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Cigarette Girl and Commodity Nationalism

Marina Welker, Associate Professor, Anthropology

Friday, March 1, 4:00 pm

Marina Welker is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Cornell
University. She is the author of Enacting the Corporation: An American Mining Firm in
Postauthoritarian Indonesia (University of California Press, 2014) and Kretek Capitalism:
Making, Marketing, and Consuming Clove Cigarettes in Indonesia (University of California
Press, 2024).

With its recent hit series Cigarette Girl, Netflix is shoring up its market position in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country. Based on a novel by Ratih Kumala, Cigarette Girl weaves a tale of romantic family and business intrigue against a historical backdrop of postcolonial nationalism, political violence, and tobacco industry growth. Examining what Cigarette Girl reveals and conceals about the past, I argue that the series reproduces commodity nationalist aesthetics, fantasies, and ideologies that frame the clove cigarette (kretek) as indigenous cultural heritage. By centering the hand-rolled kretek and Javanese business rivalries, Cigarette Girl obscures how machine-rolled kretek and Chinese Indonesian families actually dominate the market. As the series grapples with other unresolved historical issues, including class and gender inequalities, the 1965/6 massacres, the military occupation of West Papua, and Indonesia’s tobacco-related disease epidemic, it also arrives at politically conservative conclusions.