Synthetic masculinity: Coming to terms with Dior Sauvage

Created in 2015 by Francois Demachy, and fronted by the emotionally absent (or pissed off) face of Johnny Depp, Dior Sauvage has become an institutionalized expression of contemporary Western masculinity. The product invites scrutiny, then, not just from the perfume community, but from anyone interested in the politics and aesthetics of 21st century masculinity.

Even those who don’t “know” Sauvage are likely familiar with it, if, that is, they have entered a mall, movie theater, concert, or sporting event in North America or Western Europe in the past four years. As one of the best-selling men’s fragrances, the ubiquity of Sauvage has conditioned our collective scent experience whether we like it or not. As with Le Male in the 90s, and Polo in the 80s, Sauvage has confidently taken command of the masculine olfactory landscape.

Many sing its praises as an “easy reach” and “a sexy crowd-pleaser,” one that “gets amazing reactions from women.” And there are vociferous critics as well, insisting, for example, that Sauvage is a “hot, chemical mess,” “an Ambroxan bomb,” and “just one step above Axe body spray.” It is partly because I have found myself in this hater category that I decided to focus my attention more fully on Sauvage. I wanted to experience it for myself, and so, a few months ago, I began stopping by the mall to spritz it on my arm.

At first, I just hated it, a hate that lingered long after the scent itself faded. This is impressive given that Sauvage is notoriously long-lived, one of the last guests to leave any party. And though Dior alludes to the “natural” ingredients of Sauvage, to my nose, it creates an undeniably synthetic impression, one suggestive of shower gel, men’s deodorant, and, yes, shopping malls and locker rooms. Perhaps because I am a woman who does not much participate in such bastions of youthful, middle-class masculinity, my initial visceral reaction was to run away. After all, I embraced the perfume world in the first place largely to escape mainstream notions of olfactory and stylistic expression, including gender expression.

Intrigued by my early disgust with Sauvage, though, I continued to revisit it and recently even picked up a second-hand tester bottle. I wanted to be, not just someone who had tried Sauvage once or twice, but one who had made an effort to develop a relationship with it. If that sounds overly ambitious or silly, then I may not have been persuasive enough about Sauvage’s role as a cultural icon. I wanted to appreciate Sauvage as I wanted to appreciate Harry Potter, Taylor Swift, and the HBO Game of Thrones series, not because my aesthetic universe was lacking without them, but as a way of connecting to other people and the current popular zeitgeist.

Happily, I find now that I do rather like the scent of Dior Sauvage, including its faux fresh opening and its smoky dry down, both of which now strike me not so much as cheaply “synthetic,” but as relatively interesting abstractions of more “natural” counterpoints. Further, and perhaps even more significantly for me, I notice that I like being able to like Sauvage. That is, I kind of enjoy the sheer fact of standing alongside the legions of other Sauvage lovers in empathetic, aesthetic appreciation. Because, though it may be satisfying to stand apart from mainstream culture, there is also something lovely about joining others there.

On the other hand, I can’t help but feel disgusted by the messages about masculinity that are both assumed and reinforced by the very slick and purposeful Dior Sauvage marketing machine. Given the credible, and very public, allegations against Depp of actual violence, what can it mean for Dior to assert that Sauvage evokes a masculinity that is “timeless, powerful, and noble” with Depp’s face so prominently fronting the product? As a chorus of voices around the world rises to demand greater respect for women, it is especially jarring and disappointing to find Dior continuing to push the tired trope that sexy masculinity rests on a barely contained threat of unpredictable fury.

As we all know, companies have readily nixed celebrity endorsement contracts and deals with controversial spokesmodels the moment they’ve concluded that the company’s image and profits will be harmed. Dior, though, seems to understand quite well that embracing the link between contemporary masculine power — the modern day “savage” — and credible allegations of violence against women is good for the bottom line. As far as I know, neither Sauvage sales, nor Depp’s success, have been damaged by this association. So, yeah, though I can now appreciate Sauvage the fragrance, my enjoyment is indelibly marked by the emotionally vacant face of Johnny Depp and the battered one of Amber Heard.

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