Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Gender, Language, and Scent

Since there's been some general interest, I'll talk a bit about the presentation Angela and I did last week. (FN1)

Angela has already weighed in a bit over here on what it is like to venture out of perfumista land and into the wide world to interact with the natives about perfume. I, however, live here in non-perfumista land, where everyone thinks my ‘hobby’ is alternately cool or crazytown. I have spent literal hours at places like residence hall retreats, talking about perfume to a couple of interested girls and, let’s face it, a remaining houseful of captive college students. Older women (40+), particularly faculty who I suppose are used to everyone having their own weird niche areas of interest, think it’s really interesting. College aged women varying, though at my tree-hugging school I am always surprised just how many of them genuinely want me to talk to them about perfume. Plus, and perhaps this is one of the key differences in my reaction to the presentation from Angela’s, is that I am a 32 year old lawyer who, by virtue of her husband’s work, still lives at college. I live on campus. I eat in the cafeteria. My daily life is peopled with youngins who are (mostly) 10-14 (gah!) years younger than me. I’m always in teaching mode here in part because I end up filling in a mentor/older sibling role, dispensing advice on academics, career plans, relationships, pop culture, whathaveyou. So to go into the symposium with the assumption that not one person in the audience would know jack about perfume and expect me to teach them all about it? That’s par for the course re: my life. (Also, if you're wondering what I wore for our presentation, it was Tauer Perfumes L'Air du desert marocain, and I was told repeatedly how "wonderful" I smelled. This was a big risk for me because I generally don't think of myself as being chic enough or having enough confidence for this one, but I wore it in the hopes that it would give me the confidence to big enough for its beauty, and you know what? It worked.)

To recap the presentation a little bit: Generally, we talked briefly about the history of perfume, the rising prevalence of women in the industry in the roles of creators, taste makers, and art directors due in part to technology (thank you internet!), how this trend in participation ran counter to the classic marketing schemes of scent purveyors by playing to the male gaze and stereotypical fantasy ideas. We then passed around scent strips and asked people if, based on scent alone, they thought the scent was marketed for men, for women, or as a unisex scent, in an effort to get them to reflect on the gendering of scent, and most insidiously, attempts to market whole categories of scent exclusively for "men" or "women" only, subtly gendering not only particular scents but the way we encounter the olfactory world. It’s this last point I’m going to talk a little more about here.

When we, in the world o’ gender studies, talk about patriarchy these days, a lot of what we say falls on deaf ears. There are entire books cover the various reasons that feminism now looks different than it did in say 1975, and that, my friends, is an entirely different post…or possibly whole blog. (FN2) Needless to say though, the rising cost of blatantly being sexist (calling Lilly Ledbetter) in terms of litigation alone has made it much more effective for sexism to operate covertly, expressed as an unstated but mutually understood preference against women for a whole host of reasons people hold as strawmen in an effort to legitimate continuing discrimination. (FN3, FN4) One of the most insidious ways that this covert level of bias continues to underpin discrimination is language.

Man oh man, are we bad about language. And I don’t mean calling me Ms. Instead of Miss/Mrs. (FN5) And I don’t mean referring to “workmen” as “work persons” or “man hole covers” as “person hole covers,” which is always the silly example that anti-feminists like to use in 90 second sound bites in an effort to undercut feminist messages about language and make us sound silly. I mean the specific idea that certain kinds of things aren’t for women or aren’t for men because the way we define them inherently indicates that they are specifically gendered. And when it comes to perfume (and I’m talking here not about our beloved blogosphere which believes in wearing anything you damn well please), the mainstream industry has devoted a TREMENDOUS amount of time and effort into gendering our vocabulary, and therefore gendering the way we encounter the world through smell.

Let’s take, for example, the very popular Old Spice ad from the Superbowl this year. Popularly referred to as the “I’m On a Horse” ad, the actual name is “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.”

This ad is hilarious. I love the use of language. I love the ridiculous iconography. In some ways, I think it’s super transgressive, because it kind of rips on ideals and iconography of hegemonic masculinity. (He boats, he rides a horse, he’s a ‘real’ man!) At the same time, though, I find the whole message so suspect. “Look at your man, now back to me… Sadly, he isn’t me, but if he stopped using lady scented body wash and switched to Old Spice, he could smell like he’s me.”

