Confronting Tom of Finland
01 April 2014 / Features / by Adam Thorburn
Tom of Finland is celebrated for his assertion of a masculine homosexuality. Was this revolutionary, asks Adam Thorburn, or were darker cultural forces at work?
(Click images to enlarge / launch slideshow – some images are explicit)
Warning: This article contains sexually explicit material. The links connect to the sexually graphic and sexually violent illustrations referenced.
An Introduction to Tom’s World
Tom of Finland (born Touko Laaksonen in Kaarina, Finland in 1920) began his career in the late 1950s as an illustrator for men’s physique or “beefcake” magazines, whose primary audience was gay men. When US censorship codes loosened in the 1960s and ’70s, Tom’s published work became sexually explicit. Tom of Finland produced thousands of drawings of hard-core gay male sex over his lifetime. These illustrations, often produced in comic book format, have become ubiquitous in gay male culture. Tom of Finland’s drawings have been fixtures on the walls of gay bars for decades and have been reproduced on countless T-shirts, calendars and greetings cards.
On the occasion of Tom of Finland’s death in 1991, Drummer magazine published the following tribute:
How fortunate are we who appreciate the strong masculine fantasy imagery brought forth through Tom’s insatiable urge to recreate his world through his art … what a revolutionary concept was being asserted in his work: that of masculine homosexuality. We can only speculate what life would be if we still were forced to feel that to be gay is somehow not male.
This “revolutionary concept” of asserting a masculine homosexuality is one of Tom of Finland’s enduring legacies to gay culture. According to his biographer, F. Valentine Hooven III, Tom of Finland is “the foremost name in gay erotic art”. Art historian Micha Ramakers states that Tom of Finland is “the best-known and most widely appreciated producer of gay erotica of the second half of the twentieth century”.
In his drawings of gay male sex, Tom of Finland eliminates any effeminacy, weakness, or softness associated with men who have sex with men. In Tom’s universe, there is no loss of manhood in homosexual activity. What’s more, masculinity is depicted as being strengthened and re-energized through gay sex.
The masculinity of Tom’s men is first evident in their external appearance. Tom’s men have a distinct, highly-stylized, hypermasculine look; virtually every man has a square jaw, a cleft chin, small eyes, and lips that typically curl in a knowing sexual grin.
The men’s physiques are that of muscular bodybuilders with accentuated chests and narrow waists. Tom’s men possess anatomically impossible, surreally gargantuan penises [Untitled, 1967]. Further emphasizing their power and virility, Tom’s men are dressed in the garb of masculine archetypes; an endless procession of policemen, soldiers, sailors, lumberjacks, construction workers, cowboys, leather men and bikers parade through Tom’s drawings.
The men who inhabit Tom’s world – with their generic physical features and dressed in clothing that represents male authority and power – embody a generalized idea of masculinity. Tom of Finland’s illustrations celebrate masculinity as a romanticised concept, or ideal.
Tom and Sexual Violence
If the masculinity of Tom’s men is first apparent in their appearance, it is further established in their sexual behavior. The primary sex act in Tom’s world is one of force. Forced sex and gang rape are depicted repeatedly in Tom’s images [Kake 15: Violent Visitor, 1974; Untitled, 1963]. Men are tied up, spanked, handcuffed, gagged and whipped [The Rope, 1968; Kake 14: Sadist, 1973; Kake 23: In the Wild West, 1982]. Every act of violence is a sexual act in Tom’s universe.
Violent sex in the world of Tom of Finland is depicted in the same distorted way that violent sex is so often depicted in straight men’s pornography: the pain or trauma experienced by those who are assaulted is removed. Tom of Finland tells the standard pornographer’s lie that those who are forced into sex ultimately succumb to their attackers and experience sexual pleasure.
But the men who are sexually overpowered in Tom’s drawings differ from conquered females in straight men’s pornography in a crucial and significant way. Habitually in Tom of Finland’s universe, men who are sexually attacked experience no defeat or subjugation.
In the comic Postal Rape, Tom’s recurrent hero Kake sexually assaults a postman as punishment for putting a fold in a piece of his mail [Kake 25: Postal Rape, 1984]. Two men witnessing the assault assist Kake in the ongoing attack [Kake 25: Postal Rape, 1984]. The final image of the story shows the postman exiting the scene of his rape with a self-satisfied grin. His shirt is lifted up exposing his massive pectoral muscles and his tumescent nipples; the crotch on his pants bulges, indicating the expanse of his swollen penis inside. The postman leaves the site where he has just been violently gang raped bursting with sexual potency and vigor [Kake 25: Postal Rape, 1984].
