Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality.
Ramakers, Micha. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. 270 p., illustrations; $27.95. ISBN 0312205260.
If sex is important, then porn is. - Micha Ramakers
I have always fought against the utopian physical images of humans that proliferate in American popular culture and subculture. Being someone who was once extremely overweight, I know the psychological and emotional influence popular images of beautifully sculpted, smooth, perfect bodies (the male body for me) can have on people. Not only are these eroticized images of the perfect male, the Adonis we are all supposed to desire for our own flesh, out of touch with the reality of most men, the models in question never seem to be experiencing anything remotely close to happiness. They seem to ooze with their own natural or sculpted uber-symmetrical beauty. With this personal is political diatribe in mind, one might be inclined to assume that I would be about to trash an examination and defense of Tom of Finland's art/work. Quite the contrary, I adore Touko Laaksonen's images. Yes, Tomland is populated with exaggerated Adonisism, but the key is that he was not attempting to sell that image beyond his own ideals and fantasy. He wanted to show gay men that they could embody masculinity by giving his ideal models of masculinity. With Tom's work there is no dynamic that expects the viewer to desire for himself the exaggerated physiques of the denizens of Tomland, these are his representations of queer masculinity and he makes no demands for allegiance. Perhaps the most important aspect of Tom's work for gay men is the exquisite jouissance displayed by the characters, the shame was gone, and in its place there is mutual happiness, enjoyment, even tenderness that had been denied us for too long.
"An article...in the International Herald Tribune quoted Taschen as saying that Tom of Finland was important because he 'gave gays a positive image for the first time'"(Ramakers, 23).
Art critic David Hirsch saw the rise of gay and lesbian representation in art in the public resulting from 1970's feminism, AIDS, and the culture wars of the 1980s. But there was a problem, much of it was considered pornography not ART, and the arguments evolving from this issue have been, and are, nebulous and dangerous. Ramakers explores these issues and defends Tom's work as art using historical analysis of the distinctions between pornography and art which were nonexistent prior to the nineteenth century. The concept of porn as we know it did not exist, the rise in education and literacy coalesced with the rise of censorship. Ramakers uses this as part of his approach to shatter the modern concept of porn. "Tom of Finland's lifework was the masculination of gay desire" (Ramakers, 225).
Tom's art aimed to create or promote a new way of looking at gay sex. He is credited with creating a new gay stereotype, the macho gay man. A stereotype that challenged the socially constructed, heterosexist stereotype that Michael Bronski has called the Cult of the Dandy. Laaksonen was a trained commercial artist and a master of using stereotypes to convey messages.
In defense of Tom's work against conservative feminist and gay theories proposing the dangerous nature of porn, Ramakers successfully deconstructs the myth(s) that gay porn is without difference to straight porn, that it ultimately reinforces heterosexist and therefore phallic-ordered gaze. He argues that Tom's work functions apart from the phallic or male gaze, the object/characters are not passive, and the viewer is drawn into participation. Tom's work is not a voyeuristic "sausage" party. The images developed by Tom are not supposed to be real human beings, they are his icons of masculinity that he is sharing with us. "[H]is great achievement was then seen as having liberated gay men from the shackles of femininity and unnaturalness" (Ramakers, 58).
His was a reclamation of the masculine image into a subculture of men believed to lack this trait. (As if gender is so simple.) Ramakers addresses issues of gender and sexuality construction; how they were scrutinized through cultural discourses throughout Tom's career and how it influenced his work. "[O]nce fixed gender identities were replaced by fixed sexual identities, the development of a masculine gay identity became a necessary project" (Ramakers, 66). An interesting note, Tom did not begin by drawing his iconic liberated masculinized gay men, but by sketching Dandies or fairies.
By the mid 1950s fairies disappeared from Tom's work. He began his exploration into his now famous iconography by illustrating body types molded by physical labor (e.g. lumberjacks). From there his characters evolved into beings shaped by technology (e.g. bodybuilding). Most of Tom's work featured the pumped-up male body, uniform characters with uniform bodies and faces, "individuality was cancelled out in favor of one ideal image" (Ramakers, 69). Toward the end of his life, the fantasy of Tomland's characters was challenged by the reality of human and technological interfacing in the realm of bodybuilding. Tom's fantasy ideals were becoming achievable through advances in bodybuilding, steroids, supplements, and plastic surgery. Tom reacted the only way he could; his subjects were exaggerated even more, to the point of near absurdity.
Dirty Pictures argues that Tom and his contemporaries work was more influential and harnessed more power than the gay political magazines/rags of the time. Physique Pictorial, Tom's premier source of steady work, had in sheer numbers a far greater audience. Not until 1974 did any of the gay political magazines outsell the more gratuitous rags dedicated to eroticism.
Throughout the book, Ramakers neatly defends tired accusations against all forms of pornography. Claims were made that there was no real difference between gay and straight porn, that both succesfully reinforced hegemonic heterosexist oppressive points of view (e.g. all images of the penis can be equated to images of weapons). Micha defeats these arguments through discussing gaze and the patriarchic tradition of viewing. "[F]or all its glorification of masculinity, gay porn does not necessarily promote the concept in the same way as patriarchal logic would like it" (Ramakers, 111). The other porn critics had not considered the space of the penetrated male body and eroticization, which in hegemonic discourse equals death -- equals anti-masculine.
"Straight porn is for the most part based on the possession of the penis, which is used as a weapon against those who do not possess it. 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 supposedly immutable position. This allows power to fluctuate between the partners, none of whom can lay claim to certain 'natural' prerogatives on the basis of possession of the penis. By challenging the fixed prerogatives of the male in this way, one can hardly speak of a traditional representation of 'masculinity' and longer. Tom's hypermasculinity is indeed not the gay equivalent of straight masculinity but its opposite -- but for reasons other than the arguments based on 'the values of liberal individualism' put forward by Richard Mohr.
Tom's gay hypermasculinity does indeed not 'get its charge by distancing itself from women'...but closeness to ('gay') men, and the challenges it posed to their thinking about masculinity, that makes his body of work interesting, exciting, and ultimately, defensible. 'The legitimacy of homosexuality lies not in its loyalty to orthodox masculinity, but in its violation'" (Ramakers, 219).
Summarization of Tom's and Ramakers' main theme is the "valorization and eroticization of masculinity," which usually featured the penetrated male body (Ramakers, 112). He was dissatisfied with the femininization of gay men, but also had to navigate the waters of complex gender and sexuality fluidity because femininity is impossible to escape. What kind of masculinity has Tom created, a masculinity that is paradox because of the penetration of the male body is significant of the loss of masculinity? Tom created new possibilities, a new fluid gendering for gay men, one in which we are in the throws of jubilation and penetration without losing the construct of masculinity, one in which we are hypermasculine.
Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality by Micha Ramakers is an excellent and to my knowledge the first in-depth look into the work of Tom of Finland. It is not a biography (see F. Valentine Hooven III for the biography). It confronts the cultural influences on Tom and his work and the affects it in turn had upon gay subcultures, Western popular culture, and the art world. Most importantly it valorizes Tom's work and what it has meant to gay men around the world.