Gendering Your Household by Smell

There’s a small body of work on the sociology of smell that deals with gender.  Scents, their cultural meaning, and our experiences of them are culturally mediated processes (here, here, and here).  What women and men ought to smell like is, in some ways, just another of the various ways in which we are all held accountable to recognizable performances of gender.  Controlling one’s own scent is a small part of this process.  And controlling the scent of your home–perhaps in different ways for different spaces within the home–is a piece of gendering our social environments as well.

Yankee Candle stores are always fun.  I generally find myself in one some time in winter or fall when I want my house to smell like I just baked something with apples in it or like a fir tree had an accident in my living room.  Like a great deal of stores dedicated to selling niche home décor, Yankee primarily caters to women.  Desiring your home to smell like “Fluffy Towels,” “Autumn Leaves,” a “Bahama Breeze,” or “Home Sweet Home” is something that many people likely classify as a “feminine” desire (regardless of the gender of the desirer in question).

Like a number of products catering primarily to women, Yankee has developed a “men’s line.”  I’ve always thought that gendering scents has been somewhat ridiculous–that the line between perfume and cologne was less clear than it’s often depicted.  Smells don’t have a gender, do they?

Yankee thinks they do, and if their online catalog of “Man Candles” is representative of people’s candle desires, apparently people agree.  Three of their four scents of “Man Candles” are currently sold out.  Their biggest selling candle scents for men are “2 X 4,” “First Down,” and “Man Town.”  But, if you’re willing to consider a scent that might be framed as a bit less manly, they also have “Riding Mower.”

Read the Man Candle scent descriptions:

  • 2 X 4: “The warm, unmistakable scent of freshly planed wood and sawdust evokes a sense of confidence and quality.”
  • First Down: “Game on! This combination of orange, patchouli, vetiver and leather is as exciting as game day.”
  • Riding Mower: “Hot sun. Cool breeze. And the intensely summery scent of freshly cut grass.”
  • Man Town: “Escape to the man cave with this masculine blend of spices, woods and musk.”

These candles are difficult to make sense of without a gendered division of household labor or a gendered understanding of “masculine” American men’s leisure activities.  The brief scent descriptions are laden with fantasies of masculine escape and abandon.

In part, this is clearly undertaken out of a desire to broaden Yankee’s market base.  Increasing the numbers of people who might potentially buy candles (or probably more accurately put, for whom candles might be bought), will bring in more revenue.  And yet… it’s an interesting time to introduce this particular line.

What I find interesting about them is the casual assumption that the gender-segregated areas of the home exist in which men might burn something in the Man Candle Collection.  While it might be something to burn in the family room or the kitchen, the line seems to suggest that it’s something to burn in the garage, a den, a study, or a man cave of some kind.

For instance, one woman reviews Man Town in this way:

The scent is new, and I wanted to try it. I recently purchased this scent for his “man cave”. He is now becoming a Yankee fan as I am. I bought this scent thinking he would enjoy it. It was not over powering, or floral etc… a “manly” scent that was even nice for me to smell. I recommend this scent for any area of a home that is visited by men.

She seems to be mocking him for his man cave, but also acknowledges the space and seems to have no serious problem with it.  Some reviewers suggested that Man Town smelled no different from another scent: “Midnight Oasis.”  But, others found it more “subtle.”

Gendered spaces aren’t complete without gendered smells.  The images on the candles also suggest the kinds of things men might be doing while burning the candles, or the smells with which men might feel most “at home.”

The smell of a room is also one small piece of what makes a room feel gendered.  Smoking rooms likely acquired cultural recognition as rooms that smelled “like men” just as boudoirs might have acquired a “feminine” scent in Victorian homes as they were both staging areas in which gendered identities were acted out, “put on,” shed, sprayed, inhaled, lathered, and spritzed.

Finding ways of culturally masculinizing products that have historically been associated with women is a game many feminine product lines play.  Creating masculine body washes, creams, cleansers, body sprays, and more is all part of this process.  Candles just felt a bit different to me.

Thanks to Matthew Braswell for bringing these ridiculous candles to my attention.


5 thoughts on “Gendering Your Household by Smell

    • Identifying the “masculine” scents implicitly frames all their previous scents as “feminine”–even if men were buying them. And yes… pumpkin spice is wonderful. 🙂

  1. This particular blog post, “Gendering Your Household by Smell � Inequality
    by (Interior) Design” was great.

    I’m producing out a replica to present to my buddies.
    Thanks a lot,Marina

  2. Pingback: Gender Politics | My Crash-Test Blog

  3. Pingback: On Vanilla | Lynley Stace

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