Every year, May 8th is the day reserved to honor the controversial but widely celebrated artist Tom of Finland, known for his drawing of hypermasculine, muscular, blue-collar deceptions in gay pornographic (or pornographic-adjacent) images from the 1950s through the ‘70s. Finland famously worked during a time when gayness was pathologized, demonized, and criminalized, and depictions of gay erotic expression were banned and censored.
The Tom of Finland Foundation urges gay communities across the globe to celebrate Tom of Finland Day for his commitment to his artistic message: “Gay is Good.” This year, the foundation is celebrating the artist with an auction in lieu of what would have been his 101st birthday.
But upon examination of Finland’s work and motivations, it seems a more accurate artistic message would read, “Only a Specific Brand of Gay is Good”. And when placing Finland’s work into a historical and political context, it begs the question of how “revolutionary” Finland’s work actually was and remains. While there is something to be said about his artistic vision and its mainstream success under a socio-political or socio-historical lens, the legacy of Finland’s work is complex.
Finland championed the notion that a well-built, white, middle-class body is the pinnacle of masculinity and chiefly deserving of social, political, and erotic capital.
Tom of Finland’s art consisted of what he called “dirty drawings.” These were depictions of hypermasculine, hypersexual, blue-collar men in little-to-no clothing placed in suggestive, sexual stances and postures. The men Finland drew mostly followed the same format: extremely muscular, exaggerated bulge and/or butt, clean-cut, and, for the most part, white. The men he drew not only expressed masculinity through their bodies and postures, but also through their occupation. Men were routinely costumed as cops, sailors, and in three-piece suits. The intention was clear: being gay doesn’t negate or cancel one’s masculinity.
Finland’s work was extremely impactful. Countless queer men have testified that Finland’s work gave them the strength to come out. Others have credited him with paving the way to gay liberation. And some have been proclaimed his work to be their “salvation.”
Finland’s work grew in popularity during the 1950s – a pointed time in U.S. history and culture. During the post-World War ll era, the American landscape was drastically shifting on ideas and national representations of gender. The Great Depression posed a significant threat to idealized gender roles and white masculinity. Lack of income and job stability directly opposed the role of the man-as-provider. The United States’ mobilization of war was the answer to the financial and gender crisis. World War II provided jobs and the opportunity to reclaim western ideals of masculinity. The United States government capitalized on this opportunity through very pointed and intentional propaganda that reinforced notions of a specific brand of masculinity: that of the white, well-built, middle-class man. Scholars such as Bradon T. Locke and Michael Bronski have discussed at length how the masculine ideals disseminated in WWll propaganda further cemented hegemonic masculine ideals that still affect our ideas about gender today.
Finland’s work is what’s considered revolutionary, but how revolutionary can it be when it propagates the same themes from a culture that pathologizes and criminalizes the community you claim to celebrate?
Finland’s art uniquely echoed the imagery of WWll propaganda by featuring these images of white, well-built, middle-class men. The context is different, of course, but the intended message is the same: to present a certain brand of maleness that represents a specific brand of American masculinity. The gay eroticism of Finland’s work is what’s considered revolutionary, but how revolutionary can it be when it propagates the same themes from a culture that pathologizes and criminalizes the humanity of you and the community you claim to celebrate? Privileging this heteronormative and patriarchal ideal of maleness only furthers the othering of those that fall outside those bounds – whether intentional or not.
Assimilation into dominant ideologies and cultures is the antithesis of what it means to be revolutionary.
In an interview towards the end of his career, Finland was asked about his artistic motivation. He responded, “Soon I began to exaggerate their maleness on purpose to point out that all gays don’t necessarily need to be just “those damn queers”, they could be handsome, strong, and masculine as any other men.” This statement makes Finland’s intention clear: he was adhering to patriarchal understandings of manhood, capitalizing on homophobic and misogynic notions that effeminacy is equivalent to womanhood and thus of lesser value.
By adhering to a more hegemonic masculinity, Finland championed the notion that a well-built, white, middle-class body is the pinnacle of masculinity and chiefly deserving of social, political, and erotic capital.
Assimilation into dominant ideologies and cultures is the antithesis of what it means to be revolutionary. Othering certain demographics of folk to elevate your own is in direct opposition to progress. Finland’s place in gay history is already cemented and cannot be undone, but it is important to continuously analyze and think critically about what is considered progressive and revolutionary. Otherwise, we’ll keep reinforcing existing, oppressive social and political systems. ♦
Avery Ware (He/They) is a writer, educator, and leftist from Lorain, OH. He holds a MA in American Studies and a BA in Sociology. Their work covers Black queer history, gay male culture, popular & visual culture. Avery is also the host of Drag From The Left, a podcast the engages the art of drag from a radical, leftist perspective. Through his teaching, writing, and podcasting, Avery is dedicated to a liberatory pedagogy that centers the voices and experiences of marginalized groups that have historically been silenced.