There’s something about marines. I really can’t explain it. It’s like how there’s something about men wearing denim. Or men wearing leather. Or men wearing lipstick. Or men wearing cowboy hats. Or men wearing police uniforms. Or men wearing work boots. Or men with long hair. Or men with tattoos. Or men shopping for vegetables. Or men handling wood at hardware stores. Or men…actually, you know there’s just something about men period. Maybe that’s what lead me to Tom of Finland in the first place.
Justifying book purchases is getting more and more difficult, and my regular reader probably knows this already if they’ve ever read my homage to Christopher Hitchens. The space, or, really lack of it, is the primary concern, however there’s also now the issue of mortality. As I am just a few months away from turning thirty, and becoming yet another in a long line of cliched individuals who realize that they’re youth is quickly becoming a thing of the past, my concern now with purchasing more books is the worry that I won’t actually have time to read them all. This creates a compulsion towards priority. DO I really want to read that Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Andrew Jackson when I can’t fucking stand Andrew Jackson, and do I really need to sit down and read Finnegan’s Wake when I realize now that I will never read Ulysses ever again? There are some positives here, as I have realized more and more that there are books and topics that I legitimately want to read about. Whether it’s books about Ancient Greece, the Ottoman Empire, anything having to do with Queer identity, and the entire collected works of Vladimir Nabokov these are books that I will read and will make an effort to read.
And so as I reevaluate my priorities I can honestly write that I felt neither fear nor guilt in purchasing a $50 book about the work of Tom of Finland titled Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality.
I only feel guilty that, after the book arrived in the mail, I hopped into a couple volumes of the manga One Punch Man before actually reading it, but in my defense One Punch Man is freaking hysterical and I apologize for nothing.
I’ve written before about what Tom of Finland’s work has meant to me, as well as to the homosexual community. It’s not just that the man was able to help establish an unashamed model of gay porn for queer men to use and gravitate towards, it’s the fact that this pornography and art was able to validate the viewers with men who were attractive and quite visibly happy to be gay. No matter what Tom’s men were doing (sucking, fucking, sexually harassing postal workers) they always managed to find something to enjoy about being sexual with one another, or, to put it another way, they were having fun being gay.
This happiness helped establish Tom, real name Touko Valio Laaksonen, as one of the most important gay pornographers and artists, but this happiness, coupled with the fact that the men he drew were typically butch and traditionally masculine, did more for the queer male community who often had been regulated to the “fairy” and “queen” identity. Tom created a new model of masculinity for queer men, one they were happy to embrace.
Ramakers notes this as he observes the emergence of an unapologetic gay culture:
In the seventies, gay subcultural reality in the United States began to bear an even closer resemblance to Tom of Finland’s images of gay sexuality. According to sociologist Martin Levine, in that decade there was a noticeable growth in anonymous erotic activity. Gay meeting places were decorated with Western, leather, or high tech styles and sported “masculine” names such as The Eagle, Badlands, Ambush, Anvil and so on. In many bars, sparsely lit or darkened rooms were designated for cruising and tricking (spontaneous sex). Crusing and tricking became the sexual norm. Sexual techniques were rough and phallocentric and consisted mainly of “deep-throating” (blow job with the entire penis thrust down the throat), hard fucking (jamming entire penis into anus while spanking hard), and heavy tit work (robust sucking, pinching, or biting of nipples). (106-7).
Before I address this quote I really need to observe that the adjective “robust” always sounds gay to me. I don’t know what it is. Just saying the word “robust” it sounds like something a fairy (such as yours truly) would say while describing the repairman who showed up to fix his plumping. And then maybe, while he was working and trying to keep his long hair out of his face, his shirt would get wet and he’d have to take it off revealing a mess of thick black chest hair that would curl while light would reflect in the small beads of water clinging to…
Oh, I’m sorry, I got distracted. Anyway, “robust” always just sounds super-gay to me for personal reasons.
Ramakers quote is important though because it reveals where queer men of the seventies were at sexually as well as personally. It’s easy to forget in an age of Grindr and Scruff and Tindr, but free and casual sex between men was actually quite would have to use codes to find one another, and even then men could find themselves accidentally exposing themselves to straight men who might not always be so happy to discover another man’s hand on their leg. Compounding this is the fact that, before the seventies, and even some-time after that, being open about one’s queerness could wind one up in a mental institution where there are all manner of nightmare stories.
The ability to suck and fuck, and be sucked and fucked, without fear of social reprisal was not only liberating it was revolutionary. And in this new erotic atmosphere men began to look for a new character to embody.
