Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 2: Sex/Erotica and the Male Gaze in Perfume Advertising

Angela and I, in our quest to make heads/tails out of perfume advertising and the traditional gender tropes it succumbs to, divided current ads into five themes that play on different aspects of traditionally and stereotypically gendered fantasy. Much of these idealized images play into the male gaze, forcing the viewer to see the image through the view of a male, despite the market’s clear acknowledgment that most of the buying power rests in the hands of women. The first of these themes I want to talk about it is the most ubiquitous, the most tired, and the most often found in ads that attempt to play to more than stereotype at a time: sex/erotica.

Let’s start with this Ralph Lauren Romance ad pair. On the left is the ad for Ralph Lauren Romance for Women; on the right, Ralph Lauren Romance for Men. Taking on the women’s ad first, I’ll highlight some of the specific things that gender it in a traditionally feminine way, particularly in contrast to the men’s ad. First, The natural setting is much more visible in as the background of the women’s ad vs. the men’s ad. John Berger’s work on Ways of Seeing talks extensively about the continual linkage in visual art between nature/land and women, which ties together concepts of dominance and conquest associated with both. Note that the individuals in the women’s ad image are passive and posed, as if frozen and waiting for the viewer to take the photo, as opposed to active imagery of the men’s ad, indicating a photo caught of bodies in motion.

Again, referring to Berger’s Ways of Seeing, we have see traditional gender messaging repeated: women wait to be taken, men do the taking. I do appreciate, and note, that in the men’s ad the female is at least pictured as active as her male counterpart, which does break some traditionally imaging (say, rather than her lying there, waiting to be ‘taken’), but even that is offset but this trend you see in men’s ads that seem to imply that it is perfectly acceptable and completely masculine and not at all in any way gay to wear cologne, because if you do women will simply lose all control of themselves and become your willing sex kittens wherever they encounter you.(FN1) The other thing I’ll note about the women’s ad that I find discomforting, and which the men’s ad avoids, is the implication of physical control of the woman by the man. The placement of the hands in the women’s ad, which is not an embracing position, like a hug or a caress, but one typically implying physical restraint or control in what otherwise is supposed to be a romantic image is unsettling. This restraint is reinforced by the placement of the shirt in the women’s ad, which is pushed down to mid-forearm and would restrict her ability to pull her arms forward in order to either participate in, or defend herself from, contact she is receiving. I look at this image, and I see a lot of subtle but very real cuing about passivity and control, and when you throw it up against the ad for the same scent ‘for men,’ using the same models in the same setting wearing the same clothing, I think those visual cues become a lot starker. I also think this deeply demonstrates Berger’s point about activity vs. passivity. The ad for the women says, “Be passive; give in,” while the ad for the men says, “Be active, engaged; take what you want.” (FN2)

Speaking of restraint, can we talk for a moment about the Victor & Rolf Flowerbomb ad? First of all, this image does not communicate anything about the scent except perhaps to remind you it has flower in the title. This message could have been far more effectively communicated with, I don’t know, flowers? Perhaps an explosion of flowers? Instead, we get an incredibly thin, implicitly nude woman (you can’t see her lower half, but the implication is clearly ‘no clothes"), weirdly constrained by the packaging for the scent, with her face obscured by cloth. Wow is there a lot of crap going on in here! First of all, face obscured/faceless naked female body? Hard to get more objectifying than that. (FN3) This is especially ironic given that I guess she is supposed to be trying to smell that ‘lovely’ perfume through the massive amount of cloth that, you know, restricts her ability to breath. Given where the ribbon falls as it wraps around her, it’s again clear that the arms from the elbow up remain at the side, making it difficult for her to maneuver against someone who say, wanted to touch her naked body. This ad manages to be simultaneously ineffective and offensive, which makes me less than eager to ever actually try Flowerbomb, no matter how good a fragrance it might be.


Oh god, and restraint?  Can we talk about the Beckham & Posh Spice ads?  Why does he look like he's about to choke her out in EVERY ad? He seriously looks like he's trying to put her in what is colloquially known in law enforcement as a 'take down' move, and -- particularly in the Night ad -- she seems to really like it.  I means she's grabbing at the arm, which could be interpreted as resistance, if it weren't for the enamored face she's making, which seems to say, "Oh yeah, choke me out -- I love it!"  Meanwhile, Beckham stares out at you, the viewer, as if to say, "I'm coming for you next.  Aren't you excited?"  And I'm going on record as saying that this just way too far in terms of kink-related imagery without either of them being on the record as clearly into breath control play.  It doesn't look consensual.  It doesn't look sexy. It just looks vaguely violent and kind of terrifying.


Speaking of ‘just lying there, waiting for you to take” ads, I’ll give this to Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue ad campaign: at least they give you a man or a woman in the docile, vulnerable, objectified position. That said, here in the U.S. market, this guy would probably be considered, given the tiny speedo and oiled chest and compared with traditional hegemonic views of masculinity, as, well, “the gay” as Margaret Cho would say. (FN4) He reads as gay, which means, whether you’re after the supine woman or the supine man, you, as the viewer, are in all likelihood, assumed to be a dude, and looking at these images from the position of the male, dominating gaze.