In Tom’s world, men who are assaulted seem to absorb the virility of their assailants into their flesh and emerge from an attack strengthened and revitalised. Whether he is sexual aggressor or sexual prey, a man’s sense of himself is expanded through violent sex in Tom’s drawings. Sex functions for Tom’s male characters in the same way it functions for the male characters in straight men’s pornography. In both, masculinity is reenergised through rough and violent sex.
The sexual activity in Tom’s drawings is most commonly group sex. A typical Tom of Finland scenario might include three men having sex with each other but can consist of up to ten or more participants [Untitled, 1974]. The archetypal conclusion to a Tom of Finland scenario is a post-coital tableau of an assembly of men smiling at each other, embracing shoulder-to-shoulder or giving a jovial wave or salute to one another [Kake 10: Raunchy Truckers, 1971; Kake 17: Loading Zone, 1975; Kake 22: Highway Patrol, 1980].
These representations of male camaraderie and communion are not expressions of queer solidarity in the face of social oppression. Tom’s men exist in an alternate world where there is no hint at the political persecution of men who have sex with men. If voicing anything political on behalf of gay men, these group sex scenes express gay male desire for assimilation into the elite brotherhood of masculine men.
Tom’s illustrations of group sex that end in displays of male bonding and unity function as reaffirmations of men’s collective strength as a class of people. Again, Tom of Finland’s drawings work in the same way straight men’s pornography works – to reassert the political power and sexual supremacy of men.
The first panel of a Tom of Finland comic entitled Pleasure Park features Tom’s hero Kake walking towards the entrance of a wooded park to cruise for sex. At the opening gate is a sign in capital letters that reads: “MEN ONLY” [Kake 20: Pleasure Park, 1977]. The prohibition on this sign might seem absurdly redundant; virtually everything feminine in Tom’s all-male fantasia has already been extinguished. To be precise, however, women do show up in Tom of Finland’s illustrations albeit infrequently. When they are depicted, women are on the sidelines of Tom’s sexual narratives. The sketchy, rough outlines of a female figure might be depicted in the far background or the bottom of an illustration. Women will appear on the literal periphery of an image; the profile or a section of a woman’s face, or a part of a woman’s body is seen at the edge or the corner of a frame [Kake 9: The Cock d’Or, 1971; Beach Boys 2: Untitled, 1971]. The level of fetishistic detail Tom gives to his drawings of male bodies is in stark contrast to his clumsily drawn female bodies. Female figures often appear hulking and ungainly in Tom’s images [Kake 9: The Cock d’Or, 1971]; their faces are mask-like and contorted.
Tom himself stated he couldn’t draw women well and claimed to have given up the effort. But Tom’s crudely rendered female figures go beyond any alleged lack of skill on his part or any benign sexual indifference he might have felt towards women.
In one of Tom’s drawings from Physique Pictorial a heavyset woman stands in a supermarket. She wears an old-fashioned dress and sneers at a shirtless young man wearing cutoff shorts. She points the tip of her umbrella in disapproval at the young man’s nearly-exposed buttocks.
The man’s youth, lithe body and near-nudity are in stark contrast to the woman’s advanced age, stout body and prim clothing. This stern matron, the embodiment of sexual repression and prudery, reappears as a supporting character in Tom’s illustrations. In a comic entitled Threesome, an irate woman summons a policeman to assist her. She seeks retribution against a sailor who abandoned her mid-coitus for Kake. When the policeman and the woman come upon the sailor and Kake having sex, the policeman aggressively thrusts his billy club up the women’s vagina as she pulls back in distress and alarm [Kake 6: Threesome, 1970]. The policeman begins having sex with Kake and the sailor as the cast-aside woman masturbates with the police officer’s billy club. The final panel of the comic shows the men encircled in a three-way embrace; their erect penises form a phallic triumvirate in the foreground. The abandoned woman is shown in the back of the image, gratefully kissing the officer’s club that had earlier been used to violate her [Kake 6: Threesome, 1970].
Tom of Finland’s contempt for women is evident not just in how badly they’re drawn but in how they function in his narratives. When relegated to the margins of a story or image, Tom’s women are depicted as sexual nonentities who focus all erotic energy towards the majestic men in the foreground. When women appear more prominently in Tom’s narratives, they are represented as overweight, sour-faced killjoys and sexually overbearing harpies; their sexual hideousness is used to highlight by contrast the sexual glory of Tom’s men.
Tom of Finland’s misogyny is not a minor or isolated facet of his worldview. It’s integral to the meaning of masculine identity in his universe. The sexual radiance and virility of Tom’s men is dependent upon the sexual foulness and negativity of women to be fully realised. Masculinity in Tom’s illustrations is shaped by what it is not, by what is ignored and relegated to the sidelines, by what is rejected and abandoned, by what is detested and deemed sexually repulsive.
