troy in Face/Off or Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver in Kill Bill, smoked, but the good guys rarely did. The few exceptions among heroes were damaged in some way, mavericks with no sense of self-preservation like Keanu Reeves’ title character in Constantine, or doomed to certain death like Carlos Oliveira (Oded Fehr) in Resident Evil: Extinction.

The rise of vaping on screen

So the rise in popularity of vaping demands a new on-screen language, because no character on film or TV does anything without a reason. And since it doesn’t share cigarettes’ modern connotations of death and destruction, how should filmmakers use it?

The examples so far give us a few clues. One of vaping’s first appearances came in 2010’s The Tourist, with Johnny Depp’s Frank Tupelo using an e-cig aboard a French high-speed train. He was cleverly getting around a no-smoking sign – at that time, those didn’t apply to vapes – and the moment established him immediately as someone willing to bend, or break, the rules.

Image of John Cusack vaping in Drive Hard

Image courtesy of allaboute-cigarettes.com

Vaping was also used to rather glamorous effect by Rodrigo Santoro in 2015’s Focus, where Santoro played a billionaire Formula One team owner, Rafael Garriga, and casually vaped. This marked him as technologically savvy, health-conscious – and perhaps not quite as relaxed about his life as he wanted people to think. It’s a neat piece of character building in a film that’s all about deceptive appearances and playing tricks. John Cusack vapes to similar effect in 2014’s Drive Hard, as a thief who manipulates a former race-car driver into becoming his getaway driver. That character is also deceitful – but he ultimately proves more sympathetic than villainous. Even Zac Efron in Bad Neighbours vapes, and it seems such an odd fit for his preposterous jock that it suggests there might be more to him than initially appears.

The meaning of vaping on screen

Sometimes, vaping is a sign of a character in recovery, or fighting against addiction. True Detective Season 2 portrayed Rachel McAdams’ Detective Bezzerides as a vaper – something that contrasted with her drinking and gambling habits. It suggested that smoking was one former vice that she had succeeded in controlling; an optimistic touch in a grim world.

Some long-established TV characters have also made the transition from cigarette to vaping – with mixed success. Eastenders veteran Dot Cotton visibly switched by 2013, apparently on the suggestion of June Brown, the actress who plays her and who is herself a vaper.

Patty and Selma on The Simpsons, however, rejected the switch because it was “too clean”. Both decisions fit their characters. Cotton is a largely sensible woman who tries to take care of herself, and Eastenders is designed to reflect the real world – where vaping’s popularity is growing. And Patty and Selma? Well, they are neither meant to be sensible or realistic, so it makes sense that they’d reject any alternative to cigarettes.

Image of Rachel McAdams vaping on screen

Image courtesy of vapingmedia.com

There have been some attempts to recapture smoking’s dangerous edge with vapes. Dennis Quaid’s homicidal mortician in 2012’s Beneath The Darkness uses a vape throughout – but it doesn’t do much to enlighten us about his character. Funnier and more effective was 2015’s The Lazarus Effect, which sees a super-powered telekinetic use a vape as a murder weapon. OK, so it’s not the most positive depiction of the habit, but it’s a witty rejoinder to “Smoking kills” messages.

In truth, it’s early days for vaping on the big and small screen. No coherent language has been established for the habit; it can denote glamour, or danger, or self-control, or something slightly untrustworthy. But the growing popularity of vaping in real life and onscreen suggests that we’re going to see considerably more of it in the future, and a language of character meaning will develop with that.

Have you noticed any traits of characters vaping on screen? Let us know in the comments!

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