Aaron W. Voyles looks to body sprays and the Old Spice-ification of men.
It must be summer here on campus. Thousands in, thousands out. If you think summer on a college campus is slow or boring, you are mistaken. It’s as bustling and intense as the school year, in part because many campuses, like my own, use summer to host camps and conferences for all manner of groups.
I can always tell when the boys’ sports camps arrive. There is a particular scent that accompanies these camps. Imagine a concoction of musty boy funk and 100 sprays of synthetic musk cologne. It smells like a combination of insecurity about community showers and a need to profess oneself as a lady killer.
I remember when I first smelled Axe. In an honors college class on human sexuality, someone brought Axe in as part of a project. Axe is definitely not my favorite smell. Whichever one this was had a distinct foot-like odor—of course accompanied by synthetic musk. I don’t remember why it came into play in the class, but now that experience to me is like seeing Patient Zero for the coming epidemic.
After I smelled that foot Axe, I noticed Axe other places. Like in ads where girls chase men when they spray it on. In a perverse twist, some of the Axe ads presented a euphemism of men being sexually assaulted by women who could not help themselves. The men were just too much to handle, smelling like chocolate, world peace, or the Apollo space missions. After that, Old Spice followed suit, and then of course it now seems every ad has to have some crazy combination of pseudo-masculine elements and surrealism to appeal to the male demographic.
What’s interesting about the way these ads are structured is how they reinforce the notion that women are less than capable of controlling themselves and are waylaid by their senses. They also serve to normalize sexual assault, achieved through portraying the male as a willing victim. They showcase that sexual assault is okay because the victim usually wants it, and the target audience for these commercials, men, receive the combination of messages that women should want them and that victims of assault really want to be assaulted.
Where this phenomenon becomes problematic for college men is in how these items are assimilated. The Axe Effect or Old Spice-ification or whatever you want to call it starts taking place in middle school, at a time where men are their most unsure of themselves and most vulnerable to this. It can continue to build through both the media and peer groups as boys age.
As I discussed in a previous article, college campuses have seen significant numbers of sexual assaults on their campuses. A key observation that comes out of understanding the male gender role conflict that I discussed in that article is that men who feel forced into ultra-masculine behavior perceive non-gendered activities like wearing a fragrance as potentially raising questions about sexuality. I’m not sure the powdery citrus fragrance that I currently adore in my fragrance wardrobe would pass muster.
The Axe Effect works because it covers those insecurities. The reason the smell of a boys’ sports camp often is funk and musk is because the musk masks the insecurity of the shower. Those insecurities and the need to assert masculinity in response to them continue to play out in college and beyond.
The purpose of my argument is not to decry Axe or Old Spice. What I do find important is for us to notice how the masculinization of certain aspects of these ads (random humor, sexualizing behavior, aggressive behavior) tied to popular products creates confusion for men and what their appropriate role should be. If wearing Axe will allow them to be a savior—a seemingly desired attribute—and that same world allows for dehumanization of women, we will see the problem of the Axe Effect in men being able to build positive relationships and exhibit respect for women.
Ditching the Dunce Cap is a weekly Friday column from Aaron W. Voyles on the University of Texas-Austin. He welcomes your comments.