Last, but not least, probably the most bizarre and offensive of the ads I’ll show you today: Bebe EDP. So many questions! This is a scent for a woman. It’s being sold to women in magazines for women. Why is she naked except for some ankle-breakingly tall uncomfortable heels? Does she have to be terrifyingly skinny?(FN5) Am I supposed to assume that she willingly took up position on a skinny ledge that in no way looks comfortable? And last, but perhaps the most perplexing: the giant bottle, positioned directly as though it is emerging from her vagina! So perplexing, this message. Is this meant to infer that the vagina the heart of a woman, which could be good (source of life) or bad (object waiting to be fucked)? Is she giving birth to the scent -- is it her 'bebe'? Does the scent smell like a vagina? Is that supposed to make me want to buy Bebe, which incidentally is named, literally, “baby” in French? Because when I think actualized, empowered, accomplished woman, I think “baby.”

Anyway, that’s all for now, though more will be coming. As I’ve been doing this, I’ve also started collecting ads that fall into these categories and yet avoid a lot of the same offensive pitfalls. I am also collecting ads that avoid the stereotypes entirely, and to give us all a happy uplifting end to this series (whenever I manage to finish it) so we can all feel hopeful about the direction the advertising might go in.

For more on this topic, see:
~ Gender, Language, and Scent
~ 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'
~ 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) Again, see any of the Ads for Axe or Tag Body Spray. And this taps into some serious virgin/whore stereotypes that advertisers LOVE to leverage to sell stuff. Though there are many, many issues tied up in the male gaze that infuriate and depress me – reinforcement of bad body image and corresponding health issues such as bulimia, anorexia nervosa, etc.; the bracketing of certain opportunities and roles as the exclusive purview of men or women, to the detriment of both; rampant normalizing of images of domestic and sexual violence – one of the worst in my opinion has got to be the continued support for casting women’s sexuality as an object to be obtained in a proverbial game of cat and mouse, wherein a woman is either a virgin/prude or a whore/loose/easy/etc., which continues not only to create sex objects of women but also denies them the agency to define themselves sexually. We like to pretend that the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ freed women to embrace their sexuality, but as long as the virgin/whore complex continues to be reinforced in society, embracing said sexuality in any real sense – comfort with one’s own body, knowledge and experience of sex, the sheer appreciation of joy within the confines of one’s own body (i.e. masturbation) – is to fall off the precarious balancing point and into one side of the chasm (whore), while to follow traditional moirés that deny women sexual agency/knowledge/power is to fall into the other side (prude). Even trying to strike a balance is punished, and is perhaps the most thoroughly punished. A woman who will is a slut, a woman who won’t is a prude, but the woman who looks like she will and then doesn’t is a tease. And that last category, not unsurprisingly, is most often the focus of another debate w/r/t her sexuality – is she a rape victim or did she want it/lead her rapist on? (This gets me into a whole other post about the ‘reasonable man’ standard and how we define rape and really all you need to do to understand my position is to read Catharine MacKinnon’s pieces on rape from Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law.)

(FN2) Okay, a word here on B/D/S/M. First, definitions: b/d – bondage/discipline, d/s – dominance/submission, s/m – sadio/masochism. I have absolutely no problem with people engaging in forms of bondage/restraint, dominance, submission, roleplaying, etc. within the context of a healthy, consensual, adult sex relationship. In fact, B/D/S/M communities and their active participants tend to be better at negotiating consent issues than individuals who are unable to acknowledge their own desires w/r/t BDSM, because methods of consent, safe words/signals, and open and honest communication about sexual fantasies and desires are fundamental and rigorously taught/practiced within these communities.

My problem is that we have no idea what the circumstances are in these ads, which are a snapshot of a moment that does not in any way imply that both individuals have predetermined their sexual comfort zones or created a system for ongoing affirmation of consent or a safe and swift exit from ‘play.’ In fact, the repeated imagery of bondage and dominance/submission within mainstream media not only sends subconscious messages of women as sex objects who can be used without their consent, but it also hurts the B/D/S/M community by making it difficult to acquire mainstream acceptance for certain aspects of play within these very structured and clearly communicated environments.

(FN3) You can, of course. Take any ad where a woman’s head is literally cut out of the image, giving her no identity/personhood beyond the object of her body, or any ad that uses parts of women instead of whole people, and you can get there. Also, you can literally make parts of her body an object, like this Chantal Thomass Osez-Moi! ad.  Because nothing quite says "use me" like making a woman's body simply made up of things you can use.

(FN4) To be fair, by European standards of masculinity, this guy could easily be straight and also considered damned sexy.

(FN5) Have you seen this new study on body image the Girl Scouts Research Institute did? It's worth at least looking at this article, which contains some of the more interesting stats. The bottom line is that, even with education about visual media and stereotypes and body image to the point that girls identify models as unhealthy looking, these girls still want to emulate them, to the point of making themselves ill.  As someone who has worked closely with a young woman who literally cut her life span in half and required ongoing and extensive surgeries and procedures due to disordered eating, let me tell you:  body image is a real issue, a scary issue, and a serious issue.  On this note, I'd like to recommend this list of NEDA recommended speakers, as well as the website/book Andrea's Voice if you're looking for good resources on this topic.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

You only answer, "Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps."

