Among the lesser known casualties of the U.S. Republican Party-mandated partial government shutdown in 2018-2019 was the premature closure of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library’s special exhibition “The Art of War: American Poster Art 1941-1945.” Launched last April, the exhibition featured 150 selections from the FDR Library’s collection of over 3000 posters and murals depicting a multitude of public information campaigns, or propaganda, that helped the U.S. government rally its citizens to victory in World War Two. With previously overlooked offerings from popular artists like Norman Rockwell and Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) as well as iconic images like “Rosie the Riveter,” the exhibition was a tour de force, easily one of the best public history exhibitions for American history of the past year and a credit to the FDR Library’s archival team. However, for scholars of the history of sexuality, “The Art of War” resonated in ways both profound and unexpected.
Hanging inconspicuously alongside homely exhortations to recycle bacon grease and buy war bonds, “The Art of War” featured a succession of posters featuring depictions of men in suggestive, even erotic, poses. Hyper-masculine he-men, coquettish Ganymedes, and tender same-sex embraces were all used to articulate messages about home front security, war production, and calls for enlistment. Though drawing on masculine archetypes, these tropes were at odds with the presiding expectations and norms for mid-century American men to be wholesome, ordinary, and explicitly heterosexual. Besides livening up the exhibition, these posters hint at a more varied, and largely forgotten, set of discourses about masculinity, gender, and (homo)sexuality during World War Two, and how those discourses were understood and utilized by the U.S. government in its mobilization campaigns. Hidden in plain sight on these posters are portrayals of masculinity and intimate homosocial bonding far more complex and, in some ways, queer than is typically associated with the supposedly staid and patriarchal norms of early twentieth-century America.
It is perhaps unsurprising that recruitment posters for an all-male armed force would depict the male body as ripped, glistening, and ready for action. Indeed, scholars such as Katherine Jellison have analyzed how World War Two poster art “presented hyper-masculinized images of the male body that were meant to represent not only the strength, power, and resolve of American men but of the American nation itself.” Lay observers have also noted the apparent homoeroticism of propaganda posters from the Communist bloc in the 1950s, as well the (sometimes) unintentionally erotic photography of World War Two soldiers. Yet even accounting for that, the conspicuous intimacy, implied eroticism, and remarkable variety of styles of masculinity on display in these posters is striking.
The wall poster “Pour It On”, produced by the War Production Board, is the most impressive of these examples. Standing over two metres in height, it depicts a towering, shirtless, musclebound figure pouring a stream of fighter aircraft out of a giant ladle. With a physique and a colour scheme reminiscent of a Tom of Finland portrait, the poster exhibited a particularly acute form of ‘hyper-masculine’ imagery of the male body, as well as appealing to rhetorical norms of masculine power, aggression, and domination. A similar effect could be seen in the U.S. Marine Corps’ “Ready” poster which employs a statuesque figure of masculine virility to articulate its message.
However, even in these ostensibly traditional portrayals of masculinity, there is a detectable gradation of masculine features, and a tacit awareness of different ways of performing the masculine ideal. Paul Hesse’s “Swing it Brother!” poster for the U.S. Navy Industrial Incentive Division features a hirsute mallet-wielding beefcake posing in front of a drydock – an unmistakable portrayal of masculine power. However, Hesse, who had a career drawing portraits of Hollywood stars after the war, endows his model with matinee idol looks and the insouciant expression of an ingénue waiting for a close-up shot; the arc-welding protective eyewear appearing uncannily like a pair of tea shades.
These sorts of images presented an idealized form of hegemonic masculinity – butch, commanding, productive – that relied on extant patriarchal tropes. Yet, in their kitchy exaggeration of the male form, and their susceptibility to artistic license, they nonetheless left themselves open to interpretations, by both artist and viewer, that allowed a degree of queerness to seep between the cracks.
Queered depictions of masculinity were not limited to stereotypically ‘masc’ figures, nor were they incessant appeals to brute force. A 1944 recruitment poster for the U.S. Navy titled “Learn to Operate a $7,000,000 Sub” features a decidedly more beguiling and overtly erotic male subject. Depicted shirtless but with tight blue trousers accentuating the buttocks, the figure, positioned in front of an array of knobs and dials, recalls a lithe adolescent form of masculinity rather than the herculean variety seen in “Pour It On” and elsewhere. With his suntanned back turned away from the viewer, the figure looks mischievously over his shoulder with a boyish countenance and a cocked eyebrow. The ‘come hither’ look is further eroticized by the placement of the figure’s hand gripping an unmistakably phallic lever positioned at waist height. “Sub”’s queered portrayal of martial masculinity shows how subverting hegemonic norms of masculine behaviour was used to mediate messages about wartime recruitment just as potently as more traditional appeals to male virility.
The yielding, receptive composition of “Sub” unwittingly mimicked an even more homoerotic depiction of two soldiers in Wilhelm Schlaikjer’s 1942 “Service Above Self.” Created for the U.S. Army Medical Department in 1942, Schlaikjer depicts a wounded soldier being tended to by an Army medic in the ruins of a flaming battlefield. The medic, square-jawed and standing as stoically erect as the Marine in “Ready,” cradles the head of his wounded compatriot like a Madonna and Child as he pours the contents of his canteen toward the soldier’s mouth. The poster is a masterpiece of juxtaposition. The tenderness of the two soldiers contrasts the horror of the battlefield, just as the reassuring command of the medic contrasts the thirsty helplessness of the patient/soldier. Though wrapped in bandages, the wounded soldier nevertheless shows off a robust physique, eliciting a sense of both masculine strength and vulnerability. The overall impression of the image is one of tenderness and intimacy, and offers a counterintuitive example of how, wittingly or not, the U.S. government’s efforts to execute the war effort fashioned an array of masculinities, some of them perceptibly queer, for American men to aspire to.
Scholars of sexuality are often consigned to ‘reading the silences’ of historical events, given the censorship, restrictive social mores, and outright persecution many of our subjects endured. It is refreshing, then, to see examples of queerness and homosociality stare us so blatantly in the face. “The Art of War” may be closed now, but the FDR Presidential Library has shown how queer histories appear, often in the most unlikely of places, and endure down the ages.
Dr. Chris Parkes is a historian of American politics and sexuality currently based at King’s College London. He is writing a book on the life and times of former Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles. Titled The Welles of Loneliness, it is due out with the University of Chicago Press in 2020. He tweets from @parkesland.
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