“Granny perfumes”: Real talk about casual ageism

It is difficult to read any perfume review thread, especially one discussing a floral or aldehydic fragrance, without some commenter pulling the “granny smell” ripcord and floating blithely away from the discussion. Some actual examples:

  • “Dude, you are nuts! This isn’t masculine at all. It’s an old grandma scent that I would never, ever wear.”
  • “I can’t understand why everyone else is calling this sexy. To me, it’s just another old lady perfume.”
  • “I can smell the woods in this, but, yech, it’s more like the back of granny’s closet than a pine forest.”
  • “Grandma’s here!”

On the one hand, “grandma scent” might be read as a harmless shorthand for the “classic” perfumes that younger people associate with older women relatives. And if this were all the baggage that came with it, we might all agree, “No harm, no foul.” But in a cultural milieu that more or less reviles and denigrates older people, especially older women, “old lady” or “grandma perfume” references are pretty much always going to evoke sexist ageism, regardless of the fact that the speaker “didn’t mean it that way.”

And, happily, there are lots of us who are incensed by all this casual ageism in the perfume world. Consider one Fragrantica reviewer’s righteous rebuke to an ageist review:

“Personally I will down vote every single review that mentions anything like ‘grandma,’ grandpa’ or ‘old people.’ I have nothing against your opinion that you hate the fragrance, but the reference that it’s for old grandma got me fuming. What is it exactly that old people smell like? Can you tell me? Do fat people have a smell too then? Or people with handicap? Jesus, please don’t get me going, cause it makes me think of my grandma who wore Opium back in 90’s, and I wear it in my 40’s, so yes, you bet i will down vote reviews that are ignorant and bully-like. I respect your opinion and your right not to love La Yuqawam, but please, there are ways to review fragrance without insulting anyone.”

(You may also be struck by the fact that La Yuqawam got the “old lady” dismissal given that it’s a pretty accurate clone of Tom Ford’s Tuscan Leather — La Yuqawam? Really?! — but that’s a discussion for another day.)

The unhappy and obvious fact is that we (still) live in a world that defines, ranks, and discriminates against others based, in part, on stereotypical notions of how they dress, live, eat, and, yes, smell. And there is something about denigrating an individual, or entire group, by claiming that they have a bad odor that perfectly captures what is so noxious and despicable about racism, sexism, and xenophobia. We know (don’t we?) that ridiculing or otherwise persecuting others on the basis that they smell bad or “weird” — whether it’s that poor kid in third grade, menstruating women, or an entire ethnic group— is about as low as one can go. It’s such an intimate, puerile, brutal attack, a callous shaming of others, in part, because it takes aim at their most private, bodily sense of self. In 2019, then, whatever obnoxious beliefs folks may actually hold, most seem to understand that it is not neutral or innocent to openly judge “others” by how they supposedly smell. This is, of course, why it’s so jarring that the “grandma smell” trope is still bandied about so flagrantly.

To be clear, reflective perfume mavens, and there are lots of them, are having none of it. If a thoughtful perfume lover refers to “granny perfumes,” she is quite likely standing on grandma’s side, defending the elegance and sophistication of classic perfumes from bygone eras. It is not uncommon to read something like this: “If you want to call this a ‘granny frag,’ well, fine. Call me a granny!” And I suspect this may be as much because such nuanced critics dislike lazy, dismissive descriptions such as “grandma scent” — really? Is that the best you can do? — as that they are offended by the sexist ageism of it. In any case, my passion for this thoughtful segment of the perfume community is deepened by their willingness to confront such offensive, if ubiquitous, casual ageism.

And this isn’t simply about forcing ourselves to become more “politically correct” — oh, how I hate that term! — so that no one suspects we are ageist, sexist assholes. The stakes are so much higher than that. Our habits of speech reflect our social values, and the fact that so many of us still feel perfectly empowered to categorize older women in a way that suggests they are asexual, dusty, irrelevant relics is important to know. It’s especially critical when we consider that, once again, we have grandmas running for U.S. president. And how is stinky grandma ever supposed to compete with a man, even an old man? Especially since “grandpa fragrance” is often meant to suggest old books, pipe tobacco, and worn leather, scents that evoke seriousness, security, tradition and power.

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