Bvlgari BLV Pour Homme

Another day, another quest for those scents that work well in warmer weather and bring the sunshine in, cold snap be damned.

Bvlgari BLV Pour Homme is described as follows:
Fire and ice. Passion and poise. A study in contradiction-like a woman without regret. Bvlgari's BLV opens with a refreshing burst of ginger and finishes with the full, sensual scents of vanilla, wisteria, and sandalwood. Like the woman who wears it, BLV is a force, a spirit, an unforgettable experience.

Top Notes: Cardamon and Sandalwood
Heart: Juniper Berries, Ginger and Galanga
Base: Ginko Leaves, Grey Teak and Tobacco Flower
The immediate, initial "just applied it to my skin and stuck my face in it" scent is a mishmash of spicy, sticky, sweet, tangy, synthetic mess. Luckily, I will always wait about 10 minutes, even for the worst stuff, before giving up and going off to scrub, and in this case I am really glad I waited.

This is foodie in the way that Indian food is spiced and flavored, which I suspect is a result of the strong cardamon top note. I'm guessing it's the combination of ginger and sandalwood. Smoked meat? Very traditionally masculine. This scent seems like a combination of fence building sweat, dry rubbing down meat for the smoker, the sweet smell of wet grass stuck to your legs from mowing, and maybe a little grease and oil from working on the car. In other words, it reminds me of the manly things men do in Texas in the summer. (Except that my mom did all the mowing and we got other people to build fences, work on the cars.) But yes, it smells like the kind of scent that someone created to embody traditional masculinity when you smelled it.

So in my quest to experience scent in the widest ways possible in an effort to enjoy the scents and improve my nose, one of the ways I try different smells is to close my eyes, open my mouth, and inhale in order to taste the scent. This is, admittedly, a little weird. That said, sometimes I notice things I'd otherwise miss. This has a salty edge like the taste of kissing sweaty skin and tastes of cardamon, cumin and chili powder. After about an hour, BLV get sweeter because you get more of the sandalwood and tobacco flower.

This is one very sexy scent. I would have a hard time resisting anyone wearing this scent. It's spicy and sweet and has a lot of heat to it. It's a very heavy, aggressive scent with a lot of sillage and a lot of muscle, and the person wearing it would have to have a lot of confidence in their own sexual prowess to truly carry it, but if they did -- wow. Like Johnny Depp in, well, anything, or Penelope Cruz in VickyCristinaBarcelona, or Scarlett Johansson in Match Point, they have to know that people want them, and revel in it.

Nordstrom and Sephora carry Bvlgari Pour Homme, but you can get huge amounts of it from places like Amazon and Overstock.com significantly discounted. My 1.5ml sample, which went a long way, I got for 50 cents from Rei Rien.

"If you can't make your mind up, we'll never get started,
and I don't wanna wind up being parted, broken-hearted.
So if you really love me, say yes,
but if you don't dear, confess,
but please don't tell me
'Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.' "

- "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps)," Osvaldo Farrés (You can listen Cake's version here)

I frequently have a tough time finding reviews of commercial scents. This one is no exception. You'll just have to try it yourself.

Science has proven that heartaches are healed by the sea...

L'Artisan Ananas Fizz

It's been a long weekend, and not nearly as productive as I'd like. I'm working on the next aesthetics post, but I couldn't sleep last night because David was out with work related things until almost dawn. For an unemployed girlie, I certainly am a busy little bee lately. Job search season will do that for you. I've been digging though my samples looking for warmer weather items, because as the days get longer and the nights get shorter, we're having a fair amount of nice, sunny weather.

Anne Flipo created Ananas Fizz in 2004 as a limited edition summer fragrance. L'Artisan describes it as follow,
Ananas Fizz in the
collector's edition bottle

The sparkling fragrance of Victoria pineapple from the Reunion Islands is in the heart of this exotic cocktail. Coconut cream and rum lend smoothness and sensuality to the effervescent composition, while grapefruit brightens it, balancing the delicious sweetness. A happy, sunny perfume that refreshes on a hot day and reminds of summer all year round.

Notes: grapefruit, rum, pineapple, coconut milk, cedar.
On me Ananas Fizz is really light on immediate application , it's a little sweet and has a nice bitter edge that reminds me of orange rind. It's not at all lemony, and I do get some pineapple, but it is more like a faintly flavored pineapple hard candy than an actual piece of pineapple. If it were a piece of pineapple, it would seem under ripe and kind of watery. I do eventually get a little hint of wood, but I never get any of the rum or coconut that other people sometimes get. I definitely don't get creamy, but I do get the fizzy.

