Fragrance has no gender. Perfumery sells a story, a concept, a dream, a memory — all of which have no distinction between male or female in their ability to enthral us. So why should we limit the experience of these creative expressions to such binaries?
The truth is that gender in fragrance has been the solid, albeit antiquated, foundation for marketing purposes for centuries. The glistening Adonis in a cologne advertisement or the coy ingénue in a floral fragrance campaign feed into aspirational stereotypes. Advertisers prey on the fact that consumers believe buying said bottle of publicised perfume will bring them that tiny step closer to such an ideal.
Fragrance has no gender, so why should we limit their experience to such binaries?
Furthermore, for those who fear being too experimental with their scent purchases, gender binaries offer a small cage of comfort. Stay within the prescribed framework and you will never risk someone calling your scent too masculine or feminine.
The bias doesn’t merely infiltrate fragrance products, but even the raw materials themselves. More delicate components like florals are often attributed feminine qualities, whereas robust notes such as cedarwood are adorned with notions of masculinity. A Freudian perspective would even go so far as to declare the visual and characteristic similarities between certain materials and their corresponding gender as a sexual metaphor.
The bias doesn’t merely infiltrate products, but even the raw materials themselves.
Analysing gender-prescribed fragrances requires both a biological, but more importantly a cultural, component. According to Anna Lindqvist at Stockholm University’s Department of Psychology, a majority of consumers choose fragrances which land in the middle of the gender spectrum, regardless of whether they are male or female, thus making a case for the proliferation of unisex fragrances. A study on sexual dimorphism in olfactory function states that women have more neurons and glial cells than men, which, combined with hormonal fluctuations, indicates more scent sensitivity. This could explain an overall tendency towards softer smells in traditional women’s fragrances, like a soft white musk or light-bodied jasmine scent.
In a time where the best-selling mass-market women’s fragrances include highly saccharine, dare one say almost juvenile, gourmand florientals, could the delicately sweet nature of these perfumes be a method of belittlement? As the gender gap becomes narrower, one could almost see scented bodies as helping maintain the status quo of bold-smelling alpha males and obedient females, adorned with a fragrance that makes them smell more like a delectable dessert than mature woman.
As the gender gap narrows, one could see mass-market scented bodies as maintaining the status quo of alpha males and obedient females.
However, in a day and age where an increasing number of individuals identify as gender fluid, these distinctions needn’t exist. While the likes of CK One have been deemed as revolutionaries in the marketing of unisex fragrances, gender-bending scent adoration has been around for much longer. It has taken the recent rise of niche fragrance, which sells a story rather than a gender ideal, to make mainstream audiences comfortable with adapting their purchases to personal preference rather than prescribed gender category. For example, many men often feared wearing a floral scent at the risk of being perceived as less masculine, yet rose scents have proven particularly popular among this demographic in recent years.
Consumers shouldn’t be denied a plethora of scent possibilities based on whether they are male or female.
But ultimately, individual smell perceptions remain the biggest factor at play. How gendered this approach will be is dependent on a multitude of factors such as taste, upbringing, current environments, or what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to as ‘habitus’. It is a matter of personal choice, but consumers shouldn’t be denied a plethora of possibilities based on whether they are male or female. In a future where gender identity has become non-binary, it’s about time our fragrances did the same.