In an image from Tom’s comic The White Hunter, a blond Caucasian man wearing a jungle explorer’s outfit stands in a tropical forest. He is being held captive by a primitive tribe of naked black men. The white man’s hands are bound behind his back by his abductors. The outsized penis of the white man falls from the opening in his pants and is cradled in the hand of one of his captors. The captor presents the white man’s penis as a sexual offering to the tribe’s leader who is in the foreground of the image. The tribe’s leader is an obese black woman with a crown on her head. She lies naked on a leopard-skin rug. She holds a banana in one hand and with the other hand she fingers her genitalia. Her gaze is fixed on the white man’s enormous penis. Openmouthed, she grins at what she sees; a droplet of drool hangs suspended from her lower lip, an indication of her high state of sexual arousal [Jack 1: The White Hunter, 1971].
The black woman in this comic is rendered as a sexually debased and revolting beast. She is reviled because she is a woman and because of the colour of her skin. Tom of Finland exploits degrading racial stereotypes of people of colour, often turning them into subhuman savages, to magnify the sexual grandeur and beauty of his Caucasian supermen.
Tom and Race
Tom of Finland created a Tarzan-like character named Jack who is the hero in a series of comics. Jack is Caucasian, wears a loincloth and lives in the jungle.
In the comic Rape of the Jungle Lord, Jack is seen walking through the tropical forest when he is captured by a tribe of naked black men. Jack is hog-tied to a bamboo pole and carried by the tribe to an opening in the jungle [Jack 2: Rape of the Jungle Lord, 1972]. Jack is then tied between two wooden stakes that look like gigantic penises; he is bound spread-eagle and upside-down. The black tribesmen each take turns anally and orally raping Jack [Jack 2: Rape of the Jungle Lord, 1972]. In the midst of the assault, the wooden stakes to which Jack is bound snap and collapse. The following image shows Jack standing upright and free. He is now powerful and victorious. He stands with his legs spread, chest out, and penis erect; his two fists are pumped above his head triumphantly. The tribesmen lay on the ground at Jack’s feet in fear. With trepidation and reverence, the tribe lifts their hands beseeching in prayer towards the godlike white man now standing before them [Jack 2: Rape of the Jungle Lord, 1972]. Waving a rope like a whip over his head, Jack brings the tribesmen into further submission. The tribe lines up side-by-side before Jack, compliantly offering him their backsides for his sexual use [Jack 2: Rape of the Jungle Lord, 1972]. Jack proceeds down the line, ass-fucking each member of the tribe. The final panel of the comic shows Jack aloft on a jungle vine. With the bearing of a king bidding farewell to his subjects, Jack waves with the back of his hand to the black men below. In veneration and awe, the tribesmen reach their hands up en masse towards Jack’s huge penis dangling midair above them [Jack 2: Rape of the Jungle Lord, 1972].
All the Jack in the Jungle comics essentially repeat the same drama with the same message. Black savages initially threaten to upend the sexual sovereignty of white men; the racial and sexual order of Tom of Finland’s world is overturned. But ultimately the black savages are shamed and defeated. In the end, white male authority is restored; the racial and sexual hierarchy is reinstated to what Tom of Finland suggests is its rightful, natural state.
Tom of Finland does not always portray black men as primitive, jungle beasts or in overtly demeaning scenarios. The depiction of a black construction worker or a black policeman amongst the sea of Tom’s white men may look like a gesture towards racial inclusivity on his part. However, these illustrations are not celebrations of racial egalitarianism. Tom regularly draws black men amplifying specific physical characteristics; he habitually draws black men with inflated thick lips, heavy brow ridges, wide flattened noses and protruding ears. [Untitled, 1985; Untitled, 1986]. Tom distorts, exaggerates and fetishizes racial differences to indicate the vast importance and meaning of those differences.
The supreme virility of Tom’s leading men, such as Kake and Jack, is contingent upon the fact that these characters are depicted as white men. In the same way that Tom’s contemptuous depictions of women are used to confirm the superiority of men, his derisive depictions of men of colour are used to uphold the racial superiority of white men. This is not to suggest that Tom’s aim is to render men of colour sexually unstimulating; on the contrary, Tom of Finland promotes racist fixations as sexually exciting.
Tom of Finland uses misogynist and racially degrading imagery as signposts around his primary enterprise: the glorification of white masculinity.
Masculine identity is not an identity based on inclusivity; it is not egalitarian. Masculinity is elitist, conformist, and intolerant of difference at its very core.
The Phantom Pansy
Behind all the pumped-up male bodies in Tom of Finland’s drawings, behind all the strutting police officers and smirking cowboys, behind all the muscled fuckery is a looming, ever-present phantom. Lurking behind every image of Tom’s masculine gods is the specter of a limp-wristed homosexual. Tom of Finland’s career as a pornographer can be regarded as a mission to rescue homosexuality from the contamination of effeminacy.