“Lady scented body wash.” What the hell does that mean? It means that there are specific scents out there specifically for LADIES ONLY. And you do not want your man to smell like a lady. How the hell did we get here? When I smell a rose out in world, I don’t think “Ummmm, ladies.” When I encounter an orange, I don’t think “ummmmmmm, unisex-y.” And when I walk into a fancy shoe store and smell all that fabulous new leather, I do not think, “Ummmmmm, dudealicious.” No! I think, respectively, “rose,” “orange,” “leather.” There is nothing inherently gendered about any of these scents. But within the perfume industry, it isn’t enough to sell people on the idea that they need to smell good all the time, but they also have to smell a particular way to be a ‘real’ man/woman.

One example I used during the presentation was Macy's "fragrance finder." (FN6) Here, before you can ‘find’ the right fragrance, you need to answer, right up front – who are you shopping for? A ‘man’ or a ‘woman.’ And despite the question of "who are you shopping for?", which seems to acknowledge that the buyer may be shopping for someone else, the overwhelming title line on the page is "what's your scent?" What's your scent -- and be prepared to have your gender identity define the contours of your olfactory world and the context it is presented in. This not only promotes a binary gender system that excludes the possibility of flexible or cross sex/gender identities, it also immediately creates in the mind of the buyer that certain kinds of scents are for women only, and certain kinds of scents are for men only.

In this case, specifically “florals” are offered as an interest category to women, while “aromatics” are offered to men. This presumes quite a lot about the natural world, and encodes our understanding of it through scent in a very specific way. Apparently there are no floral scents – no flowers anywhere in the world – that could smell is a way appropriate for a man. Likewise, there are no “aromatic” scents (which to Macy’s means “woody” or “herbal”) that are appropriate for women. Women, do not think about, talk about, or look for reflections of your inner self in the aromatic world.

Further, Though “spicy” is a category proffered for either sex, within the category we once again see the gender divide. “Spicy” for women means “floriental” and (confusingly) “woody” (a differently kind of wood, perhaps?). Spicy for men means “leather” and “amber.” Seriously? No “amber” or “leather” for women? Women who, according to traditional gender stereotypes, love leather shoes and bags? Is leather in scent only taken from sports car leather, which is made in some fundamentally “dudes only” appealing way? How is it possible that so many things that I know, for a fact, I like the smell of cannot compliment or enhance my identity?

And there’s the problem. You can look at what I’m pointing to and say, “Diana, you’re being ridiculous, and you’ve gone over the feminist edge again. They’re just trying to market stuff and this is part of that and at the end of the day they don’t care who buys it.” (FN7) But that is my point exactly. For some reason, every time we sit down to sell something – a car, a soft drink, a scent – we somehow think that if the ad isn’t specific about who this is for and the kind of lifestyle it creates, we’re not going to sell anything. And every time we get into the ‘for whom’ and ‘what kind of lifestyle’ questions, we seem hellbent on gendering them in the most binary and traditional ways possible.

And that scares me some because anyone who has ever tried to write about art, to apply language to a painting or food or a perfume, has realized that it is really fracking hard to do. Writing about what we smell in the world is very difficult; that’s why I’m here. I find it such a challenge, as a writer, to tell you what I am smelling. So when mainstream corporate marketing firms want to take the world of scent around me and gender it, explicitly stating that the world of leather is not for me, I resist. I get nervous. No one ever said a Rothko or a Klempt was inherently masculine or feminine. No one has said that a woman can’t enjoy a good steak and a man can’t love a tiramisu. (FN8) Why does scent, and our experience of the natural world through scent, have to be gendered? How profoundly altered is our engagement with the natural world in this basic way when all the words we have to use to express it carry some sort of gender-encoded meaning? And how sad for us, how limiting and stereotypical, if we let them take something that should be for anyone who finds beauty and intrigue and emotion and expression and identity in something they smell and set it as off-limits because you were born with specific genitalia or embrace a specific gender expression.