Ananas Fizz is an incredibly light scent, which would be hard to over apply and might be best if it were applied with the "spray yourself wet" technique. I'd love to give credit to the person I first noticed talking about "spraying one's self" until there your skin was literally wet, not just misted, in order to fully experience the real strength and beauty of certain fragrances, but I can't remember who I saw mention it first. When I encounter a scent I find very faint or light, I always try to use the "spray til wet" approach on the other arm to ensure that I am appropriately experiencing the scent. This can be really hard to accomplish with a 1ml sample, so I have to kind of dump half to the whole sample and hope I take good notes.

Having tried it with a light wand and a half-dump, here's what I can tell you. It's light, it's nice, it doesn't smell fake or synthetic. It sits close to the skin and is the sort of scent that compliments the wearer, rather than demanding the wearer carry it. I like it very much. It's the sort of scent I'd need the big bottle of, though, because it's so light it would take a lot of spraying to keep it going. One of the nicest things about it is how well it would work for hot weather, giving you a lovely scent without being suffocating in the heat. This is one I'd recommend for a trip home to the Gulf in the summer, or even in Spring for Jazzfest or the Rodeo.

I haven't tried a lot of pineapple scents. While digging around for reviews of Ananas Fizz, I discovered that pineapple is a more common scent theme than I had anticipated. Before I dropped $135 on a bottle of Ananas Fizz, I'd try some of the others. That said, I can see a lot of ways making a pineapple scent could go wrong -- too strong, too sweet, too candied, too fake, too chemical. The only thing wrong with Ananas Fizz is that it is probably too light and doesn't last long enough.

Does anyone out there have pineapple scent recommendations? I'd love to hear them.

It doesn't appear you can get Ananas Fizz directly from L'Artisan anymore since it was a limited edition 2004 Summer scent, but there are still a number of outlets that have it. Luckyscent has 50ml bottles for $95, and various Amazon sellers have the 100ml bottles for $135.  FourSeasons has both. There once were body products of the same scent available, but I don't know if you can still find them. Luckyscent and The Perfumed Court have samples.

"So bring me two pina coladas,
one for each hand.
Let's set sail with Captain Morgan
and never leave dry land.
Troubles? I forgot 'em.
I buried 'em in the sand.
So bring me two pina coladas,
She said good-bye to her good timin' man..."

- "Two Pina Coladas," Garth Brooks (You can listen to a version of the song here)

Want more reviews? Try...
~ A review from Robin at Now Smell This!
~ A review from Ayala at SmellyBlog
~ A review from Perfume-Smellin' Things
~ A mention from Would Smell As Sweet
~ A mention among Savvy Thinker's summer scents
~ A mention from Quinn Creative

Thursday, March 25, 2010

You're so pretty, the way you are...

Paul Smith London for Women

David and I had a lovely lunch with the in-laws today.  I generally find my need for their approval terrifying, but it was a really nice lunch of thai food and conversation.  They recently retired to Washington State after a lifetime in Bakersfield, California, and the change seems to be treating them well as they were visibly happier than I'd ever seen them.  In my rush out the door, I grabbed my sample tin so I could scent myself in the car.  This is a risky proposition, generally, because who knows what you'll get or if you or anyone else around you will like it.  My sample grab-bag lunching resulted in this post.

Introduced in 2004, London for Women is described as,
A soft, sultry, and voluptuous fragrance from British designerPaul Smith. Luscious lime and the naturally bitter note of neroli. Lilac leaf, jasmine, heliotrope, aniseed, and vanilla all soften the bouquet. Fresh seringa maintains a modern zappy-happiness. Amber deepens the base notes, woven through with green woodsy accents. In a cute, curvy apothecary bottle of crushed-cranberry colored glass.
My immediate impression of London for Women is that the top notes create a jumbled scent of Aqua Net and good gin, like you'd expect Joan Harris of Mad Men to smell. It's a liquored smell that in my mind is all about juniper berries and a slice of lime. It's sharp and smells chemical, though not necessarily in a fake way. After about twenty minutes it becomes sort of thickly sweet, and I picture a G&T backed by a chaser of heavily sugared and milked coffee, served in a copper mug so it had a vague taste of pennies to it. There's also a kind of sharpness, like white pepper or red chili flakes. If there is a greenness to it, it's a bitter smell, that makes me think of the kind of reaction one might have to chewing large, wet, waxy leaves of a marginally poisonous plant. After an hour, whatever it has in the way of 'woodsy notes' is conveyed in a very sweet, powdery dry scent that reminds me of some of the very pink canisters of loose powder and fake fur puffs I got as a child.

Looking through the reviews on MakeUp Alley, I saw people describe this as "amber vanilla," tabacoo-y," "cold medicine-y," "sultry," "creamy," and "cherry almond." I think there cherry almond is the description I see the most, in that there is definitely an Amaretto thing going on in there at times. The wildly divergent experiences of this one make me think that it's very different on a lot of people. If I get the cherry almond, it's definitely on the way between the Joan Harris scent and the syrupy sweet coffee thing...perhaps there's Amaretto Torani Syrup in the coffee? It's a strange little puzzle of a fragrance to be sure.

Now all of this could, and in fact does, add up to some pretty mixed feelings on my part. On the one hand, the stinging opening, while unexpected, is nice once you get used to it. The middle is both so sticky sweet and bitter at the same time it seems like kind of a mess. The last bit isn't bad, but rather ho-hum in its boring indiscriminate powderiness. I liked the front despite it's assaulting nature; I didn't hate the end, I just thought it was boring. The middle is a rough transition between the two that makes me think that if a few notes had been swapped, this could have been excellent all the way through. Personally, I found it vaguely disappointing after such a unique open, but I can see how others might like it.

You can buy Paul Smith London for Women in a lot of places, from department stores to retail outlets like Target and online vendors like Amazon. You can get a mini of this one for as little as $6.99, and I got my sample from Rei Rien for a mere 25 cents, so I know if like this one, you can get it for a discount price with very little effort. That said, it does look like this one has been discontinued, so grab it on its way out if you want it.

"Love, love.
You say that you want it,
but you won't change me."

- "Pretty," The Cranberries (You can listen to the song here)

Couldn't find any reviews of this one, so you'll just have to try it yourself.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Some More Thoughts on "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" and Advertising of Scents for 'Men'


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.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

You better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone...

DSH Perfumes Festive

Despite this being part of DSH's holiday scent line, and despite my happiness at the arrival of Spring here in the PNW, it got cold and wet again today, so I drove back into my inter samples to get a few more in before it seemed seasonally inappropriate.

Festive is a 2000 Holiday Fragrance from Dawn Spencer Horowitz's Parfums des Beaux Arts. According to the Parfums des Beaux Arts website,
This spicy green scent will put you in the Holiday mood! This not-too-heavy holiday fragrance is warm and sexy enough for parties, but is light enough for daily use…to make any day a holiday.

Composition -- Top notes: Spice Notes; Middle notes: Fir Needle, Spruce; Base notes: Incense Notes, Sandalwood.
I really enjoyed Festive. My immediate impression is of the smell that unscented, melted candle way smells. It has this slightly sweet, oily smell, that I find deeply pleasant, but then I was the kid who liked playing with candle wax whenever a strong thunder storm and attendant high winds knocked out the power. As I struggled to put my finger what I found unique and desirable about Festive, the first two comparable scents that came to mind were CB I Hate Perfumes In the Library and CB I Hate Perfumes Fire From Heaven. Comparing them to one another, Festive is slightly sweeter and has more medicinal and fir tree qualities than In the Library. Compared to Fire from Heaven, Festive is more fleshy in quality than fiery/smokey. It's sweeter, in a warm and yet floral way, than Fire from Heaven. Fire from Heaven, by comparison, is more acrid, making Festive far more comparable to In the Library, despite the similar flame-y themes.

Around the two hour mark, where In the Library smells light beige, like the faded pages of a book, Festive smells...blue. Light blue. I don't know how else to describe it. It's like the flame natural gas makes when it burns...blue and sort of cold looking, but it isn't cold, it's warm, and lovely and still sort of sweet in a way that In the Library isn't. Blue like a blue spruces are blue, light an undercoating of blue that is salty like sea salt and clean like nuzzling a well-soaped neck. Around the three hour mark, In the Library and Festive are still distinguishable, but less so. I'd say at this point they are more similar than different, which I think is a good thing.

This is a beautiful scent. If Fire From Heaven reminds me of the incense they use on Catholic High Holy Days, then Festive reminds me of the smell of taper wax that I've held and smelt and prayed over at so many events marking days of celebration, sadness, or remembrance -- from funerals to holiday celebrations to protests to vigils for sexual assault survivors or Iraq war veterans or soldiers and civilians that died in war or hundreds of other heartfelt/breaking causes. So when I smell this scent it reminds me of all the times I've stood in prayer and solidarity with other activists. Maybe not a "festive" mental image per say, but definitely a heartfelt one.

And I have to say, it's strange to write this review just days after the establishment of what is arguably the largest and most comprehensive entitlement program since the New Deal. While I have mixed feelings about the way this all went down, and tend to agree with those feminists and activists who feel that this step forward comes at the cost of a huge step backward for reproductive freedom particularly for poor women, I am nonetheless pleased that domestic violence victims will no longer be denied coverage, that children, who make up the largest segment of the uninsured population in this country, will have expanded access to health care, that lifetime caps will be illegal, that preventative care will not require a co-pay, and a host of other improvements will now be law. So my joy is tempered with some sadness, and the hope that feminists will see this as a call to put their representatives on notice that we expect to see the repeal of the Hyde amendment and other efforts to make abortion prohibitively expensive end in our lifetime.

While I am pleased that pregnant women who chose to carry their pregnancies to term will have greater access to health care for themselves and their children, I don't believe that creating an environment where someone has to carry a child to term because they cannot afford to terminate (particularly when financial hardship might be the very reason they are seeking to end the pregnancy) is any kind of choice. I also have to say that I was sadly unsurprised that House Rep. Neugebauer, who yelled "baby killer" at Rep. Stupak as he voted Yea on the bill, was from Texas. One more reason to be thrilled I no longer live there and one more sad moment of commentary on the state of discourse regarding reproductive freedom in America. Whatever my feelings toward Rep. Stupak are, and trust me when I say that he fills me with ill will, he doesn't deserve that. But then, that's my point, really. No one deserves it, particularly not women making the hardest decision they've ever had to make. But I digress...

