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From Finland With Lust – How Tom Re-Designed the Male Body For Pleasure

The teenage Tom of Finland’s gay fantasies from the 1940s of muscular men have come to define a mainstream view of masculinity, argues Mark Simpson

UPDATE March 2020: On the centenary of his birth, a major new exhibition of Tom’s art opens in London, from 6 March to 28 June.

(Originally appeared in The London Times, Nov 2008 and collected in Metrosexy)

The first time I saw a Tom of Finland drawing was in a well-thumbed, seventh-hand issue of Fiesta, a top-shelf favourite of schoolboys in the 1970s. The image, buried at the back, was in a small ad for more “specialised” publications, probably missed by most of my schoolchums who had thumbed the issue before me. But it jumped out at me like an outsized erection.

It depicted a pair of muscular butch young men with big chins and broad grins grabbing each other’s bubble butts and straining packets while winking at the reader. I immediately rushed out to the post office to buy as many postal orders as my pocket money would allow.

Although I was sorely disappointed with the ‘Biker Boy’ lame leather fetish magazine – with no Tom of Finland drawings – that eventually turned up, I have spent much of my adult life and a fortune on gym membership fairly ‘fruitlessly’ trying to recreate that Tom of Finland image that I glimpsed as a teen.

I needn’t have bothered, however – because as it turned out the whole world was going to become a Tom of Finland drawing. His sensualised, cartoonish über-male body and its endless potential for pleasure and pleasuring has become commonplace. Think of the rugby player Austin Healey pulsating on BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing in tight pants and a sleeveless top. Or all those footballers keen to strip off and show us their assets on the sides of buses.

The notes for artist retrospectives usually make extravagant claims, and those for a major retrospective of Tom of Finland in Liverpool, part of that city’s annual Homotopia queer culture festival, make some very extravagant ones indeed: “Tom had an effect on global culture unmatched by that of virtually any other artist,” we are told. But for once, there’s something to this hyperbole, despite the artistic merit of his work being very debatable.

Tom was born Touko Laaksonen in Kaarina, Finland, in 1920 and his work is literally the masturbatory fantasies of a lonely young homosexual Finnish boy – he began drawing in his locked bedroom in the 1940s, pencil in one hand, penis in the other. His fetishised, overobserved, long-distance gay appropriation of masculinity has, in a mediated, long-distance world, become… masculinity.

It’s often said that Tom’s greatest achievement was in drawing gay men who were masculine, happy and proud at a time when they were supposed to be effeminate, neurotic and shameful. This is certainly the reason why so many gay men are Tom devotees, wittingly or not. Today’s gay porn is merely filthy footnotes to Tom, endlessly replaying the narrative of “regular guys” with very irregular-sized penises and pectorals having spontaneous, shameless sex at the drop of a monkey wrench.  (And it’s entirely apt that one of the sponsors of this retrospective is Gaydar, the gay ‘dating’ site where gay men post Tom-ish pictures of themselves looking for other Tom-ish men to have Tom-ish sex with.)

However, the out-and-proud gay biker look – identity even – that Tom perfected after seeing Marlon Brando in The Wild One (Brando was a Tom drawing in 3D) and which became so popular in the pre-Aids 1970s and early 1980s, reaching its peak with the climactic success of the Liverpool band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, has become a dated cliché. See, for example, the tangoing, mustachioed leather men in the Blue Oyster basement bar in Police Academy – and few if any young gay men today aspire to it.

But when you look at Tom’s drawings in this retrospective, which features 25 of his works in the basement (predictably) of the Contemporary Urban Centre in Liverpool, it becomes apparent that his achievement goes much further than just making gay men feel good about themselves or love the snugness of leather harnesses. Tom, who worked as an illustrator in the Finnish advertising business until the early 1970s, when he became a full-time gay propagandist, sold the male body as a pleased, pleasuring and pleasured thing several decades before Calvin Klein thought of it. In the middle of the 20th century, Tom was effectively sketching the blueprint of 21st-century man. And boy, was he blue.