In a drawing Tom created for Physique Pictorial, a muscular young man stands in a tailor’s shop being measured for a new suit. The tailor, also young and fit, kneels beneath the muscled man and pulls a measuring tape up the man’s leg into the bulge of the man’s crotch. Off to the right sits a third man in an easy chair.
The seated man is rotund; he is dressed fastidiously in a tailored suit with a checkered vest. He wears a handkerchief in his breast pocket and a carnation in his lapel. He looks askance at the strapping young man standing beside him.
In this illustration, the effeminate homosexual who haunts every Tom of Finland illustration – that phantom pansy – is made visible. In this drawing, virtually every feature of the pansy’s body – his fat jowls, his plump chest, his rounded shoulders – meets its comeuppance in the muscled body of the man standing next to him. The muscle man has a square jawline and wears a tight-fitting vest that reveals his chiseled chest and brawny arms; the vest rides up his midriff to expose his defined, flat stomach. Nearly every part of the muscle man’s chiseled body is a direct retort to the heavyset body of the pansy.
The muscle man in the illustration stands firmly on the ground with his legs spread apart, while the pansy sits with his legs closed tight. The pansy’s knees and feet are pressed close together in a stereotypically feminine manner. Unlike the muscle man, whose genitalia bulges in his pants, the pansy has no bulge whatsoever in his crotch. Tom of Finland neuters the pansy and presents him to us as the laughable antithesis of masculine virility.
In a promotional video for the book Tom of Finland XXL, the book’s editor describes the deep-seated disgust Tom held for men who didn’t conform to his idea masculinity:
In the 1940s when [Tom of Finland] came of age, society expected gay men to look and act fey, which [Tom] found strange and unattractive. Some men went so far as to become grotesque parodies of women, which was unspeakable to [Tom]. Why couldn’t men attracted to men be just as masculine as any other male…? Largely from frustration, [Tom] took up drawing to create pictures that turned him on….
For Tom of Finland, brazenly effeminate men, men who might be considered grotesque parodies of women, were worthy of scorn and sexual contempt. Their behavior was “unspeakable” to him. Yet the men he drew obsessively over his lifetime, the hypermasculine gargoyles who use their elephantine penises like weapons – men who might be considered grotesque parodies of men – Tom insists are worthy of admiration and sexual reverence.
When it came to effeminacy in men, Tom of Finland shared the values of the world in which he lived; he shared with the culture at large a seething hatred for the sissy. Tom of Finland stood united with the anti-gay establishment in its roiling contempt for men who defied the dictates of masculine deportment and appearance.
Tom of Finland’s illustrations have served as “Urtexts” or templates for today’s pornographers. The aesthetic and themes of contemporary gay male pornography are replications and extensions of Tom’s sexual world. Tom of Finland’s influence, however, is not restricted to the images of gay pornography. Durk Dehner, President of the Tom of Finland Foundation, regards Tom’s illustrations as fonts of sexual emancipation; Dehner says ,“As they [Tom’s drawings] were absorbed into the culture, they released the shackles holding down all who were sexually suppressed, especially his brother homosexuals, who had never been granted a full, entitled, and authentic manhood.”
Tom of Finland and his acolytes equate embodying a “full, entitled and authentic manhood” with sexual liberation. Under the pretext of sexual freedom, Tom of Finland reproduced a regressive masculine ethic that is neither liberating nor redemptive.
The world Tom of Finland created in his drawings offers gay men an identity which grants them admittance into the bastion of masculine power. A sense of entitlement, sexual egotism and a propensity towards violence – customarily heterosexual men’s prerogatives – are displayed by Tom’s men with uninhibited gusto. Tom’s sexualized hatred of women puts him lockstep with the creators of straight men’s pornography whose ultimate goal is the reinforcement of male power. Tom of Finland seductively intones to white men that it is their birthright as Caucasian males to wield sexual power over and against people of colour. Tom’s celebration of everything masculine and animosity towards effeminacy is a duplication of our larger culture that honors “Real Men” and renounces “worthless faggots.” Tom of Finland’s drawings do not merely mimic the sexual ideology of our white male supremacy; they are a continuation and strengthening of it.
Adam Thorburn is a free-lance writer and playwright currently living in New York City. His critical writings have appeared in The Humanist and Gay Community News. Thorburn’s fact-based play Stuyvesant Town: This Is Your Home was performed at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York in 2012. He is currently working as dramaturg and director of a play based on the writings of radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, which will be staged in New York in May 2014.
A version of Confronting Tom of Finland was first delivered as a talk at the symposium Rewriting Homosexuality at Wake Forest University in 2013.