Also, there are a number of ways this isn't a completely comprehensive bill, which I think is worth noting only so we can keep in mind that there are still improvements to be made. Again, all that nay-saying aside, I really am thrilled about the bill passing. It's a huge accomplishment, particularly for Democratic Party leadership, who have been working on a comprehensive health care solution for decades. It's proof positive that times really are changing.

Wow, that got all unexpectedly feminist. Guess I can't help myself. <grin>

You can buy Festive from DSH perfumes in a variety of forms -- EdP, perfume oil in a pulse roller, and in a shea body butter.

"Come senators, congressmen,
please heed the call.
Don't stand in the doorway.
Don't block up the hall.
For he that gets hurt,
will be he who has stalled.
There's a battle outside
and it is ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
and rattle your walls,
for the times they are a-changin'."

- "The Times They Are A-Changin'," Bob Dylan (You can listen to the song here)

Want more reviews? Try...
~ A review from All I Am - A Redhead

Monday, March 22, 2010

Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 1: Perfume, Advertising, And the Male Gaze

I want to take a moment to dedicate this series to the late, great Dorothy Berkson, who taught me everything I know about feminist aesthetics, and to Jeff Gauthier, who continues to teach feminist aesthetics at a university where it would not be taught otherwise.

So let’s talk about advertising, shall we?

When Angela and I sat down to talk about our presentation, one thing we talked about pretty extensively was the presence of certain kinds of themes within perfume advertising.(FN1) While, generally speaking, every single kind of ad is trying to sell you a fantasy, from the clothes washing soap that improves clothing quality to the motor vehicle that magically makes your annual family road trip one your kids want to participate in even as surly teenagers, Angela and I broke down perfume advertising into a handful of categories of fantasy. While these categories are frequently crossed to hit wider market share with the same campaign, each of them, in my opinion, is extremely problematized from a feminist perspective because they are all completely held captive by body image problems, perpetuated stereotypes of unhealthy sex relationships, and traditional male gaze inspired imagery that continue to associate men with action and control and women when passivity and submission. (FN2)

Because not everyone is well-versed in feminist aesthetics as an academic field (though a lot of it is probably obvious to anyone who has ever done any academic work in feminism), I’m going to go over some basics of feminism, the body, and art right now. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.(FN3) Aesthetics generally refer to the categories of art that are created purely for artistic merit and enjoyment rather than functional use. Traditionally this has referred to “painting, music, literature, and sculpture, and it excludes crafts, popular art, and entertainment.” (FN4) This distinction historically existed to separate out high or fine arts from more functionally related arts and crafts. This is notable because historically the fine arts were dominated by men rather than women, while crafts were the primary purview of women. (FN5)(FN6) More recently, though, feminist aesthetic critiques have been extended to include popular music, film, television, and even advertising. When it comes to evaluating film, television, and visual advertising, Laura Mulvey's essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," is foundational in defining the role of the “male gaze” in visual art. (FN7)(FN8)(FN9) Mulvey’s critique takes some of the feminist aesthetics critique made of fine art (painting, sculpture, etc.) and applies them to film in order to demonstrate the “power asymmetry” that continues to pervade art. One of the symptoms of power asymmetry, the male gaze demonstrates the pervasive, subconscious, and structural presumption that the viewer is a man and that good art, enjoyable art, ‘fine’ art, is that which appeals to the male viewer.
The defining characteristic of the male gaze is that the audience is forced to regard the action and characters of a text through the perspective of a heterosexual man; the camera lingers on the curves of the female body, and events which occur to women are presented largely in the context of a man's reaction to these events. The male gaze denies women agency, relegating them to the status of objects. The female reader or viewer must experience the narrative secondarily, by identification with the male. (FN10)(FN11)
The concept of the male gaze, Freudian psychoanalytical roots aside, is really useful when we talk about issues related to female body image, advertising, and the general presentation of women in visual media. Stereotypically women are presented as passive and consumable, whereas men are portrayed as active and as consumers. A woman will be seen, for example, lying or sitting, surrounded by supple fabrics or consumables like food. The whole image indicates that the entire scene, and everything in it, is waiting for the viewer, to be accepted or rejected, consumed and enjoyed or rejected and discarded.