Before Tom almost no one drew men like he did, making them such unabashed sex objects and sex subjects, giving them such exaggerated male secondary – and primary! – sexual characteristics: big chins, strong jaws, full lips. Masculinity, and virility end up looking so… nurturing. Buxom. Busty. Tom’s men have round firm breasts, saucer-like aureolas and nipples you can adjust your thermostat with. One (from 1962) struts down the street, biceps bulging, chest literally bursting out of his shirt, and dressing very much to the left: no wonder he’s being followed.

His saucy curvaceousness a testament to the way in which aestheticised hyper-masculinity is oddly androgyne. And while Tom’s men may have had their tits out for the lads, the kind of Tom-ish male body he helped to invent is nowadays getting them out for lads and lasses, gay or straight, online or in real time.

Likewise Tom’s drawings also reveal the male derrière as a sexual organ: not just in some of the more hardcore examples, but the way that Tom-ish buttocks are so spherical, so sensual, so inviting. One of the most striking and prescient sketches, from 1981, is also one of the tamest: a row of bedenimed male bubble butts sticking out at a bar – awaiting perhaps the attentions of the hugely powerful Abercrombie & Fitch photographer Bruce Weber (a big Tom fan), or perhaps the vaselined, wide-angled lens of a Levi’s commercial.

Tom’s big break came in the 1950s from Physique Pictorial, an underground, semi-legal gay American fanzine disguised as a straight men’s bodybuilding magazine, which frequently put Tom’s men on the cover. Half a century later, and 17 years after his death in 1991, the world is inverted: flesh-and-blood men who look like Tom’s drawings appear on the cover of bestselling corporate mags such as Men’s Health. Flick one open, and you’ll find it full of advice on how straight men can turn themselves into something Tom-ish.

POSTSCRIPT Feb 2011

Compare the 1960s Tom of Finland sketch of the pneumatic young man swaggering/sashaying down the street at the top of this essay, with the one below of 21st Century Jersey Shore star Mikey ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino.

Cecil Beaton: Valour in the Face of Beauty

In a world saturated with social me-dear surveillance and suffused with surplus selfies, being ‘interesting’ becomes ever-more compulsory – just as it becomes ever-more elusive. Not only for artists in this brave new connected, visual, attention-seekingworld, but for civilians too.

Little wonder that Cecil Beaton, a man who essentially invented himself and his astonishing career with a portable camera loaded with his ambition and longing,  one of the brightest of his bright young generation of the 1920s, has become more famous, not less.

As we plough relentlessly into a 21st century that he anticipated in many ways, long before his death in 1980, I suspect ours is a world he would be as much horrified as impressed by.

I’ve penned a long but – it goes without saying – scintillating profile of the British photographer dandy Cecil Beaton for fashion and style mag Another Man‘s 15th anniversary issue. 

Guest-edited by the legendary and lovely Jo-Ann Furniss, other contributors include Paul Morely, Douglas Coupland and Chris Heath.

The issue is on sale now for £6.99. But in a first of its kind for the glossy fash mag, you can download the whole issue digitally – and hygeinically – gratis, if you fill in their form here

Psycho Somatic

How Sam’s body in ‘Psycho’ melted mine and Julie’s minds

On New Year’s Day I rewatched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. As you do. Released in 1960, his low-budget, shockingly deviant, uber-Freudian masterpiece is sixty years old this year. Pensionable, almost.

Psycho (Opening Scene)

In a worrying development, suggesting I may be due early retirement myself, I discovered that I’d completely forgotten how fit Marion’s boyfriend Sam is, played by John Gavin, 29. And how much we see of his fitness in the opening topless scene – in which Sam, rather more than Marion, played by Janet Leigh, 33, is the apple of the camera’s eye. No wonder Marion steals $40K to keep him.

Sam is the unwitting femme fatale of this noir: those big, black eyes, those long luscious lashes, that beckoning bosom. That sticky end. Sam is desire.

It’s worth analysing that first scene in Psycho in detail, since it prefigures by decades the way the way men are ‘objectified’ today – and is a timeless cinematic love letter to the late Mr Gavin.

