Perspective: Hey, Sailor

A look at how the romance and sexuality of the swabby has been tapped to sell

It was Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, in 1964, famously said that while he couldn’t define pornography, he knew it when he saw it. Potter’s oft-quoted analysis bears mentioning because it also applies to the advertising world. Among the most effective ads are that rare sort that can say different things to different consumers even though everybody’s looking at the same picture. Put another way, the impact of an image becomes a matter of what the person looking at the ad brings to it.

One of the best examples of this marketing alchemy appears here in his full, fleshy splendor: the sailor boy.

He’s been with us for a long time now, sporting a blend of bravado, masculinity, power and sex appeal that, as these examples show, are potent enough to draw young men to the local U.S. Navy recruiter in 1917 as surely as they can sell a bottle of Jean Paul Gaultier cologne today. But who is sailor boy, really? Where some viewers see only swaggering good looks, others see a gay icon.

“There are tremendous similarities between these two ads,” observes Hunter O’Hanian, director of New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. “They’re both refined, both youthful and both are designed to attract people who are attracted by virility—whether they’re gay or straight.”

J.C. Leyendecker was one of the most successful commercial artists of the day when he created this poster for the U.S. Navy in 1917. O’Hanian speculates that back then “the general population read this ad in no other way than, ‘Here are good, strong boys fighting to keep us safe.’” And no doubt he’s right. At the same time, there’s no ignoring the coded message here. Were men engaged in mortal combat really shirtless and barefoot? And what’s up with that projectile? “The shell is about as phallic as you can imagine,” O’Hanian said. “You can’t articulate it better than that.”

Leyendecker, who created the dashing Arrow Collar Man in 1905, became famous for the many-muscled, barely clad lads he drew—some modeled after his lover, Charles Beach—and his work operated on a plane between clandestine homosexuality and overt machismo. Was the U.S. Navy actively recruiting gay men? Of course not. But Leyendecker’s sailor boys left that door tantalizingly ajar.

Judging from the 2012 ad for Le Male, that door is still open. The image opposite is one of a series of ads portraying sailors as gritty sexual renegades right out of a Genet novel. But one shows sailor boy in bed with a lady while others show him arm wrestling other men or showing off flower tattoos on his nipples. Clearly, O’Hanian says, Gaultier’s sailor “falls into generalized gay iconography,” but by keeping the focus on the male body (as opposed to what it’s doing in bed), this ad gracefully dodges the obvious question—and draws a bigger audience.

“Both ads idolize the male form, and they’re both successful,” O’Hanian says. “But they read a particular way based on what the viewer brings to it.” In other words, sailor boy is straight. And gay. After all, you know it when you see it.