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A short history of women and drugs on film

Often glamourised or depicted badly, these five films do a good job of portraying female addiction

Heroin is no stranger to the limelight. From the generation-defining drug-addled cult cinema creations of the 90s, to the 70s ever-escalating heroin scene portrayed in underground documentaries, the film industry’s morbid interest for glamourizing drug addiction is not exactly low-key.

That being said, Hollywood’s narrative when it comes to portraying addiction is, like many other narratives – mental health, for example – visibly white centered or male. Usually when women are a part of it, they are portrayed as assets to the main character, playing the burdened mother to the addicted child or the desperate girlfriend sucked into a whirlwind of narcotics for love.

While these narratives might be part of the experience of real addiction in some cases, real women addicts don’t live in this constructed void of exploitative sex and heated arguments, without any agency of their own, while their male counterparts revel in unabashed, almost aspirational self-destruction.

That is not to say a woman’s image was never tied to addiction – in the 90s, the extremely sexualized heroin chic and the figure of the wayward waif became popular in fashion, creating a new genre of beauty. An aspirational self-destructive female figure with double the sex appeal and none of the actual weights of a heroin dependency that caused much distress.

The absence of real portrayal of addicted women in media ensures a very serious problem that reaches people of all social classes, sexualities and ethnicities, becomes visually tied to a set of people – men who show visual signs of disregard for their bodies, rock stars doing it for the art and mostly, white men who are prisoners to their own ennui.

With an estimated 600,000 heroin users in the U.S. and chemical addiction becoming something of a commonplace worry, here are the films through recent history that challenge addiction from a female perspective.


One of the most iconic cult films of the 80s, Christiane F. is based off the biographical book We Children of Banhof Zoo, where Christiane opens up about her teenage addiction in West Berlin and experience with underage prostitution. Dealing very honestly with the power relationship built upon older men taking advantage of her dependency, as well as an early fascination with drugs, it portrays a variety of stories of young people who were part of the heroin epidemic of Berlin in the 80s. The film was also soundtracked and featured in by David Bowie, her favourite singer at the time. Perhaps the most unpleasantly truthful scene is when Christiane and Detlef try to quit heroin cold turkey and the viewer sees them writhing and shaking around the bedroom with withdrawal symptoms.

SID & NANCY (1986)

Giving a romanticized insight to the UK’s punk community during the rise of the Sex Pistols, Sid & Nancy focuses a lot on the character of Nancy Spungen (who was at one point supposed to be played by Courtney Love, who ended up playing smaller part, Gretchen) and on her dysfunctional relationship with bass player Sid Vicious. During a tumultuous 19-month relationship, Spungen and Vicious became addicted to heroin and other drugs. Unlike most films featuring addiction in relationships, Nancy’s character is relatively independent and strong willed. As a character, she also, for once, shows some layers of her own relationship with her addiction – including reflecting the expectations of traditional femininity and body image, after all “Barbie doesn’t have bruises”. 

GIA (1998)

A biographical film telling the story of America’s first supermodel, Gia Carangi (played by Angelina Jolie), the film treats Carangi’s addiction as a very real part of her life – but not something that defines her character or glorifies the addiction itself. Gia’s relationship with her own sexuality is also very different from the standard tragic (and heterosexual) scenario. Carangi was also one of the first high-profile women to die from AIDS during America’s 70s epidemic.


Featuring Sienna Miller as Andy Warhol’s muse, Edie Sedgwick, the semi-biographical Factory Girl portrays the story of the first woman to be famous for being famous. In 1970 the real Edie was on a daily regime of prescribed drugs (mostly “downers”) supplemented by non-prescribed drugs and alcohol. Although the film has been criticized for its accuracy (notably Bob Dylan trying to sue them for defamation) it is a rich and multifaceted portrayal of Edie’s struggle with addiction and mental illness from an early age. Her charisma and brilliance go hand in hand with her addiction to barbiturates, as they often do in real life. The film ends as it began – with Edie on the psychiatrist’s couch. A final note appears on the screen: “Edie returned to Santa Barbara in 1968 where she struggled to control her drug dependency. She was released from Cottage Hospital for the last time in the summer of 1970. A year later she married a fellow patient. That fall, Edie died from a drug overdose. She was 28 years old.”


This film is about as first-person as it gets, without frills or artistic license, as told by ex-heroin addict Arielle Holmes, who also stars in the film alongside rising star Caleb Landry Jones. Still on methadone at the time of recording, she met director Josh Safdie while asking for change in New York. Safdie was interested in portraying her unpublished memoirs with honesty – and so it was. Heaven Knows What is gut-wrenching and beautiful, portraying the realities of living for another fix and a love entangled in heroin from an unique perspective.