Thoughts on Gender and Fragrance
Charenton Macerations was founded on the principle of challenging the tired gender clichés that have taken over the fragrance industry. The driving concept behind Charenton Macerations was (and still is) to focus on creating more artistically intriguing fragrances inspired directly by their underlying olfactive stories, steering clear of the biological myths promoted by mainstream fragrance producers. In other words, to let the story openly guide formulation.
Christopher Street is the first example of this type of development. From drawing up the brief, to executing the formulation, the fragrance was crafted around the stories of rebellion and decadence as remembered by the people who witnessed it all. The history (and stories) of Christopher Street is itself an example of independently-minded individuals challenging mainstream culture’s ideas on what is normal and/or acceptable, saying proudly, “Enough is Enough.” Christopher Street and the West Village are a part of New York City that I, myself, have always had a deep admiration for, as its many uprisings and celebrations have had a direct impact on how I am able to live my life today. But that’s a story for another blog post.
Instead, today I would like to revisit some of the dangers that can accompany blindly repeating the gender-based mistakes of the fragrant past, and to discuss how complacency to these clichés can lead to a host of unforeseen consequences for all perfume producers. To finally say once and for all, “Fuck Gendered Olfaction.”
Blame It On Twitter
I’m pretty active on Twitter these days. I have always really enjoyed the free flowing Twitter conversations that can grow from being able to discuss a wide range of my interests in one space. I love getting multiple points of view from people all across the globe (agreeing and disagreeing) not to mention uncovering potential new sources of inspiration for my work. I make no secret of how beneficial I feel these Twitter conversations can be, and am in constant awe of how they have helped fuel resistance movements around the world. How wonderful it would have been, growing up in a small community like I did, to have had access to such an amazing forum of people to provide perspective on issues I was facing in my own life instead of being forced to go it alone.
Last week, I found myself in the middle of such a conversation, sparking this latest blog post on gender. The discussion revolved around my own questions about the latest Smurfs perfume launches, and the company’s need to add a gender description to their “sophisticated” Smurfette fragrance, while the other four in the “Blue Style” line are simply classed as “unisex.” Do children ages 5-10 really need to be taught that girls should smell different from boys? And, who says girls smell like “oriental mandarin, pink pepper, red raspberry, peach blossom, wet leafy greens, hyacinth, transparent lilac, sheer amber, patchouli and bright wood.” Okay, so the company claims that Smurfette “Blue Magic” is geared to older girls (ages 13-30) but still… (hard to believe when being sold exclusively at Toys R Us). In my opinion, the marketing behind this entire line stinks and sends precisely the wrong message to impressionable minds. Are we truly still living in a “trucks are for boys, dolls are for girls” world?
While raising this point with one of my Twitter followers who had made mention of the Smurfs line, she became quite dismissive and borderline rude. And I quote, “Oh, my goodness. Some people love to find issues in the most benign places.” I was in shock. I’m sorry, but no, I do not believe protecting children from falling prey to ridiculous gender-based and antiquated stereotypes that have plagued American society for generations is finding “issues in the most benign places.” In fact, as a queer individual growing up in a rather conservative community, I understand firsthand that being complacent to such parasitic marketing tactics and unfounded gender-based pressures can lead to children turning on others who look or act a little bit differently. Needless to say, we never finished this conversation as I was blocked and unfollowed before any explanation could be had.
I don’t often talk about some of the difficulties I faced growing up, but here I feel it is important to do so in order to explain why these imposed gender norms bother me so much. You see, I was that oddball kid. By age 5, I had quite a large collection of both GI Joe action figures (Go Joe!) and Strawberry Shortcake dolls (loved the smelly hair and vibrant colors). I kept all of these toys in a metal Gremlins lunchbox that I would carry with me everywhere. They were the cast of characters I used to play out the fantasies of my imagination and I loved them. On particularly bad days, they were also my closest friends. And of course, because of this, other kids made fun of me. (Did I mention that I went to a Catholic school? The nuns REALLY didn’t like the fact that I played with dolls.) No one ever really asked why I loved these toys so much. They only focused on why it was so wrong for me to do so. Imagination be damned, the elephant in the room was that this boy could be gay and we don’t like it.
Perhaps the worst experience I had as a child involves the title of this post and me at age 8. Growing up, I used to spend a lot of time with my grandparents, as both of my parents worked. One of my favorite things to do at their house, and one of my earliest scent memories, was to sit with my grandmother at her dresser while she got ready for the day. Gran was an avid Avon shopper, and had quite a large collection of perfume from them. We would sit together, talk, laugh and spray lots of fragrance. I loved sitting with her, listening to why each bottle she had was so special to her, and where she had worn them. Each one had such a deep personal meaning to her and she lit up as she talked about them. I felt like she was sharing with me some of the most special moments of her life. So, of course, I too would indulge in her scents and pretend I was right there with her, even occasionally sneaking into her room for a quick spritz or two. This proved to be the biggest mistake I could have made.
One day I decided to spray some perfume on before heading to school: a big and bold, heady floral. Upon arriving to class, the taunting began:
“[sniff, sniff] Peuw! You smell like a girl.”
“No I don’t,” I responded. “I smell like a garden.”
“Girly boy! Girly boy!” The rest of the class joining in… “Girly boy! You smell like a girly boy!”
For this unfortunate olfactive mistake, I was first paddled, and then forced to scrub my skin to the point of redness while three nuns watched over me. I was embarrassed and mortified. Obviously it was all my fault. The same chants and some additional roughness would go one for the rest of the school year. The end result: a beautiful memory of one of the few people I felt closed to as a child was ruined. All because I “smelled like a girl.”
Girls can wear jeans
And cut their hair short
Wear shirts and boots
‘Cause it’s OK to be a boy
But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading…
-”What It Feels Like For a Girl” – Madonna
Fuck Gendered Olfaction
I am not naive. I do understand that there are certain biological differences that exist in the sexes. I just do not believe that what we choose to spray on our skin is one of them. I also do not believe that gender is so black and white that it could so easily be reduced to something so transparently formulaic. If there is any gendered component to a fragrance, it is that unique quality that you yourself bring to the fragrance when you decide to apply it to your skin. Be proud of who you are and wear what you love, not what someone tells you is “appropriate.”
When it comes to children, I would much prefer we teach them to simply discover the beauty of and begin making use of their noses, to be open and explorative when they smell. We as an industry need to stop creating false divisions simply to raise our bottom lines. It is both irresponsible and outdated, and ultimately hurts us all. It also extremely limits the creative process. Instead of recreating tired gender clichés, instead of relying on vacant-eyed woman paraded in print as sexual objects, let’s strive to do better. Let’s continue to challenge the boundaries of fragrance, instead of segmenting our world into antiquated archetypes cooked up in a 50′s marketing office. Let’s be reflective of the modern world we now live in.
Fuck this notion that fragrance is just another tool in the sexual hunt. Fuck the idea that girls should smell like a delicate flower and boys like a woody forest. Fuck the fear that complicating the olfactive palette will drive away male consumers. Fuck the concept that fragrance is just another fashion accessory, robbing it of its full potential. Fuck the silence and complacency.
Fuck Gendered Olfaction.