Part of what I love about all of you, my blog reading and writing perfumistas, is that it seems that the first rule of Perfume Club is that you get to love whatever you love. That’s it. That’s all. When you wear PerfumeX, you love it. It lights you up inside. And it doesn’t matter if it’s old or new, mainstream or niche, exclusive Paris-boutique expensive or cheap, or marketed specifically as a masculine or feminine. You love what you love. And as our influence on the industry grows through our ability to influence purchases of one another and our readers (and if you don’t think Robin and Patty and March and whomever else is out there writing and swapping and selling samples have influence, you’re clearly not that into perfume), I am hopeful that this insistence on gendering scent will decline. If it’s good, we’ll buy it and wear it, marketing be damned. And we will tell each other, and we will tell our friends and families and people who compliment us as we go throughout the day, “This is what I wear, and it is fabulous” and no one will care which specifically gendered counter sells it. In my ideal world, there isn’t a specifically gendered counter. There’s just the wonderful world of perfume, and our love of it as individuals and as a community.

Viva la scent revolution.

For more on this topic, see:
~ Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 1: Perfume, Advertising, And the Male Gaze
~ Some More Thoughts on "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" and Advertising of Scents for 'Men'
~ Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 2: Sex/Erotica and the Male Gaze in Perfume Advertising
~ Advertising Critique: Prada Infusion d'Iris
~ Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 3: The Exotic and how it relates to the Male Gaze and Majority View in Perfume Advertising

FN1 You're about to experience about the 3/4 force of my feminism and constant ongoing gender critique. It's lengthy, but then, I have this constant stream of gender critiquing going on in the back of my head at all times. (Thank gods David is also a feminist, and enjoys this aspect of my personality.) I apologize in advance if this is not your bag, and I apologize in particular for the footnotes, but I love the digression and the academic in me insist I contain these digressions in some sort of organizational way. Feel free to skip this post if you're just looking for reviews; I'll be back to those tomorrow.

FN2 The different theories deconstructing why second wave feminism and third wave feminism may look and function so differently from one another is one of the most hotly contested areas of navel-gazing, self-reflection among feminists today. (This is, of course, assuming you even think there is a distinction between pre-1978 “Spirit of Houston” walk-out and subsequent meltdown among feminist activists and post-1990s riot grrrl feminist rebirth, which I do. Also, the navel-gazing, self-reflection thing isn’t a knock. I’m as guilty of it as the next feminist. I just recognize we all do it.) Reasons range from: right-wing reactionary messaging against feminism and anti-feminist propaganda (I’m looking at you Phyllis Schafly/Bill O’Reilly/etc.); to the breakdown of a hegemonic idea of feminism into smaller interest groups (i.e. enviro feminism vs. Marxist feminism vs. liberal feminism) and/or smaller identity groups (i.e. feminist of color, GLBTQ feminists, feminists active in issues related to agism or ablism); to sexism transitioning from overt to covert methodologies that make it more difficult to confront and therefore stymie movement. The list of possible reasons goes on and on and is probably a little bit of all of it.

FN3 This is basically true for any class currently protected by anti-discrimination laws because laws require both provable intent and impact. Thus, as long as (a) you can’t thoroughly document ongoing discrimination and/or (b) there are no ‘hot documents’ (as my Civ Pro prof used to say) wherein (for example) corporate HR send a letter/fax/email/etc. to corporate Legal asking how they can avoid hiring the equally qualified and obviously pregnant woman in favor of the not-at-all pregnant man, it’s pretty easy to continue patterns of discrimination based on things like “better fit for the organization/team” etc. If you can’t prove that there was a conscious intent to discriminate in the instant case OR a long-term consistent and otherwise unexplainable pattern of unconscious discrimination, then you’re golden; hence the rise of covert discrimination.

FN4 An example of this sort of strawman is the classic “equally qualified women don’t make as much as men because they might leave the industry to start a family” bullshit.

There are a lot of people, women included, who think that “taking time off” to have a family should be considered as making a choice to be less qualified than a male counterpart. This hides a whole lot of sexist presumptions about who should be taking time to have children(which gets codified into employment policies and law – see Family & Medical Leave Act/leave policies for new moms vs. new dads), to raise children (the maternal presumption in custody cases is a good place to look if you want to know why female employees are more likely to have to leave work to take care of parenting emergencies than male employees), and to choose to sacrifice professional goals for families (basically every stereotype about ‘maternal instincts,’ ‘the angel of house,’ or being a ‘good mother’).

