Rita raised an issue related to two of my feminism, scent, and marketing/aesthetics posts that I want to address right now.
As she helpfully pointed out, there is a heteronormative bias in my critique. It’s true that a lot of advertising involving men and scent is aimed at normalizing the use of scent in a way that makes it an entirely manly thing to do. To care for one’s appearance has been, like so many things, delineated so that to care in some particular ways about one’s grooming or appearance range from marginally acceptable for a woman to entirely associated with womanliness, and in others ways is marginally acceptable for a man to entirely associated with manliness. Scent, in America in the modern age, is thought of as largely the purview of women. Therefore, in order to sell scent to men, two things much be achieved. It must be conveyed that it is acceptable for a man to be interested in caring for his scent and that their scent will enhance them in ways that make them more traditionally manly. Inevitably this leads to men’s ads being hypermasculinized and highly heterosexed to avoid any hint of being feminine or homosexual in the advertising, and thus driving men away by accidentally tapping into latent and pervasive homophobia.
All of that said, the truth of the matter is this: since the 1950s in America there has been a bias toward the belief that women are the real purchasing power in the U.S. market. The 1950s gave rise to the invention of a whole host of things people now think of as permanent – suburbs, the concept of the ‘housewife’ in the nuclear family way the Republican Party likes to pretend has been the natural way of things for eons – and also, as anyone who has ever read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the idea that women may not have the money, but they certainly do the spending. (FN1)
Getting ready for my presentation, I went through several months of magazines, looking for print perfume/cologne ads. I looked through copies of Elle, American Vogue, Glamour, all possessed between six and eight prints ads, at least one of which was for a men’s scent. At the same time, I went through copies of GQ, Maxim, Esquire, and Details.(FN2) Each contain a single scent ad – three for Ralph Lauren's classic Polo and one for Polo Blue. That was it. That’s all. And it said something profound to me, that there were so few print ads in even higher end men’s fashion and culture magazines. I see television ads all the time for men’s scent – specifically in the form of deodorizing spray or body spray.(FN3)(FN4) I see the very rare and occasional genuine men’s perfume ad on TV or in print. But really, the purchasing power, whether we are talking about buying men’s scent or women’s scent, is perceived – true or not – to rest in the hands of women. And when I critique “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” while I see some aspects of heteronormativity and homophobia in there, I can’t help notice that the ad is specifically addressed to women. “Ladies, look at your man…” The idea is of a man women want, who has two tickets to that thing you really love and diamonds and a boat and rides a horse and is stereotypically, hegemonically hypermasculine and hyperheterosexual.
The idea is that women, who are perceived to control the purchasing of the body soap, should be purchasing two and chastising their men for using theirs. It’s an attempt to cajole women into policing masculinity on men’s behalf while simultaneously conveying acceptable scent selection for straight men. And while I am critical of the heteronomalizing and homophobia in the same ways that I will critique the ads for being all about whiteness except when people of color play into certain kinds of fantasies, I find the efforts to make women unconscious collaborators in the persistence of hegemonic masculinity by selling women fantasies about particular kinds of relationships and kinds of men insidious because it works on such a subconscious level. It taps into stereotypes about men being particular kinds of Prince Charmings at the same deep level that it tells women to be Princesses to get them.
So while my focus in critique may come across as heteronormative – and I admit to falling prey to unconsciously reinforcing bias as much as I may try not to in the same way anyone else in a heteronormative society might because those of us with any kind of systematic privilege or who experience any kind of systematic oppression tend to internalize messages that normalize all of this because that’s how the system perpetuates itself -- I am doing something specific here. I am conscious of those other biases being pervasive, and yet I see something specific going on here that I will try to be clear about pointing out. At the same time, I appreciate being called on my own blindness to bias B.S. as long as it’s done in a constructive and friendly manner, as Rita clearly did it, so keep the comments coming. I truly believe we all grow through this kind of dialogue, and it’s this part of me that envies all those 1960-70s American second wavers and their CR groups, but maybe that’s another way technology is benefiting us.(FN5) Maybe we make our own global consciousness raising networks now, and the challenge isn’t to find friendly, like minded folks, but to embrace the plurality and, in the true spirit of the third wave, stick with it and with each other even if we don’t always like what we hear or what we learn about ourselves.
Thanks for challenging me to be clearer, Rita. And thanks to you all for reading.
For more on this topic, see:
~ Gender, Language, and Scent
~ Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 1: Perfume, Advertising, And the Male Gaze
~ 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) As I’ve mentioned, these concepts go back further and cross continents and cultures (i.e. Coventry Patmore’s The Angel of the House), but the modern conception of a housewife bandied about within Americana today is the one I’m speaking directly of.
(FN2) While the title esquire is of British origin and denoted "a high but indeterminate social status," today it is used in a specific way. It's the title for a lawyer. That's right. We're Jane Smith, Esq. So I find it funny that a 'men's' magazine is named for a title in an industry that is increasingly becoming co-ed.
(FN3) Because, Holy MOLY, could those Axe and Tag body spray ads be more homophobic or heteronormative? Even if I ignored all the truly outrageous and offensive depictions of women cast as virgins, whores, or both, who simply LOSE THEIR SHIT when they encounter what is, in reality, some truly foul smelling deodorant, that STILL would not change the fact that the ads are offensive TO MEN! All men! Straight men, who have to deal with stereotypes that perpetuates that not only are they all horndogs, but that they HAVE TO BE all about getting in the panties if they are straight, otherwise they are clearly THE GAY (how terrifying!). But I digress...
(FN4) And just when I think that Axe can't get any weirder or more offensive, they come up with the Chocolate Man ads, which are coded in ways that just boggle the mind.
(FN5) CR stands for consciousness raising. Wikipedia's piece on CR is actually decent and succinct. For a more in depth history of these groups and the role they played in the history of the second wave feminist movement, I recommend Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution and Ann Snitow's The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation.