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He. She. We. Them. They.

January 5th 2020
Jonathan Ward

The first blog of 2020 shines a little light on an interesting conversation that I had while doing an event in December.

It was a Saturday afternoon, crowds were swarming, chaotically choosing Christmas gifts (not necessarily based on careful choices). I struck a conversation with a girl and as I guided her through the fragrances, I noted her reactions to my scent descriptions.

There was a hint of uncomfortableness in her face as I described Afreet's base notes as a gentle masculine tribute to a sixteenth century tincture. She voiced "I have a problem with the word masculine." I have to admit I was slightly stunned. "Oh", I said, "I meant no offence, I often deem wood, earth, black pepper notes as masculine." It might be considered descriptively sluggish of me, but it sparked a question in me and one that I felt impassioned enough to put fingertips to keyboard at least.

The customer (who happily bought the products that she bought) continued to explain that she was not comfortable with the use of masculine and feminine to categorise certain fragrance notes and felt it was somehow biased and a little dated.

A burgeoning precision around gender narrative has been gaining momentum for best part of the last decade. A new generation equipped with determination, not to be categorised by stereotypical gender norms. Words like "fluid", "binary" and "pansexual" are now rallied quite effortlessly in gender dialect. I have embraced and accepted the modern cultural changes in sexual identity. I am entirely comfortable with myself and almost felt that I didn't need to adopt one of the new descriptives and it wasn't fitting for the life that I chose. However, fragrance is my life and I have to engage on a sightly more esoteric level when my artistic prose comes into question.

As a gay artist born in 1973, I have lived with a quiet acceptance of my own sexuality and gender for many years. Born in Newcastle, I came out at a time when it was not easy to make a life outside of expected choices. But... I made them. I came out after a kiss with a boy called Graeme in his pink beetle at the top of my road and I ran home. Skipped. Jumping in the air and cherishing a freedom that I had never felt before. I knew who I was. In a singularly simple defining moment, my life changed, the confusion dissipated and I had clarity on who Jonathan was. I didn't need a specific label for the emotional feelings that suddenly rushed through me but I knew that they were defining.

That moment was profound and yet simple. If ever challenged or questioned, I quietly and confidently said I was gay. While I strode forward for three decades, always confirmable with my choices and lifestyle, new generations have shaped their own paths and identity. Is my choice and the choice of a 16 year old boy who is questioning really that far apart ? Have gender semantics narrowed our identities or expanded them ?

Now, when it comes to the art of fragrance we need to base our dialogue on fact. Are we are now placing a question on using the word "feminine" when describing a rose ? We can almost certainly find 1000 pieces of historical artistic evidentiary support for our predisposition in assuming gender terms. The ancient Greeks used the rose to tell the tale of the Goddess Aphrodite, the rose appears in many works of art throughout the centuries (Dante Gabriel Rossetti - "Venus Verticordia" 1868).

Modern interpretations of female sexuality can be looked at by more closely by delving into the narrative that Georgia O'Keeffe brilliantly displayed through her studies of flowers and their symbolistic representation of female genitalia.

I just wonder if we start applying modern gender semantics to the complexities of perfume are we actually broadening and enriching or are we narrowing and confining centuries of artistic heritage ?

It is possibly important to acknowledge that the historical path of sexuality and gender has never been linear. We didn't arrive at our current gender narrative through a linear progression. We have darted between the wild sexual diversity of Ancient Rome to the rigidity of the Victorians (with many interesting interludes in-between) , surging into an encompassing modern narrative that is accepting of all, but somewhat limiting in it's ever increasing categorising of gender terms.

The current gender semantics ironically bolster a rigid oxymoron. While more embracing than decades before, there is a wanton rigidity to applying current gender specifics to all cultural arts and design. The arts have always taken its own shape moving like lightning and not following a governed path. Let us enjoy the new stance in gender diversity but not limit the narrative that defines our artistic pursuits.

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