Men, by contrast, are shown in motion, or if stationary, standing squarely, or posed next to items that indicate movement (i.e. in classical paintings, on a horse; in current photography, next to a car or motorcycle). The scenes that surround them tend to be images that convey strength and dominance, frequently through violence (i.e. in classic painting, scenes of war or ‘subduing the land’) or scenes that cast them in their arena of accomplishment (i.e. a learned man with books). Female figures may look down or away; when they do look at the camera, it is what could be described, colloquially, as a “come hither” look. By contrast, male figures will stare, rather frankly, out at the viewer as if to challenge them.(FN12)

When we look at modern advertising, particularly print advertising, it is fraught with this kind of imagery. In this respect, fragrance is not all that much better or worse as an industry than almost any other industry. Still, and I mean this in the way I am troubled by the language issue, I am troubled by the fact that the world of scent is so specifically gendered and desperate to use the same tired tropes to sell something that, in the natural world, has no sense of gender. This played out and put on set of roles has nothing to do with whether something smells good or is worth wearing, and yet we just seem intent on selling and consuming, and therefore becoming, these same old roles. JT is posed at his soundboard, mixing his music that is his arena of accomplishment, gazing out at the viewer.

Meanwhile, Marc Jacobs' advertisers felt the need to advertise Daisy by resting the giant bottle right on the virtually naked body of a woman laying prone in the grass, just waiting for the first man who stumbles into her to take what he wants; apparently Daisy will help make sure he stumbles into you. (FN13)

I think we can do better than these ridiculous ‘fantasies,’ and as far as I can tell, the only way to convince anyone to stop this tired crap is to simply refuse to reward them for the effort. There are a lot of reasons I tend to stick to the world of independent, ‘niche’ perfumery, but one of them has got to be that Christopher Brosius, Dawn Spencer Horowitz, Andy Tauer, Ineke Ruhland, Ayala Moriel, Anya McCoy, Roxana Villa, and every other independent perfumer I’ve come across seem to be doing well without this kind of crass sex/gender essentialism. And if I only have a few dollars to spend a month and I’m going to spend it on perfume, I choose to spend that money on artists who do not feel the need to feed me a line about the kind of woman I’m supposed to be or the kind of man I’m supposed to want in order to sell me their wares.

To that end, I’ll be posting a series of ads over the next couple of weeks and critiquing the faux fantasies they use to sell perfume by appealing to stereotypes of female beauty and playing to the male gaze. For those of you feminists out there, I hope you enjoy the series. For those of you looking for perfume reviews, I promise to intersperse them so everybody gets a little of what they want.

For other posts in this series, see:
~ Gender, Language, and Scent
~ 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) We broke perfume advertising up into roughly 5 categories, though some ads fall into multiple categories. I'll talk more about those later in this series of posts, but let me say right now that I owe Angela a lot of thanks for helping me with this whole project.

(FN2) These are some basic precepts of feminist aesthetics, which I will be exploring in more detail in this series.

(FN3) "Aesthetics," Merriam-Webster Online, [Viewed March 20, 2010].

(FN4) “Feminist Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),”
[Viewed March 20, 2010].

(FN5) I am, for the purposes of short hand within this series, going to refer to artists known or believed to be male sexed and male identified as “men” and female sexed and female identified artists as "women." This is with no intention of reflecting any indicators about specific artist’s sex or gender identity unless otherwise noted, and in no way indicates any relationship to their sexual orientation unless expressly specified. To make sure we all know the difference, let me just note: “sex” or “sexed” refers to specific genitalia that a person is born with indicating male/female/intersexes reproductive organs; “identified” or “gender” or “gendered” refers to the specifically expressed gender identity one chooses, be that male, female, unisex, or other. While sex is biological, gender is merely an outward expression that is defined in large part by cultural norms and is considered performative rather than inherent. Individuals with the same sex/gender expression (i.e. female bodied and female identified) would be referred to as cisgendered; those whose sex and gender are not the same (i.e. male bodied but female identified) would be referred to as transgendered. Sexual orientation is related to neither of these, and instead refers to an individual sexual desires vis-à-vis others, and can be but is not necessarily related to sex or gender-identity (i.e. gay/bisexual/lesbian/queer/questioning/etc.) For the record, I am female bodied, female identified (making me a ‘woman’ in the general parlance of our time) and I am queer, though I am married to a male bodied, male identified person who is also queer.

(FN6) By the way, I am not being this precise because it is my intention to police language or otherwise be politically correct. I’m being specific because it’s important to make these distinctions when talking about sex, gender, sexual orientation, feminism, etc. because there is a lot of biological essentialism that goes on, purporting that because a person has specific reproductive organs, they act in specific ways or are more inclined to have specific traits. Biological essentialism is basically bullocks despite a lot of people making extremely large amounts of money trying to exploit these so-called inherent differences in order to perpetuate stereotypes and discrimination. You don’t have to my word for it, either. I suggest you look at the work of neurobiologist Lise Elliot, an amazing doctor, scientist, and researcher who has done tons of research and writing debunking biological essentialist claims that women and men are radically different in neurobiological development, and has written two books, What's Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life and Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps -- And What We Can Do About It. I highly recommend the latter, which was just published this last year.

(FN7) Scentself (Of Notes from the Ledge) noted in the comments section that John Berger's Ways of Seeing should also be credited for examining the gendering of art through the viewer's perspective and she is absolutely right. I could not find the full text of the book of essays online, but you can get it from a local library or parts of essays online and it's DEFINITELY worth reading. It will blow your mindhole. Also, it's pretty good background stuff for Mulvey and makes her work more accessible.