And these presumptions don’t just hurt women; they hurt men who are genuinely interested in being active, present parents. While no one will question the commitment to employment of a man with a pregnant wife (b/c who will support her if he doesn’t work? vs. don’t hire that pregnant woman, she may not return from maternity leave and we will have spent a whole lot of money/time training someone who won’t be here), people are also a lot less understanding when he says, “I need to take time off after the baby comes.” While this is changing and FMLA does try very hard to create equal leave opportunities for men and women related to family care of all stripes, a lot of private employers (my college included) fall much further behind FMLA in equity in leave policies.

FN5 Though I prefer Ms. and that business could be a whole ‘nother post.

FN6 I know for fact that Sephora has a similar set up in stores.

FN7 I could go through print and tv ads for a month deconstructing the gendering of scent and the performative, male-gaze-focused appallingness of basically EVERY SINGLE MAINSTREAM SCENT AD (like the crap going on in the Ralph Lauren Romance for Men/Women ads to the right), but I’m setting that aside for now. You want me to do that here? Tell me. It’s going to take a series of posts, which I will do if there is interest.

FN8 Though, sadly, Nora Ephron weirdly tried in one of my fav rom-coms, Sleepless in Seattle.


Ines said...

Your thoughts are very interesting. And you know what is the strange part for me? I read what you write and agree with all of it, but honestly I don't see it as sign of feminism, I just see this as a normal way a person should think. We are all individuals and gender should in no way be a defying fact for any of us.
The thing is, I don't think of myself as a feminist but I get told by men I am. What I think is that we are all equal and there shouldn't be any difference in how we are treated or seen.
I'm now off to see what Angela wrote. :)

Mals86 said...

"...the first rule of Perfume Club is that you get to love whatever you love. That’s it. That’s all."

AMEN, sister.

I'm attempting to teach my kids some healthy skepticism about advertising.

Anita said...

I love watching budding perfumistas (men and women alike) grow to understand that they 'get to love whatever (you) love". Sometimes it takes awhile "(that's a MAN's cologne (eau d'Imperiale) or "you put FRACAS on your HUSBAND??? (a Neil Morris recommendation, btw. The result was incredibly wonderful)


love your footnotes, btw. :-)

Diana said...

Ines, I think part of the problem with modern feminism is either (a) people who are committed to gender/sex equality do not think of themselves as feminists, or (b) people associate feminism with something other than that fundamental struggle for equality. At the end of the day, though, I think most modern feminists -- whether they identified themselves with a particular subgroup or not -- would tell you that gender/sex equality is the primary and foundational goal of feminism. We just tend to differ on the means to get there and what true equality might look like.

Thanks for your comments. :)

Diana said...

Anita, thanks for the footnotes love.

My husband won't let me put anything on him, so I tend to focus on me and admittedly it's easier to 'get away with' wearing 'men's' fragrances as a woman than vice verse. (Someone, I thought it was Kevin or Lee, but now I can';t figure out who it was, wrote a post about a year and a half ago about getting hassled at a counter trying to buy 'women's' scent for themselves. It made me so sad....) But just generally, I think it's weird that we have this impulse to divide olfactory art into gendered categories when we don't try to do that with paintings or photography or food. It seems like such a terrible way to limit one's self...

ChickenFreak said...

Ines, I'd say that by your explanation of your thoughts, I'd call you a feminist.

I'd definitely say that I am a feminist and I am a liberal. I like to make a point of saying that, because there are so many people in the American political system trying to make people afraid of those words.

Diana, I loved the post, and re footnote 7, I'm interested.

Ines said...

I guess it's official then - I'm a feminist. :) A proud one to be sure.

Diana said...

Yay, another convert! Welcome to the club, Ines. :)

Diana said...

Chickenfreak, (man, do I wish I knew your first name...) I suspected you and Rita (Left Coast Nose) might be interested in the ads part, which I can get around to next week, hopefully.

I also try to be very vocal about claiming my identity as a feminist for the same reason. It seems every year I interact with so many young people who identify with the goals of equality but are "so over labels." Part of me is heartened by that and hopes that the generation gap between me and them means they're progressive in a way I simply can't reach.

