A Long Straw, Short

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There is an old joke—why do blondes always drink with straws?—with the punch-line being: for practice. Little wonder, as all of the drinking straw’s subtext is sex; its form and function are almost pathetically Freudian, and its symbolism is obvious enough that it feels like cheating to parse it. I have always thought that to drink one’s drink with a straw was significant, given that doing so instantly calls to mind a particular kind of broadly-rendered, performative female-ness: the drinking straw is drag where the costume’s theme is either bimbo-temptress or jailbait, and the objective is either romance or a one-night fake of it. It’s the kind of ‘girlie’ that works best when sketched out at billboard scale for an audience: woman-as-soda-can, or woman-as-letter-to-Penthouse, or woman-as-Bond Girl; which means, I guess, that it’s Pop but it’s also porno. It says, sometimes, Daddy.

Mostly the drinking straw recalls those earliest days of being in love, when you are endlessly signaling want, saying here is my mouth, as if your lips or his lips or her lips are now the whole universe. It’s a sly, new-lovers’ sign language, winking at oral fixation. Or else it’s a stunt: “Sue Lyon sips a milkshake after the movie premiere of ‘Lolita’ at sandpipers in Los Angeles, C.A,” and of course she is tonguing the straw and is sucking her fingers. Of course she is in a pearl necklace, which is its own visual slang. Of course she looks princess-sweet, and then opens her mouth far too wide. How much of Lana Del Rey’s mystique, I wonder, does she owe to the use of a drinking straw? There is a photograph of her standing front of a Cadillac drinking Coca Cola from a glass bottle. In it, the two major differences between Lyon-Lolita and Lana-Lolita are stark: both Lana’s mouth and straw have outlandish, inflated curves. Using a straw is so much a part of the singer’s visual mythology that it occasionally creeps into tabloid picture captioning (“Lana Del Rey drinks from a straw, exactly the way you’d think she would“), and when she does drink from the bottle, it feels like white-trash posturing. Five things which Lana has had in, on, or around her supra-budded mouth in pictures: a diamond, a blue rose, a honey-bee, one or more of her fingers, and a cigarette. Three things she drinks in her songs: Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice, cherry cola, white noise.

Here is another thing about the straw: used properly, it can also act as a shield for fakery. Drinking with one means that everything amplified—lipstick, gloss, a large-scale persona, et cetera—can be preserved at its Most, which is why the straw is beloved by drag queens, and by those who like looking like drag queens, or looking too much. Lana’s pussy might taste like Pepsi Cola, but Pepsi Cola, we’re told, is better when sipped in this style, as we feel its sensations more deeply, and taste it quite differently. Pepsi Cola through a straw reaches more of the tongue. Whiskey-cola sucked through one, according to urban legend, is killer. In dream analysis, the straw means want, need, desire; a conduit; situations in which rash decisions are made, as in: “grasping at straws”. In slang, it means a person you’d sleep with. It’s the tube, but it’s also the hole, so it’s all things to all men.

“Maybe it’s the prissiness of the drinking straw that makes it ripe for perversion.”

Like individual sexuality, too, the drinking straw is sometimes straight, and at other times flexible. Bon Appétit records that in 1937 “Joseph B. Friedman, inspired by watching his young daughter struggle to drink a tall milkshake through a straight drinking straw, inserted a screw into a straight straw, wrapped dental floss around the ridges, and removed the screw.” Why is it always little American girls and their milkshakes perverting pop culture? Lana likes hers “classic white.” Lolita, on Kubrick’s road trip, has chocolate. In Manhattan, Woody Allen’s teen girlfriend drinks, although isn’t, vanilla. The name of the patented “slurpee straw” is so indecent, meanwhile, that it serves as its own innuendo, more so when one considers that, like all average American straws—and unlike all average American men—it’s eight inches in length.

RuPaul once decreed that to feel like a woman the best bet for drinking canned beer was a straw; Rihanna does this often, which is why the lines of her Russian Red lipstick are always pristine, and a small part of why we consider her flawless. It’s a classic glamour-trick that’s instantly learned, but unusual. Early years working in fashion have left me nostalgic for miniature Clicquot bottles with straws in them, though I can’t say that I much liked the industry—even at 19 or 20, you’re never quite young or quite slight enough, or, like Rihanna, unflawed enough, so you drop out or die trying. Maybe it’s the prissiness of the drinking straw that makes it ripe for perversion, its fear of the smudge, or the smear, or of oozing. Drinking from wide-necked bottles with dark-colored lipstick tends look much like the product of sloppy kissing. It’s unkempt. Do it enough, and the drinker or kisser resembles a madwoman, running from trouble or holed in some attic or other. It spoils a good canvas like spilled wine on linens.

Another thing I remember, aside from the Cliquot: using a straw to drink a mojito or four on a date with the man that I love, and his pointing out, afterwards, that I was being coquettish. An old-hat gesture can be so easily slipped on, weighing nothing, and suddenly feel like new again in the right context; this is how Lana gets away with Lolita’s trick, and how RuPaul teaches Rihanna. There are people who say old-school to mean out-of-date, but there are also people who say it in place of classic, or timeless. I am somewhere between the two poles, though it hardly matters. Like making love, like Daddy’s girls, or like diamonds, the sex appeal of the drinking straw is forever.

Philippa Snow is a writer and essayist, living in London; she is the Features Editor of Modern Matter and Kilimanjaro magazines, as well as having written for publications including The Quietus, EROS Journal, i-D and The Guardian.