We open with a bird’s eye camera panning across the hot, arid Phoenix afternoon skyline, then voyeuristically zooming in on the dirty, open window of a non-descript, seedy hotel – and swooping in under the partially-lowered blinds. (Stuffed birds of prey are an obsession of Norman Bates, who later perves on Marion through a peephole as she undresses in his cheap motel room, in much the same way we did at the beginning of the movie.)

The first shot of our trysting, unmarried lovers is of Marion lying on her back on the bed in her bra, gazing up glowingly at Sam – his be-flannelled arse and lunchbox occupying the middle of the screen, framed next to Marion’s upturned face. Like much else in this film, including the shot of an actual flushing toilet later (the first ever in a mainstream US movie or TV show), it’s a shockingly suggestive-to-explicit image for fin-de-50s America. What’s more, that bra and those flannels are not even married.

(Unsurprisingly, the censors enforcing the still-extant Production Code were very unhappy with the first scene. Hitchcock offered to re-shoot the opening with the grim officials on the set -- if they allowed him to keep the shower scene, which they also hated. Fortunately, the board members failed to show up for the re-shoot and the cheap hotel shots also stayed.)

Unmarried flannels and bra debauching public morals

We can see Marion’s lover is shirtless and towelling himself – so we deduce, along with her satiated countenance, and the drowsy soundtrack, that the tableaux is post-coital. But we can’t see the flannels’ head as the shot cuts him off just above his waist. He is the faceless object of Marion’s desire and longing.

But we do hear him speak – in a deep, smooth voice:

‘You never did eat your lunch, did you?’

The camera cuts to the untouched shrink-wrapped sandwiches and soda bottle (and two stubbed out fag ends) on the bedside table. And then immediately to a long shot of a spectacularly unwrapped Sam, shooting an explosively handsome grin at Marion, his lean, attractively muscled body -- especially for 1960 -- picked out like a vision by the camera lighting in the gloomy room.

So, we know what Marion did eat for lunch. And it was totally delicious. The way her head instantly moves in on him suggests she’s hungry for more.

Sam’s toplessness -- which, being male, is officially non-sexual -- to some extent stands in for Marion’s, which was still in 1960 Hollywood officially impossible. But in black and white practise, it is very much its own splendid, highly sexual thing.

They then canoodle on the bed, while Marion makes it clear she’s unhappy about their clandestine, seedy meets and wants to get married. Sam eventually demurs that he can’t afford to get married yet because of the alimony he’s paying to his ex-wife, along with taking care of his father’s debts. Marion replies, prophetically:

“I pay too. They also pay who meet in hotel rooms.”

During this exchange the camera spends most of its time on Sam (who remains partially clothed while Marion gets dressed) and his adorable face, nose and chin, which Marion can’t stop stroking – showing us the back of her head, even when she’s talking. We have to see him from her POV: why she would desire him enough to steal, completely out of character, $40,000 from her kindly old employer.

And we really do.

We’re also left in no doubt that that Marion, despite the talk of marriage, is not some shrinking, 1950s violet. She has a very active sexuality and wants to possess Sam.

Norman, whom she of course meets later on the way to claim Sam with the stolen cash, is a kind of anti-Sam – younger, skinnier, sexually repressed and a mommy’s boy. Oh, and a knife-wielding cross-dressing psychotic.

Sam and Norman exchange sexual tension

His voice is quaveringly pubescent compared to Sam’s butch baritone. But like Sam he is also pretty – after all, he’s played by teen-throb and sometime popster Anthony Perkins. Moreover, it is square Sam’s hotness, and unavailability, as well as the stifling gender roles and mores of mid-century America, that has led Marion – the older woman – to the seedy-grisly terminus of the Bates motel.

Norman goes to see ‘Mother’

I’d also forgotten something else about Psycho: how much Norman swishes his tiny tush when climbing the stairs of his gothic family home in the final reel. Just before we hear his ‘mother’, in a voice like late Bette Davis in full sneer mode, shouting:

“No! I will not hide in the fruit cellar! You think I’m fruity, huh? I’m staying right here.”