(FN8) The essay is, admittedly, on the theoretically thick side, but if you’d like, you can read it here. I definitely recommend watching Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” right after, or contemporaneously, to reading the piece. When you can connect the critique to the visuals, the argument is much clearer.

(FN9) It’s worth noting that Mulvey later wrote that her article was meant to be a provocation or a manifesto, and not a reasoned academic article that addressed all possible critiques of or objections to her position. Mulvey addressed many of the critiques and changed some of her positions in "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’” which can be found here.

(FN10) “Male gaze - The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia,” [Viewed March 20, 2010].

(FN11) For a hilarious and fantastic example of film that both demonstrates and cuts against the “male gaze,” may I recommend the original 1939 version of “The Women”? DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT watch the 2008 remake. The original is a brilliant film that demonstrates the way women’s lives revolved around their relationships to men, the focus on men’s wants and desires and how that completely defines and shapes their lives, without ever showing a single man on film. (The remake utterly fails at accomplishing any of this.) During the filming, other than Director George Cukor, there were no men on the set during filming either, which was groundbreaking in 1939. I cannot describe how amazing the film is, how the women seem like planets that orbit a sun, even after the sun disappears from their lives. They have no sense of self beyond their relationships to men, and really underscores the problem of the male gaze.

(FN12) Women are also frequently pictured completing domestic work or with children while men are pictured in council, making decisions or in traditional roles of power. While this is a historically accurate reflection of power structures in the Western world, it also perpetuates stereotypes that this has been, and is, the natural way of the world. I could say more, but Mulvey says a lot of it already and really that’s a whole other post.

(FN13) I’m not even going to start on those white panties and bra that are intended to imply purity, innocence, and adolescence. (Yick.)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter...

Memoire Liquide No. 205 Vanille Florentine

Spring has sprung here in Portland, finally. The vernal equinox bought lots of sunshine and warmer weather, and just in time in my opinion. We've had a mild winter, but it's been a long one and I am ready for a change of scenery. Each year this change of meteorological tempo brings a surprise. In various places around campus, sometime during the fall, they plant tulips in various hues. You can always tell it's Spring here when the tulips start to bloom. So, in my mind, when I think Spring, I don't necessarily think "greens" like everyone else. (I think "green" in summer.) No, for me, Spring means flowers, lots of lovely flowers. And, therefore, sweet and lovely floral scents.

According to Studio Beauty Mix,
A unique symphony of exotic Vanilla accords, Florentine Iris and warm resinous notes composed in dreamy harmony decoratively packaged with a convenient roll-on vial.
My basic impression: candyfloss and something fruity. I've never smelled a Florentine Iris, so I don't know if a mildly citrus or melon like edge exists in the flower, but it's definitely here. There is definitely iris there, but mixed with this much candyfloss, it comes off as a little sour and melon-y and reminds me of the smell of cantaloupe.

In my opinion, iris tends to be earthy and realistic or classic and dignified, even in the most pop-y incarnations, like Prada Infusion d’Iris. But if a typical pop music iris is like the Bangles covering Simon & Garfunkel's folk hit "Hazy Shade of Winter," then this is like the Lady Gaga extended dance remix of the same song. It's big, it's loud, it's in your face and it goes on and on. That doesn't mean it is bad. But be prepared: it is what it is. This perfume oil lasts and lasts, I could still smell it faintly when I woke up the next morning, some eight or nine hours later.

Memoire Liquide says that their oils are "designed to layered and mixed, complimenting each other beautifully, but stand alone as well." I can't imagine layering this one with anything else though because it is so much of itself. Maybe Memoire Liquide Champagne et Mure #900, because it is gentle enough, but even that might push this super sweet scent over the top, placing the wearer at risk of insulin coma. If you're going to try this one, I strongly suggest that you do so at your own olfactory peril if you don't really enjoy the prospect of smelling like cotton candy. Even as candy flosses go, this isn't my favorite, but I can see some people just loving it. I'm sure, given the sweetness, that this one would be meant more for 'women,' but I'd love to see a man try it. I think the paradoxical image of someone traditionally masculine identified wearing this super sugary scent would be awesome. Given that I really enjoy candy flosses, I certainly would be willing to give anyone, male or female, wearing this one a nuzzle.

You can buy the perfume essence of Vanille Florentine in a 15ml for $65 from BeautyHabit who I love and is always generous with the samples, but if you want the whole line, StudioBeautyMix appears to be the place to by Bespoke Perfumery online. They have the perfume essence in 7.5ml, 15ml, or 30ml, plus an EdP spray, a bath & shower gel, a lotion, and a massage body and bath oil. I also found the 15ml on sale for $48 right now at Bird.

"Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces.
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here.
Here comes the sun.
Here comes the sun and I say it's all right."

- "Here Comes the Sun," Beatles (You can listen a Nina Simon sing it here)

I couldn't find any other review of this one. If you've tried it, please comment below to let us know what you think.

Flower image from Nancy J. Ondra at Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. The bottle is Memoire Liquide and the last photo, obviously, is Lady Gaga.

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 drugstore.com 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
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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.