The other part of me, though, wants to shake them until they wake up and realize that there much of the progress made in the US toward equality around issues of race and gender in the 1960s-70s is being slowly eroded specifically because no one is willing to stand up and fight for those principles. While we continue to make some progress on the financial front and in job opportunity, we remain stagnant or are loosing ground around issues of reproductive freedom, school integration, racism in criminal law enforcement, etc. etc. So yes, I, too, go around trying to help them realize that being a feminist is not something that was meant only for their mother's generation, that is still relevant, and that is necessary in the face of the FOXNEWS character assassination efforts.

So, I guess, yay for us, perfume feminists!

ScentScelf said...

As with 'fumista-dom, feminist-safe territory is nice to find.

As for gender targeting...I could go on, as well. Maybe we should sometime. I'll just take a moment to point out that Dial is currently running a campaign that flat out speaks that you will "smell like a man," bypassing any Old Spice niceliness of subterfuge. (BTW, I read once that Old Spice used to have a women's offering...back when it was first introduced. Will try to chase that down for you.)

It's everywhere, of course; though my kids are too big and we generally steer clear of the arches, I am hyper dismayed to discover people are still being asked "Girl toy or Boy?" when ordering a meal of happiness.

Bringing it back around to fragrance...the older child is fond of lavender. And is starting wear fragrance. But, despite in-house sensibilities and his own open temperament, found himself asking "for men or women?" when I offered some samples. I knew enough to not hold back the information...but DID wait until after he actually tried them. He knew enough to not complain about that. He also adjusted his attitude a little bit about his mother's weird perfume thing--the perfume thing is still weird, but he doesn't think that the fact that she sometimes wears "man scent" is.

The perfume thing *is* kind of weird, after all. In a positive, intense, aesthetic kind of way. :) I'm the same way about office supplies. My grandmother was that way about sewing "notions," and my grandfather about fishing flies.

I enjoyed Angela's post, and am very pleased to have come across yours. I didn't realize the connection. I have to admit, while I've been lurking for a few weeks, it's only now I get the irony in the blog title.

Makes this Ms. a little sheepish.

Diana said...

Angela told me the Old Spice was actually marketed for women initially, but maybe there was a separate women's line.

I had no idea how many folks in perfumeland were interested in feminism. It surprises me, I guess, because (as the ironic title implies) I don't always associate gender equality with a deep and abiding love for cosmetics, skin care products, and perfume. It's very nice, though. Welcome, and thanks for delurking. I appreciate the comments and support.

The Left Coast Nose said...

So many things here-- almost too much, but I'll take a crack--

First of all *LOVE* the footnotes!! Rock on, Sister!

"Tough Guise": Yes, yes, yes and yes-- should be required viewing for everyone. Especially young people.

Ok. Now. Let's talk grad school-a-grad school, shall we? I have an M.A. in Human Sexuality, which, as I encountered it was a broadened Queer Studies degree. It seems to me that you are conducting a fierce, well-constructed conversation with the perfume industry along Third Wave Feminism lines (How to appropriate and take pleasure from traditional markers of femininity while navigating the male gaze and other lines of power of the patriarchy.)

But, without taking anything away from exposing how women are boxed in, exploited, made to feel inadequate and the rest, how about queering the critique? A dear friend once said so succinctly: "Homophobia is fear and loathing of the feminine."

When I "look" at perfume and think about how it is marketed and targeted, what I am struck by is the fear and loathing of the gay man. (When your hunk in that Old Spice ad warns agains smelling "lady-scented" that's not really what he is saying. He's not using a really ugly word for homosexual man.) (Quick aside-- there is a Ph.D. thesis on markers of both race and class tweaked to reinforce gender and sexual identity conformity in that 30 second ad... It is, simply put,a masterpiece.)

As we all know, the manly man is the most fragile construct of all-- he can be laid low by the slightest brush with anything girly.

Queer theorists stand on the shoulders of giantesses of the feminist movement-- no question. I believe that the traditional constructs of gender and sexual identity serve to punish and constrain all genders--not just women.

There is just so much more to say, but I will think some more and be back...

Diana said...

Rita, I'm actually writing an entire post in response to your note, so thanks for that! (Coming momentarily...)