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Gender and Perfume

October 14, 2013

Gender is socially constructed. The binary of masculine vs. feminine is also a social construction. The characteristics associated with a gender are learned ideas that are specific to a culture. Each individual within the culture has their own set of associations with each gender, drawing from their own experience of women and men and from received cultural norms. In different parts of the world and at different times in history, the defining characteristics of each gender shift, borrow from each other, expand to include more and constrict to include less. As much as we might like these characteristics to be neutral and non-hierarchical, they come with baggage. Because women historically and globally have had and continue to have less power in society than men, there are different values placed on “masculine” and “feminine” and on the assumption of traits associated with one by a member of the opposite one. The binary nature of gender’s construction insists that something must be one OR the other, cannot be both or some combination of the two, or a third different one, a combination of three, or something else entirely. The power differential between men and women places a negative value on the feminine in relation to the masculine. For a man to assume characteristics of a woman (to wear women’s perfume, for example) is to be reduced in status/power/importance. In contrast, for a woman to assume male attributes, to wear a suit, to make more money than men, to be in a position of power over men is considered a threat to the dominant cultural norm. Of course none of this is cut and dried, and due to the ever-changing definition of the genders, there is a shifting field of forces at play. And it’s different wherever and whenever you look. Women wearing pants or smoking were once considered scandalous, now they are normal, even while smoking is undergoing its own shift in acceptability.

What does all this have to do with perfume? Manufacturers market perfumes as either masculine, feminine or unisex. Depending on an individual consumer’s received understanding of these categories, perfumes will either appeal to them or not. A woman who wants to appear/seem/smell/be feminine might choose a fragrance thus marketed. Likewise a man seeking to appear/seem/be/smell masculine might choose a masculine scent. Some of the traits associated with each gender in perfume advertising:

Masculine: Strong, sporty, tough, popular, sexy.
Feminine: Delicate, chic, seductive, mysterious, sexy.

However, all the traits I’ve listed above can also apply to the opposite sex as well. There are tough sporty women, and delicate mysterious men. Someone might choose a perfume exactly because for them it symbolizes exactly the traits normally associated with the opposite sex. Or avoid a perfume for the same reason. Because gender is such an important and strongly enforced binary in most societies, our associations with it tend to be quite strong. A man might wish he could wear a perfume he loves, but be inhibited from doing so because he is concerned that others will perceive him as being feminine as a result. He may choose to do so knowing full well others will perceive it as feminine and take delight in the ensuing confusion. A woman might avoid or adore a perfume because it reminds her of her father who she hates or her grandmother who she adored, respectively. She might wear a perfume knowing no one likes it but taking a secret pleasure in this. For every moment, every mood, every character we might like to play, costume we might like to dress up in, food we might like to taste, land we might like to visit or experience we might like to have there is probably a perfume that will give us just a little whiff of it. This is the intensely personal nature of perfume’s appeal.

Each individual’s associations with any particular perfume material is entirely his or her own, influenced as it is by their upbringing, culture, individual life experience, learning, and development. Truly there is nothing to say that a rose is feminine and a wood is masculine. Okay, a rose is pink, it smells pretty, it looks like a vagina, and it is delicate. A tree trunk is phallic, strong, big and outdoorsy. Intrinsically, roses and most trees both share characteristics of both genders and are in fact sexed organisms. There are male and female pussies as there are male and female dogs. It is only through association that we link anything, whether an animal, a color, a smell, an object, a profession, a garment with a gender. There are male and female (and inter-sexed) human beings but there are not male and female perfumes.

All this being said, wear what you want. If it makes you uncomfortable because you smell like your grandmother or your father, or you don’t want people to think you do, avoid it. No one is forcing you to wear anything. I personally like some fragrances very much but I’m simply too concerned about the confusion it might cause to wear them publicly, much as I might want to. I also can’t shake the feeling when wearing certain scents that either I smell like a drag queen or an old lady. I actually wish I didn’t have these thoughts, but there they are. If someone kept us in a cage and fed us only oranges for a year, it might be difficult to develop an appreciation for the scent of oranges thereafter. Because of the powerful link between smells and our memories and emotions, try as we might we can’t always shake the associations we develop with a fragrance. That doesn’t make us unsophisticated or closed-minded. It’s simply who we are as human beings. I try to keep an open mind, to expand the limits of my taste and to challenge myself to seek out new experiences in fragrance. Maybe I can wear a rose perfume? What if no one cared except me? One thing I’ve learned to love and appreciate about perfume is that it is both intensely personal and unendingly fascinating as a social phenomenon.

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