Ramakers points his reader to Martin P. Levine, who’s work I’ve reviewed in the past, but then tries to show that the push towards a more traditionally “masculine” culture was an effort by queer men to become something new. Rather than continue to the idea of the “invert,” or the feminine “fairy,” guys wanted to act and behave more like straight men, only with a lot more sex. And in this new desire for a masculine ideal, Tom’s work was a great boon. If the reader has never seen any of Tom’s work the first thing they will observe is, obviously, that it’s pretty gay. But after this observation what becomes obvious is the fact that his men incredibly masculine. Ramakers notes this earlier in his book when he observes:
Tom’s men are paper constructions of the ideal body, less a reflection of a particular reality than a representation of a social ideal or mental vision. Tom’s male bodies are reminiscent enough of reality to be credible, but just far enough beyond that reality to form a nigh unattainable ideal. (72).
Now Ramakers observes that body-building culture impacted this but then later on he observes how Tom accounted for this:
In the later years of his career, Tom attempted to retain idealization, by exaggerating his men’s muscles even further […]. Because of this tendency, however, Tom’s man increasingly became a caricature: “when people criticized him for that, he would tell them, ‘I’m not trying for realism. I want to express our fantasies.’” (73).
Tom’s work was never, and has never truly been about capturing some kind of realism. While erotic art and pornography as an institution can at times create and capture the beauty of real and accurate sex, the fundamental purpose of the medium has always been to celebrate and enjoy sexuality, and in this action there is often a great desire for hyperbole. Looking through some of the many drawings Tom did over the course of his life (the man was amazingly prolific given the fact he began this art at a time where it could have cost him dearly) there is often a great amount of play in his drawings.
Breasts and shoulders tend to be well defined while hips and legs tend to be slimmer, although the buttocks can often be large and round. The men, regardless of race or nationality, tend to have similar bone structure in the face, becoming more or less the same copy over and over again. And, of course, the penises range from simply large to ridiculously gargantuan.
Not that I’m complaining but at some point one has to wonder how these men don’t throw out their back.
At this point the reader may question the immediate relevance of Ramaker’s book. So what? Why should I care about the analysis of pornography? There isn’t any redeeming value in smut, it’s just dudes banging each other so other dudes can jerk off. How could any of this be considered art?
As always my contester has some excellent points. It is important to recognize that Tom of Finland’s work was and still is considered pornography by a significant portion of the population, and because the work is homoerotic in nature his appeal is going to be largely limited to a number of queer men, some women, and then a few art critics bold enough to make a serious assessment of the man and his work. And, to be fair, the typical aesthetic goal of any erotic material is to inspire sexual arousal in the viewer, a sensation which is largely considered base and temporary in most people’s minds. Looking at this then, Tom’s drawings does not seem to have a great amount of relevance to many people.
But if I can make a solid enough case, this criticism reveals a larger truth about the perception of sexuality in our culture. Sex is often, at least as far as the United States is concerned, portrayed in the media in a dichotomy. While there is near constant reference to human sexuality, the lingering Puritanic trend in most Americans ensures that this sexuality is portrayed as obscene, disgusting, or even grotesque thus leading to “abstinence only” environments which have been demonstrated time and time again not to actually work. The conversation about sexuality is almost non-existent at the same time it is ever-present.
Tom of Finland entered my life entirely by accident, and since he did I’ve been able to explore a facet of my sexuality that feels not only true but liberating. In Tom’s leather-clad supermen I found my sexuality and discovered that while at time it could be a serious, all-consuming drive, it could also be something funny and enjoyable. Rather than feeling my desires as something grotesque or morally wrong, my sexuality, my attraction to women and men, was a chance to play and appreciate an idealized world where men could have sex freely without fear. And while there are probably few straight men that would gravitate to the man’s artwork, the spirit of the work is something that is, at least in my estimation, universal.
Sex is supposed to be fun, and Tom’s men are often smeared with the word pornography, they seem to find even in this distinction something to revel in.
And on the note of fear, Ramakers observes something incredibly powerful in Tom’s work:
Tom’s work is dedicated to the glorification of the male body, in all its vulnerability: his bodies are constantly being penetrated in every possible way and through every orifice. (165).
Soon or later every essay about gay sex leads to the anus, and those people who enjoy having their’s penetrated or stimulated. For the record I tried getting the previous sentence put on a t-shirt but the printers told me that they could move the shirts but there wouldn’t be enough room for the little cartoon anus I illustrated so I decided to scrap it. If I’m going to make t-shirts about anal penetration you can bet there’s going to be a cute cartoon anus on them. Integrity matters damn it.
I’ve written before about how the “problem” of penetration in gay sexuality has been discussed by writers and theorists and so I won’t bother my reader with long academic quotes that totally kill the vibe. The simple matter is often the practice of anal sex between men, and the frequent use of the “top/bottom” dynamic within the community, has lead to this perception that gay sex is simply about which partner acts “like the girl” during sex. What’s important about Tom’s work is that this dynamic is not only not apparent, it simply doesn’t exist.
