Men's grooming is a touchy topic.
Aside from that poor guy who gets stuck with the assignment at GQ or Details, most media studiously avoids it. Start talking about fragrance or moisturizer or makeup or hair dye and everything gets weird.
Ostensibly, this is because men are "not interested" in this stuff; mostly, though, its because aspects of appearance, "beauty" and such are considered feminine in our culture. Breaking through this wall, never mind breaking down the rigid notions of gendered expectations, becomes all but impossible - "that's girly," "that's gay..." any way to marginalize or label away anything that seems different.
Sure, we make occasional stabs at progress. The rise of out and open gay men as a consumer force has at least made some room for men's products on shelves. The halthing acceptance of straight men doing some grooming soetimes makes it inot mianstram press, usually followed by a backlash.
Like many gay guys my age, I've been dragged into this discussion mostly without wanting to have it. As gay men we have a kind of freedom to ignore gender expectations if we so choose, choosing not so much to accept some label of effeminacy as to resign from the discussion altogether. I started dyeing my hair in college. I started using moisturizer and other products once I started working in department stores (the gals and guys in cosmetics are more fun). And at this late date, I'm quite over discussing whether or not its masculine to use face cream. Do it, or don't... but don't loop me into your debate. Just get on with it... and get over it.
Which brings us to Axe.
Axe is a line of shampoos, body washes, and deodorant sprays from Unilever, one of the big companies in personal grooming and hygiene. Axe is a line for men, but is pitched, curiously and often controversially, at teenage boys. And it has, perhaps unsurprisingly, succeeded brilliantly.
One part of the controversy is the marketing. Axe pitches the scent of its products as simply irresistible catnip (in every sense) to women, its ads featuring bevvies of beauties, usually less dressed, falling over each other to catch some youthful male model doused in the stuff. The ads are over the top, and the sexism is breathtakingly obvious, but there's also a knowing wink of humor in the extremes of the "Axe effect"
The other, corollary issue around Axe is that success with teen boys: encouraged to create the "Axe effect", and lacking boundaries (not to mention sense), there's every indication that boys douse themselves in the stuff, layering body wash and spray until a cloud of scent emenates. It doesn't help that the fragrances (especially in the body spray) can be especially intense. This has led to tales - some that seem quite apocryphal - not just of insult, but actual injury from the assault of fragrance, especially in junior and middle schools.
If both of these "controversies" seem like a boon to Axe's marketing department, well, naturally; it can't hurt the product's general cache that parents and angry adults try to keep teen boys from the stuff, turning each purchase into a private rebellion. And popularity breeds more sales - if everyone is doing it, you can't be seen as weird or different for, well, wearing perfume.
In the wake of Axe, most of the major soap and fragrance makers have moved into the market. Old Spice has been probably the most agressive, but Irish Spring is now selling similar smelly washes, and Dial offers somewhat less "aggressive" offerings, less concerned with looking male and butched up, even humorously.
And for this gay guy, the competition has finally opened up options for buying body wash that doesn't smell like lavender (which I hate) or other especially light or sticky sweet scents often aimed at women, which for a long time seemed like all one could find in the body wash department... or winding up with some especially expensive option only available in a department store or high end male boutique.
My point is... as much as I get the sexist anger aimed at Axe's advertising, this debate shouldn't occur in some vacuum that ignores how we got here: if we hadn't constructed such an enormous stigma about men using scent, then companies wouldn't be left chasing teen boys with marketing as far removed as possible from even a whiff of homoeroticism rather than risk wasting millions only to be sidelined as only for gay men. We're nice... but we can't provide sales anywhere what Axe generates now.
I thought about this again this morning, as I showered with my Axe body wash (Apollo - because nothing beats astronaut), a pleasant fragrance that I kinda like and smells nice on me. I don't use the body spray (although I did while doing some community theater, sweating up a storm through ten costume changes), but the stick deodorant works well, too. It's not just for teen boys, after all. And I don't expect angels to fall from the sky and chase me... but if a nice man noticed me in the grocery store.... well, that's just fine.
I doubt we'll ever completely unpack all the gender issues and cultural complications around beauty and grooming... but changing it starts, most simply, by changing ourselves: I tend to think everyone is beautiful, in their own way. And if fragrance, or hair color, or a touch of makeup is what you want to add, well, then, go for it. You don't have to meet an unrealistic expectation, just be the person you want to be. And when my eldest nephew starts pouring on the Axe, I know it will be the moment when his favorite Uncle can finally step in and teach him a thing or two about grooming.