The photograph of a sailor kissing a woman on V-J Day in Times Square is an iconic one. Taken by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt in Times Square on August 14, 1945, it is probably one of the most memorable images of WWII. As the Japanese surrender, the image seems to capture the jubilation at the end of a long war:
The image has become ubiquitous; you can buy it on posters and Valentine’s Day cards. Couples have re-enacted the famous image in Times Square. After the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2012, the photograph was compared with one of a gay Marine kissing his boyfriend after returning from a tour.
Recently the people in the original photograph were identified. From their story, we now know that George Mendonsa was on a date with another woman when the Japanese surrendered. After a few drinks at a nearby bar, he went out on the street and grabbed Greta Zimmer Friedman for a kiss. According to the Mail Online,
“The excitement of the war being over, plus I had a few drinks,” he told CBS. “So when I saw the nurse, I grabbed her, and I kissed her.”
The article continues with an explanation of Friedman’s description of the experience:
“I did not see him approaching, and before I know it, I was in this vi[s]e grip.” Of course, that moment of wild elation, gratitude and passion was captured by LIFE photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt.
Later in the article, Friedman states,
That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.
Does a strong man grabbing a woman on the street in a “vise grip” and kissing her describe “wild elation, gratitude and passion”? Or does it describe a case of sexual assault? Feministing blogger Lori argues that the photograph does not capture the romantic moment that we believe it does. After reading her argument and studying the picture, I don’t think I could ever see it as anything other than the depiction of public sexual assault. As Lori argues,
A closer look at the image in question shows corroborating details that become stomach-turning when properly viewed: the smirks on the faces of the sailors in the background; the firm grasp around the physically smaller woman in his arms such that she could not escape if she tried; the woman’s clenched fist and limp body.
Knowing the context has changed the meaning of the photograph. What was once read as the depiction of spontaneous romance at the end of WWII can now be read as one of spontaneous sexual assault.
The context of war also matters here. During war women typically hold roles that are supportive to men — supporting the war effort or supporting men sexually during war. As Cynthia Enloe argues in Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, militarization relies on constructions of masculinity and femininity that make women both victims who need protection and objects to be sexually oppressed. The sailor in the photograph is hyper-conforming to wartime masculinity. He grabs the nearest nurse and kisses her to celebrate the end of war.
It is an iconic image, just not for the reasons we always thought it was.