Like pears closely packed, the crowded crew mutually decay through close contact…Still more, from this same close confinement- so far as it affects the common sailors- arise other evils, so direful that they will hardly bear even so much as an allusion. What too many seamen are when ashore is very well known; but what some of them become when completely cut off from shore indulgences can hardly be imagined by landsmen. The sins for which the cities of the plain were overthrown still linger in some of these wooden-walled Gomorrahs of the deep.-White Jacket, Herman Melville, 1850.
Throughout history the sailor has occupied an ambiguous and liminal position in terms of sexuality and gender. Men at sea, far away from land, living in close quarters fostered a myth (and a reality) of situational same-sex desire and practice. This sailor fantasy/actuality has often been represented in the realm of high art. The 19th century novella Billy Budd by Herman Melville, the erotic watercolors by American artist Charles Demuth (1883-1935) and Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent masterpiece The Battleship Potemkin are just a few examples.
The sailor postcard in this post is a humble and disposable piece of paper ephemera in the tradition of sailor myth, reality and desire. The image depicts a sailor in his appropriate uniform along with a shirtless female companion in a tattoo parlor. They are perhaps a romantic couple seeking to immortalize their love with ink impressed into skin.
Yet, it is not the sailor who will be getting a tattoo as would usually be the case. Instead, the postcard pictures a role reversal of both action, gender and sexuality. The female figure wearing only a bra, tight skirt and high-heeled shoes sits on a stool and states to the incredulous tattoo artist, “I want his picture tattooed right here on my chest.” The text and image is supposed to be funny and a bit racy, but there is a wider meaning beneath the humor.
In Tattoo published in 1933, the author Albert Parry states,"a tattooed sailor wants to be respected for his ‘heroism’ with which he endured the pain of tattooing. All tattoo marks are to him symbols of fearlessness and toughness.” The tattoo is a sign of masculinity, but in this postcard it is the woman who commands the masculine position by desiring to get a tattoo of her male romantic companion on her female body.
This reversal of gender is underlined by the physical difference between the figures. The standing sailor assumes a position reminiscent of the traditional female nude within Western art. His posture and physique are soft, feminine and easily apprehended by the viewer. His eyes are closed and downcast. He sports a smile of embarrassment and crosses one foot over the other as if he understands his role as (feminine) object within the scene.
Compared to the wide muscular shoulders of the female figure, the sailor’s are hunched, rounded and curved. Her perky breast with prominent nipple and taut buttocks stand in contrast to the meandering outline and flatness of male figure. And what is most strange is the position of the navy man’s hands. He covers his genitals like a traditional female nude in art. His action of covering is a disavowal of the Phallus, a rejection of his masculinity. Instead in the postcard, the female figure possesses the Phallus and assumes the masculine role in relation to the sailor. She is erect, although seated. He is supine, although standing. Indeed, she is sexualized within the image, but her male companion is the (erotic) object.
Part of the sailor’s appeal as an erotic object is his uniform. It is a symbol of masculinity and can function as a sexual lure and fetish, (for women and men) but it too like the sailor himself (real and imagined) does not possess a stable expression of gender and sexuality. It serves to further foster the ambiguity of the soldier of the sea.
This sexual nature of the uniform was clearly understood by the wearer. In a letter to Yank magazine in 1945, a sailor named William E. Donohue writes, “For almost six years that splendid outfit has clunked the gaps in my wan personality and enabled me to play at least a semi-wolf role…the circus-performance costume reveals what goes to make the man.” The uniform imbues the wearer with a certain sex appeal which he might not possess without it.
But, poor William also has to contend with the weight of history which sees the sailor and his uniform as always a potential object of same-sex desire and practice. He may have been a semi-wolf, but he was also the prey. Just consider how the traditional sailor outfit is a standard in clothing for women and children. The uniform may “make the man”, but it’s masculine meaning is far from stable. The postcard must use the sailor in its joke instead of a marine for example, because the seaman has already been hailed by the dominant culture as ambiguous in regards to gender and sexuality.