Scent and masculinity

(Mostly not about language, but about gender and culture.)

From the April 2011 Details (p. 70), a spread (in the “Rules of Style” section):

THE SEASON’S BEST (GUY-APPROPRIATE) CANDLES

THESE COMPLEX, ROBUST, AND, YES, MASCULINE CREATIONS BELONG IN EVERY MAN’S HOME.

(A slide show of the nine candles can be viewed here.)

Three samples of the ad copy:

Malin + Goetz Geranium Leaf
Combining the floral with the vegetal, this fragrance is fresh and bouquet like, yet earthy enough for any guy.
$52

Aedes de Venustas
You might expect this candle’s combination of leather, incense, and wood to be overwhelming, but it burns with spring-appropriate subtlety.
$65

Le Labo Calone 17
Inspired by the ocean, this votive mixes geranium and amber with a marine note designed to evoke a sea breeze.
$70

The idea is that some scents are masculine (and some feminine), so that when you’re manipulating scent  (by colognes/perfumes, deodorants, soaps and shampoos, and the like) or merely broadcasting scent that can be gendered — the scent of flowers or home cooking (feminine), the scent of wood fires, leather, grilling meat, or piney woods (masculine), etc. — you’re sending gender messages.

[Digression: the classic Scent of a Man is, of course, male sweat, as generated by work, exercise, or sexual arousal, and accumulated in men’s clothes and in places like locker rooms. (I sometimes wonder what would happen if someone devised a way to totally neutralize the smell of locker rooms. Would men feel bereft, cheated of the olfactory component of male camaraderie? Certainly it would seem a bit off-kilter.)

Preparations that claim to be based on pheromones offer the possibility of capturing this scent — hints of musk and testosterone — as an allure to women or gay men, depending on your inclination, but I don’t know if these work for that purpose, though they might facilitate male bonding.]

So Details is offering advice on how to communicate masculinity via candles. The magazine is doing a gender-crossover thing: burning candles is feminine, even a feminine romantic cliché; meanwhile, some scents are (boldly, ruggedly) masculine. How to meld the two?

But how did Details get there?

What you need to know about Details is that it’s a lifestyle magazine. All lifestyle magazines are fantasy vehicles (this isn’t a put-down; fantasy is a good thing), offering a view into another more wonderful, more perfect life, a life the reader might attain some part of, while focusing on the surfaces of living. (See my posting on shelter magazines, with the wonderful term house porn (from Terry Castle), referring to magazines with sumptuous depictions of interiors.)

Esquire and Playboy are lifestyle magazines. So is Architectural Digest. And Tiger Beat. And GQ. And Cosmopolitan (with its sex advice, plus women’s fashion, makeup, and so on). And Field and Stream. And the late lamented Gourmet. And Good Housekeeping. And, though its editors would undoubtedly bridle at the thought, The New Yorker.

And Out (aimed at lgbt people in general), Instinct (aimed at young gay men), and Details (aimed at cool metrosexual and gay men). The different audiences mean somewhat different emphases, but there are comon themes, determined in part by the prospective advertisers; men’s fashion, men’s scents (remember scents?), travel, electronics, cars, and consumable popular culture (music, film, books) play big roles. There are more features on men’s watches, athletic wear (especially athletic shoes and men’s underwear), workouts, diet and food, alcoholic drinks, and trendy household furnishings (remember candles?) than you might have predicted on first principles; in an earlier Details, I was startled to come across a reference to a man’s grooming regimen, as if readers would recognize this as an ordinary feature of their lives. All three magazines have articles on relationships.

There are many differences. Instinct is less plugged into political matters than the other two. Details is low on ads for retroviral drugs and doesn’t much cover circuit parties, gay pride events, and the like. Women appear in Instinct pretty much only as gay-world icons (or wonderfully gay-accepting mothers). And so on.

In all three, there are borderline interests: visual arts, classical music, dance, the theater (except where there is some connection to masculinity or queerness). And whole areas of interest are almost entirely unrepresented — most of what I think of as “Father’s Day things” (other than ties, aftershaves, and shaving supplies): hunting, fishing, golf, sports fandom, auto racing, tools (plus hot babes, of course). There are lifestyle magazines for all of these things, but they live mostly in a different world from OutInstinct, and Details. (Yes, social class enters into these matters in a complex way.)

Of these three, Details is doing a particularly complex act, conveying “We’re all guys, guys; we’re all in this together” — sending gay-friendly messages to its straight readers, inclusive and straight-tolerant messages to its gay readers.

Which brings us back to those masculine-scented candles, which presumably can be used to express your masculinity around the house and so to impress and entice a romantic partner of the sex of your preference.

2 Responses to “Scent and masculinity”

  1. Double dactylic sniff « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] I realized that I’d written musk and testosterone in my piece on “Scent and masculinity”, I saw that the double dactyl needed a poetic […]

  2. Annals of masculinity: scent department « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Earlier discussion of masculine candles on this blog, here. […]

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