In 3 other posts I have examined to one degree or another the visual representation of the sailor in terms of the unique and ambiguous position he occupies in terms of his supposed fluid gender and sexuality. Throughout history there has always existed the fantasy about men cramped aboard the homosocial space of the ship, far from land and women who express and satisfy their sexual needs and desires with one another. This fantasy was at times a reality. The combination of fact and fiction also positioned the sailor as a paradigmatic object of same-sex desire. And in actuality, for example, sailors in the early 20th century in the United States often worked as prostitutes for homosexual clients in order to supplement their dismal income.
This desire for the sailor was further heightened and embedded in his uniform- the tight crotch of his bell bottom pants set against the feminine softness of his middy blouse. The uniform simultaneously signified his masculinity and sexual appeal, but also his approachability and willingness to engage in same-sex behavior. Sailor suits were not just worn by men in the navy; it was a ubiquitous fashion for young children and women. This curious manifestation of the uniform as fashion relates not only to the ambiguity of the sailor in terms of his gender and sexuality, but the duality of the actual uniform itself- crotch hugging pants displaying his manhood and a blouse top with feminine connotations. It is as if the historical position of the sailor allowed within culture the use of his uniform as everyday garments for women and children. Adult men did not dress in sailor outfits.
In 1937 Albert W. Hampson painted Sailors and Cones. an illustration for a Saturday Evening Post cover. At first glance this image seems innocent and innocuous, but it is also hotly brimming with strong sexual desire and homoeroticism despite the coldness of the ice cream cones depicted.
In the illustration a Shore Patrol sailor stands on the left of the image with his hands on his hips. He looks to his left with a disapproving stare at the 2 sailors walking by him in lock step, each eating an ice cream cone. The near sailor is licking his vanilla cone and the sailor next to him his about to lick or has just licked his strawberry cone.
What exactly is the narrative of this picture? Why does the Shore Patrol sailor look with disapproval at his fellow sailors with ice cream cones? Does he want a cone himself? Is he angry about being on duty while his off duty comrades are taking a leisurely stroll and enjoying their shore leave? Or is he dismayed by the intimacy of the 2 sailors with cones? Does he sense a camaraderie that goes beyond friendship to sexual interaction and desire?
The composition of the 2 walking sailors underlies this suggestion of (sexual) intimacy. They are near mirror images of one another with only subtle differences to distinguish them- their facial features, the placement of their sailor hats and their different choices in ice cream flavors. But these differences are minute and overshadowed by the doubling link of the 2 figures. This doubling attachs them visually and psychologically and intimates a degree of sexual connection as well between the pair as the myth and the reality of the sailor often asserts.
Moreover, the third arm visible in the composition of the 2 sailors emphasizes this connection. The arm seems to be awkwardly placed and it is unclear to whom it belongs. Whomever owns this limb, its placement behind the sailors indicates an extreme physical closeness between the 2 figures. If it belongs to the sailor with the strawberry cone, it suggests perhaps that the this sailor had his arm around his companion just a moment before we the viewer come upon the scene. The arm is in the end ambiguous like the nature of the soldier of the sea.
The act of eating the ice cream is the narrative bond between the 2 strolling sailors and their difference from the Shore Patrol sailor. The ice cream cone held by each figure is a metaphoric displacement for the penis; the sailors are involved in the act of “69”- eating, licking, sucking the symbolic cockcone. Their eyes are closed as if in the midst of a sexual reverie and enjoyment rather than simply enjoying an ice cream.
The Shore Patrol sailor has a metaphoric penis (or perhaps it is the Phallus, the Law) as well- his truncheon. It is bigger than the ice cream cones. Maybe his look of anger is really one of jealousy. No one is licking his club.
In the end, this illustration by Hampson is quite provocative for its time and its appearance in the Saturday Evening Post. Sailors on shore leave with ice cream cones becomes an image of same-sex desire and imagined mutual fellatio. The law of the dominant fiction is present- the Shore Patrol sailor, but he seems impotent, unable to act against this transgression of the Law. His truncheon remains in its holster untouched, unloved, not caressed.
The picture plays on the myth and the fact of the sailor’s fluid sexual position. It counts on the viewer being in the “know’ about what potentially occurs between men packed tight aboard ship. Yet, this ice cream cone liaison happens on shore and in that way it disturbs and challenges the dominant fiction.