But then, it’s gothic chicken and eggs -- Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, made two years later, was conceived as a horror cash-in on the runaway success of Psycho, and Davis’ famous ‘psycho-biddy’ character Jane owes more than a little to Ma Bates.

John Gavin died in 2018, aged 86, an event I seem to have somehow missed, but he’s been in my fruity thoughts lately, having also recently rewatched Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), in which he plays a smouldering young Julius Caesar hanging out with an oysters-and-snails loving Crassus (Laurence Olivier) – and yes, of course there’s a bathhouse scene. And Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), in which he plays an object of double feminine obsession (mother and daughter).

Often described dismissively as a ‘Rock Hudson lookalike’, Gavin was, I’d venture, prettier in his prime than Hudson, whose straight-edge, solid, dull, Anglo, handsomeness was the very reason he was supposedly ‘the last man you woulda guessed’. Although Gavin, who was of Latin American heritage, could sometimes be butchly wooden on screen, and unlike Hudson very heterosexual off-screen, there was something about his youthful looks that he couldn’t quite straighten out. That body, those eyes and that mouth.

But it was the obese, bald, 60-year-old – as he was when Psycho was made, 60 years ago – grandfather from Leytonstone, Mr Hitchcock, famous for his sometimes cruel, objectifying treatment of his female stars, who seems to have truly recognised, drawn out, and forever captured (stuffed?) the full-throated sexual energy, passivity and fatal charisma of Mr Gavin in his prime. A sexual energy, passivity and fatal charisma that Mr Gavin probably didn’t even know he had in him.

As a parting observation, I would suggest only slightly subjectively that in this film so famous for its focus on eyes – Norman’s at the peephole, Marion’s blinking at the car headlights on the highway, unblinking on the brightly-lit bathroom floor, the beady glass ones of the stuffed birds, ours zooming in under the cheap Phoenix hotel room’s window, Norman’s grinning psychotic eyes in the final frame – it is Sam’s eyes that are most seductive. They suck you in.

Like a shower drain.

Midway to Paradise (So Near, Yet So Far Away)

Mark Simpson finds Midway ‘dumb, numb and empty of cum

When I went to see Roland Emmerich’s teensploitation flick Midway this week I had low expectations. In fact, they were so low I almost ran aground on the way to the multiplex. Emmerich, the director-writer responsible for blockbusters such as Independence Day, Stargate, and The Day After Tomorrow, specialises in making movies as spectacularly awful as they are successful.

Why did I go? Because Emmerich’s films are aimed at teen boys – and I’m a classic case of arrested development. So is Emmerich, clearly – but I can only aspire to his level of adult cynicism, which has probably made him as wealthy as a war profiteer.

Midway, based on the pivotal 1942 Pacific naval engagement between the US and Japan which saw the destruction of much of the Japanese carrier fleet and the loss of their hopes of any kind of victory, manages to be even more stupidly awful than I expected.

But this time I doubt the stupid awfulness will be accompanied by stupid success. Not least because while the Battle of Midway may mean a lot to old queens like Emmerich – and me – raised on 1950s-60s Second World War movies, it probably doesn’t mean very much to the youths who are the film’s target market. The auditorium I saw it at one evening a few days after it opened was mostly empty – and I was somehow not the oldest person there.

Emmerich tries of course to ‘update’ things to get around this problem. So Midway is WWII re-run as a First-Person MMO Shooter – won by an excruciatingly cocky character called, I kid you not, ‘Dick Best’. Think Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ (he’s often called a ‘cowboy’), but somehow much more annoying. Ed Skrein really knocks himself out in the role.

All the other men are droolingly in love with him and the size and heft of his virility – especially his handsome moustachioed boss played by that gay Brit actor who put Orlando Bloom out of work (Luke Evans).

After Dick sinks the Japanese Imperial Navy one of his fanboys announces, somewhat redundantly:

‘This war will be won by men who like dick best!’

(The ‘who’ may have been silent.)

