Queer eye on Father’s Day: Masculinity and subversive gay style

The Avon bottle looked like a stagecoach and sat precarious and dusty on the spindly metal shelving in the single bathroom shared by my family in the 70s. The beer-bottle brown angular container wasn’t easily identifiable as a stagecoach. It was so abstracted or, perhaps, so poorly designed, so that I couldn’t easily associate it with the elegant, jangling horse drawn carriages I glimpsed when my father watched Gunsmoke. I wonder now about these quirky packaging and marketing decisions made for men’s scents, meant, most likely, to attract women to buy them, much as dry dog food shaped like tiny pork chops is aimed at human consumers.

Some companies’ masculine perfume marketing was unapologetically contemporary, sexy, and playful, and often in ways that was inspired by gay male aesthetics. The mustachioed, muscular guy in tight jeans, both macho and meticulously curated — think of the construction worker in the 70s band YMCA — was, of course, a gay trope. Some of the icons of masculinity absorbed into the mainstream, exemplified by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy, recycled other gay ideals of masculinity to which later metrosexual, “queer eye” norms surely owe a great debt. It gives me pleasure now to imagine that so many conservative heterosexual families plied their dads with male fragrances marketed so shamelessly through gay-inspired imagery.

In fact, some of these fragrances are better described as “dad” scents, rather than as “manly” scents, not necessarily because of their scent profiles but because of the conservative, asexual message they connoted. By the early 70s, the stagecoach image evoked John Wayne, who was less a sexual fantasy for my mother’s generation than an icon of comforting white male assurance. The masculine Avon perfume bottles, in part, then, aimed at white suburban housewives, can be read as appeals to women’s contradictory anxieties and desires about changing sexual roles and gender norms. My mother enthusiastically wore micro mini skirts and white go-go boots, but she also yearned for the Marlborough man and, in fact, dated a living stereotype of a rodeo cowboy when I was about six or seven.

And, again, these evolving messages of masculinity were not pushed solely, or perhaps even primarily, to men. They were, at least in part, meant to appeal to women’s ideas about what men should be like, and in a genre that, partly because it was insignificant “women’s stuff,” could be dismissed as trivial and cosmetic. While it is true that, in the post CK One era, perfume marketing sometimes blazes its transgressive gender messages across the sky, such consumer-oriented aesthetic gender negotiation still often flies stealthily under the mainstream radar, or may even be hidden in plain sight.

As with many mass market aesthetic products, including fast fashion and pop music, perfume can, for better and worse, be excused or dismissed as unserious, both by gender subversives and by rigid enforcers of boy/girl boundaries. By and large, the conservatively heterosexual world still seems willing to overlook — or to pretend not to see — perfume marketing’s radical incursion into the mainstream’s (mostly) binary gender commitments. Even on this most masculine of U.S. holidays, Father’s Day, with its ongoing evocations of pipe smoke, fishing rods, racing cars, and cowboy boots, conservative America continues to take style and scent cues from gay culture. It is almost as if great swathes of red America are participating in a Queer Eye episode and they don’t even know it.

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