Whether it’s construction workers, cops, sailors, soldiers, business men, or the leather-clad Kake himself, Tom’s men love to suck and fuck, and be sucked and fucked. And so while some readers used to the concept of a pure top/bottom dynamic may at first be bothered by Tom’s presentations, there is actually a real and powerful disruption in the man’s work. Tom’s men simply enjoy sex, and so rather than constructing identities where sexuality is limited to one action or one sexual organ, his men simply embrace the concept that they are sexual objects and beings and so they are willing to simply play with their sexuality.
Ramakers observes the power of this presentation:
Straight porn is for the most part based on the possession of the penis, which is used as a weapon against those who no not possess I. In Tom of Finland’s work it is precisely the penis that is possessed by both—or all—parties, thus unhinging that basic tenet from its supposed immutable position. This allows the power to fluctuate between partners, none of whom can lay claim to “natural” prerogatives on the basis of possession of the penis. (219).
Or to put it another way, nobody is the “girl” in Tom’s work because there aren’t any girls period. The matter of women being the weaker creature in pornography is well documented and in fact is its own essay. For now I simply wanted to focus on Tom’s work because, as I’ve written before in another essay about Tom’s work, the mode of sexuality presented is something I appreciate and respect.
Whether we like it or not, pornography is a staple of the culture, and more and more children will experience pornography as they develop into adults. In such an environment the importance of sexual education is important, but so is sexual representation. Whether it be gay or not, Tom of Finland’s work is an incredible presentation of sexual activity because it does not attempt to present sex as a power-play. Even at it’s most shocking and potentially violent, Tom’s men are not participating in a corrupt or revolting sexual display, they are simply trying to enjoy sex, thus crafting an image of masculinity and humanity that is liberating rather than constricting.
As a queer man, I don’t apologize for enjoying and consuming pornography because it’s an art which has allowed my exploration of self to take place. And I consider it a point of pride that I blame of Tom of Finland for most of my gay sexual development. In the pages of his work I found and fell in love with men who were strong (and “robust”) in a physical as well as personal way. And that in turn was a source of inspiration. My sexuality is something to celebrate rather than fear.
Dirty Pictures is a serious look at a genre of art that is often denied to the possibility for serious reflection and analysis, and as Tom of Finland’s work and life is recognized more and more by the culture such a book is a vital resource. Ramaker’s book is an inspiration for those of us who found solace in Tom’s work, and an inspiration to continue the legacy of the man long after he has died. In this way this review wasn’t just a chance to talk about gay sexuality, it was a chance to thank Ramakers for his book, as well as to thank Tom for his art.
Somewhere on the road there’s a leather-clad superman wearing a winged cock on his hat, and a smile on his face. And it’s because of Tom’s work that a generation of men made it possible for at least the latter to be not so shocking to us. Though as I write this I realize it might also just be because Terry Spots is doing another photo shoot in which case I’ll probably have to stop writing so I can disappear into Instagram for a few wonderful hours.
All quotes cited from Dirty Pictures: Tom of fInland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality were quoted from the first edition hardback St. Martin’s Press edition.
I included this in a previous essay about Tom of Finland, but I’ll put it here again. This website totally and completely supports the work of tOm of Finland and those who try to maintain the legacy of the man’s art. In fact, one such organization is the Tom of Finland Foundation, a sort of museum, archives, community center which maintains the legacy of Tom of Finland, houses most of his work, and actually supports the work of other erotic artists working today. I mention this organization not just because I love Tom of FInland, but also because I’m a member of the Foundation and considered it one of the proudest moments of my life when I received my membership card in the mail.
If you love Tom of FInland, or at least would be more interested in learning more about the man’s work, I’ve included a link below to the FOundation’s website where you can contact them directly as well as see some of the various artists who have contributed to their organization.
I would also recomend, if you get the chance, visiting the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago. While their work is not dedicated solely to Tom of Finland, it was partly because of his art that the leather-scene took off in the United States and became not just an aesthetic but an entire lifestyle. Their museum and website is dedicated to collecting and preserving leather-culture and the various arts and artists and peoples who have helped establish the community. you can see their site by following the link below:
If the reader is at all interested I found a few articles and pages about the lasting significance of Tom of Finland and have included them below. Some of them have to deal with the new biopic film about Tom of Finland himself (which I do intend to watch and review at some point) Enjoy:
And finally, if you would be interested in reading (really seeing and owning) Tom’s work for yourself, I’ve provided a link to TAschen’s website where you can purchase some of the beautiful collections of Tom’s work. I would ABSOLUTELY recommend it:
Okay, seriously this time. THIS is the last thing I’ll say. Tom’s work was largely responsible for creating a “working-class” model of homosexuality thus shattering the illusion that queer men could only be upper-class-fairy-limp-wriested-fops. Not that there was anything wrong with being an effeminate queen (lord knows I am), but Tom essentialy gave queer men more room to find themselves, and this perception that anybody could be gay has allowed for some beautiful moments in art.
Case and point my all time favorite scene from The Simpsons. Homer thinks Bart is gay and so he takes him around to see several examples of burly-straight-men all of which turn out to be gay until it culminates in this moment of pure comedic genius.