What’s peculiar about Midway though is that for a film obsessed with dick and rammed with hot male talent, including professional manteaser Nick Jonas – and referencing Top Gun – how lacking in homoeroticism it is. Or any kind of eroticism, really – apart from, I suppose, the CGI explosions.

Midway isn’t just dumb, which would be entirely acceptable – it’s completely numb. Dumb, numb and totally devoid of cum. Even the homosociality is unconvincing and unfelt, which is quite an achievement in a movie set on board aircraft carriers filled with hundreds of young men. Perhaps this is because, paradoxically, the director likes dick best.

Jonas letting loose by far the most erotic moment in Midway

Emmerich is gay, and so may be inhibited on that front -- lest he ‘let the side down’, especially in this age of gay respectability. It’s not impossible either that he’s a homo that just doesn’t get it – which is surprisingly common, I can assure you. But his biggest hits Stargate and Independence Day relied on cynically exploiting 1990s teen male homopanic and anal anxiety in a way that only a homo could.

In 2015 he apparently tried to atone for his sins with Stonewall, a flick celebrating the 1969 Stonewall ‘Uprising’ as its now called (why spoil a perfectly good bar riot?) – which I haven’t seen and have zero interest in seeing. It was panned by critics and activists and pilloried for its politics and lack of diversity. But what were people expecting from someone who makes movies about shit exploding while dudes high five?

As a side issue, Midway stars several Brit actors, as is often the way these days, playing Americans – including the lead, Ed Skrein. Oh, and waiting for it to start I saw a trailer for Knives Out, with Daniel Craig playing an American with a ripe southern accent.

Now, it’s fabulous that Brit actors are getting work, darling. But as a Brit watching Brit actors do American accents in Hollywood moovies, too often I find myself cringing like a limey. Skrein’s accent in Midway is like being keel-hauled by your ears. (He also seems to be doing something intensely irritating with his clean-cut-jutting All-American jaw.)

But apparently not to Americans, otherwise they wouldn’t keep getting cast. And you would think, wouldn’t you, that Americans are a better judge of an American accent than me. Is it perhaps prejudice on my part – because I see them as British, whereas Americans just assume they’re American? Or are as generous and open-hearted as I’m bitter and small-minded and so are happy to accept them and their goddamn stupidly awful accents as ‘American’?

Probably the latter.

Midway (2019 Movie) New Trailer – Ed Skrein, Mandy Moore, Nick Jonas, Woody Harrelson

Smart Spornowear

‘Every time I bend down I feel I’m going to bust through the seams.’

I had no idea that ‘hockey butt’ was such a pressing problem. In fact, I’d never heard of hockey butt before I saw this viral ad.

Hockey Butt: The Struggle Athletes Have Finding Dress Pants

But it’s my new favourite word for big round muscle bubble butt that sticks out shelf-like, demanding your attention. Certainly it’s a lot more SFW than my other ones.

‘We athletes have a problem with shopping for pants. We have relatively small waists, big quads, big thighs, and big butts!’

Dylan Larkin, a pro hockey player in the US and captain of the Detroit Red Wings, is selling stretchy dress pants from State & Liberty with a corny-horny script that is pure gay for pay porn -- likewise Larkin’s slightly ‘wooden’ delivery. That cute self-conscioius laugh after ‘big butt’ (and the close-up on that big butt squatting) tells us that Larkin and the people making this video (despite their disavowals after the ad went viral for the ‘wrong’ reasons) know exactly what they’re doing.

And they’re selling not to other hockey players, of course -- but to amateur spornos who don’t want to hide their hockey muscle butts and thighs under a bushell when they have to finally change out of lycra-rich form-hugging gymwear.

Thanks to a host of stretchy suppliers, spornos in the office, on the town, or just visiting their mams on Sunday can scrub up nicely and smartly -- but without sacrificing their henchness or adorability.

It probably says far too much about my internet search history, but I’m getting more and more bombarded with Facebook ads for ‘athletic fit’ dress shirts and trousers, usually attractive young men men filling out their spandex ‘performance fit’ dress pants and shirts very nicely. It certainly seems to be a ‘growth’ industry.

