Marina Welker – Netflix's new series Cigarette Girl romanticizes an industry that kills around 290,000 Indonesians each year.
Inspired by Ratih Kumala's novel, Gadis Kretek, which blends business and romantic intrigue with mythology and historical events, the series paints an appealing portrait of Indonesia's cigarette market, which is the world's second largest.
Indonesians smoke over 300 billion cigarettes a year. Nearly two out of three Indonesian men smoke, and secondhand smoke is present in the majority of homes and workplaces.
Netflix justifies its idealized depiction of the Indonesian cigarette industry by situating it in the past, rendering it as exotic, indigenous, and artisanal, and incorporating passing references to its health consequences. Such nostalgic representations of the past, however, perform political work in the present.
Clove-laced cigarettes called "kretek," in onomatopoeic reference to the crackling sound they make when clove fragments ignite, constitute 95% of the Indonesian cigarette market. Industry proponents use the clove ingredient, which is indigenous to Indonesia's Spice Islands of Maluku, to claim that the commodity represents unique national cultural heritage and merits state protection. Kretek nationalist organizations frame tobacco control efforts as neocolonial propaganda, and claim to act on behalf of ordinary farmers, factory workers, home industries, petty vendors, and smokers rather than their large corporate sponsors. Cigarette Girl's idyllic imagery bolsters this position, and indeed these groups have applauded Kumala's book and the Netflix series with its star-studded cast.
The charismatic commodity at the center of Cigarette Girl and kretek nationalist ideology is the hand-rolled kretek. But the reality of Indonesia's kretek industry is far removed from the artisanal scenes marketed by Netflix and kretek nationalist ideology. Today only 20% of kretek are hand-rolled, and the female piece-rate workers who make them labor under grueling time pressure to produce more than 300 kretek an hour. Seventy-five percent of kretek are produced on machines that manufacture up to 20,000 cigarettes a minute.
Flashing back from 2001 to the 1960s and '70s, the Netflix series incorporates fleeting references to the public health consequences of tobacco. Anti-tobacco posters briefly appear on hospital walls. The wealthy playboy son of a renowned cigarette company owner reminds his father that he suffers from a (unspecified) cancer and removes a cigarette from his hand. Between phlegmy coughs, the father protests that everyone dies anyway and the kretek was originally created as medicine. The son meets his romantic interest in one of Java's industry-sponsored kretek museums. A doctor who insists that she detests cigarettes because they cause illness, she too confiscates a cigarette from an old man, advising him to quit for his health.
Cigarettes may be bad for the cancer-ridden and elderly, but they are made to appear as an unadulterated good for attractive youth and a key feature of ritual hospitality, masculine marketplace sociality, and feminist consumption. In every other scene where cigarettes appear – and there are so many – they appear as sensuous, savored companions to thought, feeling, and action. By the end, even the doctor has capitulated and smokes a cigarette in an act that evokes profound communion with her deceased mother.
The Cigarette Girl series condemns the Indonesian political massacres of the 1960s, in which half a million civilians were killed, while suspending critique of the industry responsible for Indonesia's ongoing public health massacre. Netflix's period drama approach to an addictive commodity feels at times like a five-hour advertisement. This sits in stark contrast to Netflix's hard-hitting industry exposes of Purdue Pharma's Oxycontin (the docudrama Painkiller) and Juul (the documentary Big Vape) in the United States, which are clearly meant to foster informed critique. Netflix's deployment of such opposing genres to explore addictive commodities in different countries suggests a comparative disregard and discounting of Indonesian lives.
Since the 1970s, large kretek producers have mechanized and adopted global Big Tobacco's aggressive marketing tactics and deceptive engineering of purportedly safer ("light" or "mild") kretek. Their tactics were so successful that the non-clove "white cigarettes" (rokok putih) that dominated Indonesia's cigarette market through the 1960s today account for a mere 5% of market share. Around 40% of today's kretek market is controlled by foreign companies (led by Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, and Japan Tobacco International) that saturate nighttime TV and public space with their advertising, and contract young influencers to promote their product through social media.
Cigarette Girl ultimately shores up the position of powerful tobacco interests in Indonesia and weakens that of tobacco-control activists, who are already the target of condemnation as national traitors and even face threats for questioning the industry. By romanticizing the Indonesian cigarette industry as a distinctive local tradition, Cigarette Girl helps undermine Indonesian tobacco-control activists' quest for social justice and the right to industry regulation, an environment free of smoke and cigarette advertising, and a healthier and more prosperous future for Indonesian citizens.
[Marina Welker is associate professor of anthropology at Cornell University. Her book, "Kretek Capitalism: The Making, Marketing and Consumption of Clove Cigarettes in Indonesia," will be published in Spring 2024.]