Two skin-tight spornos from Tailored Athlete waiting for you to scope them

Of course, it’s true that ‘regular fit’ often doesn’t fit athletes and bodybuilders or people who work out. Something that fits your swole chest and shoulders will likely be flappy around the mid-riff. Likewise, jeans and chinos that accomodate your hench thighs are likely to have room for a friend around the waist. In a world where men seem to be increasingly dividing into ‘fitties’ and ‘fatties’ that problem is only likely to increase.

Tailored Athlete
Brightening up everyone’s day at the office

But what is really being sold with ‘athletic’ and ‘muscle’ fit is a smart-slutty aesthetic. A way of ‘wearing’ the hot commodity that you’ve laboured hard to make -- your shredded body. ‘Dress’ clothes that casually advertise your undressed humpiness rather than disguise it, lumpily. Smart spornowear.

A spornos body is after all better designed and made than most clothes -- so why wouldn’t he want the togs he dons to merely follow and fondle the design of his delts and glutes?

After all, that’s what people’s eyes are doing.

Once again, I think we have to thank that chap from Finland whose mid-20th Century sketches for a new, improved, sluttier -- and skin tight -- masculinity have proved to be the blueprint for 21st Century spornosexuality.

From Finland With Lust -- How Tom Re-Designed the Male Body For Pleasure

 

Forbidden Nights Leave Ladies Short-Dicked

Went to see male strip troupe Forbidden Nights at a theatre in North East England this week – I’m a sucker for a bit of culture, me.

And who could resist an evening billed as a ‘spectacle of desires, passion and excitement’ filled with ‘acrobats, fire acts, aerial artists and world-renowned circus performers’?

Especially when they ‘have not only mastered the art of strip tease, but do it in a way that has never been done before’.

A new way to flash your tackle? No wonder the auditorium, which seats 1000, was packed out.

Though me and my fit (non-bum) chum were the only men.

The women behind us, who like most of the audience were well lubricated long before the Baby Oil was cracked open, were loudly discussing my chum.

‘He’s LUVELY!’

‘SUCH a waste!’

‘I KNOW!! In’t it ALWAYS the way!’

The show alas didn’t deliver the goods. Despite the ladies of Darlo roaring like Armageddon: ‘GET YER COCKS OUT!!’

The ‘acrobatics’ consisted of a few backflips, the ‘fire act’ was a damp squib. The ‘aerial artist’ was more impressive, but sadly not very fuckable.

Forbidden Nights fell between two stools – a ‘circus strip act’ that is neither really a circus act nor a strip act. The promised striptease ‘in a way that has never been done before’ turned out to be one that is all tease and no strip.

It was also painfully straight. And I’m not talking about the shockingly bad choreography (they desperately needed the talents of this guy). Or the hen night vibe and the man-bunned straight male compere making jokes about ‘lady facials’ and ‘swallowing cum’. I’m talking about the way the guys on stage don’t interact at all. I can’t remember them touching one another once – or even acknowledging one another. Even non-filth acrobats do that.

Of course, I’m biased, but this seemed to me to be a terrible waste of talent. I suspect that if the guys interacted more, even just in that tried-and-tested slightly flirtatious boyband fashion, the women would love it.

Then again, why am I giving away this kind of advice for free instead of just putting together my own strip troupe and cleaning up? Or at least just holding LOTS of auditions….

There was almost a riot after the bathetically anti-climactic ‘shower scene’ finale – no dick and barely a glimpse of bum cheek. Just lots of shimmying in silhouette behind a paper blind.

Tickets were £25 a pop.

One woman was shouting in the foyer: ‘I’VE SEEN MORE COCK IN ASDA ON A WET SUNDAY!’

Oh, and the swole guy in the middle of the poster (above) with the inked stars – the one who looks like a gay porn star and was the real reason me and my chum were there – wasn’t in the show.

Nor, frankly, were the bodies in the poster attached to the faces that were.

Obviously, someone tipped him off as to just how demanding 998 North Eastern women determined to have a good time can be.

Forbidden Nights 2018 Showreel | Male Strip Show UK Theatre Tour