Of photographs and statues

So, recently I’ve seen this photo making the rounds. On facebook, on tumblr, all those normal places. I haven’t quite known why.

V-J Day in Times Square

I’m sure you’ve seen it before – Alfred Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day in Times Square. His iconic photograph of two people kissing in Times Square is probably the iconic photograph from World War II. You may have even looked at it and thought, “How romantic!”

I look at this image and am filled with seething rage. This isn't the romantic photograph that we've been told it is. It is a sexual assault.

This is a photograph of a strange man grabbing a woman against her will and kissing her.

Now, I'm not the first person to point this out - I'm not even the second or third. Last year a couple of historians reported that they had located the real (at least for now - more on this later) sailor and nurse, and several news sources interviewed them, leading to bloggers pointing out how violent the kiss apparently was.

The first of these bloggers1, "Leopard" writing for Crates and Ribbons, points out how disturbing the imagery is, using quotes from nurse Greta Zimmer Friedman's interviews:

Statements like "It wasn't my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!" or "I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vi[s]e grip" or "That man was very strong. I wasn't kissing him. He was kissing me" leave very little room for ambiguity.

Imagine if it were you, walking down the street in Times Square, minding your own business, when some guy - much bigger and stronger than you - grabs you, without an introduction or explanation, bends you backwards, and shoves his tongue down your throat. What would you call that? How would you feel? I bet I can guarantee that you would not classify that as romantic, but instead terrifying.

Here's the thing: remember how I said that historians have found the real sailor and nurse - at least for now? Well, if you want to take some time falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, then you'll find out that over the years, there have been more than one "official" sailor and nurse. In fact, there are several people claiming to be the figures in the photograph, and have been verified by experts.

None of these people describe it any differently - they all took part in an experience where a man grabbed a woman he did not know and kissed her without her permission. So, assuming that none of them lied about kissing/being kissed by a stranger, then it means that this sexual assault was repeated over and over that day.

"But, so what?" you might say. "Obviously, we don't know with certainty who the people are. Maybe they knew each other. Maybe it is a romantic image after all." Let's take a closer look at the actual photograph.

Lori, on Feministing, points out "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."

Look at that sailor's arm, around the woman - his hand clenched in a fist of power, his other hand completely around her waist. And look at her face, it's completely uncomfortable.

Eisenstaedt actually took several of these images - here are the three I could find, in chronological order (as far as I can tell, based on the placement of people in the background). Look at the movement in them:

Can you see that? Look at her hand - in the first image she has it in a fist, right at his face, and as she realizes she can't get away, she lets it drop, resigned to putting up with the assault.

To paraphrase other bloggers, this is clearly a violent photo, remarkably violent for one that is supposed to celebrate peace, and for me, at least, I can't unsee it.

But it's not something I think about too much - it's just one in millions - billions - of images depicting violent imagery toward women.

And then today (well, yesterday), I came across this:

Apparently, the "Kissing Statue" as it's colloquially known, was temporarily on loan in San Diego and has now been replaced with a permanent version. Art critics protested, calling it "not artistically or [a]esthetically pleasing," but the public loved it so much, they raised the money for it well ahead of schedule. It's been dedicated as a tribute to the military.

Let me repeat that.

It is a tribute to the military.

Here's what is not being talked about:

This statue, which clearly is a copy of Eisenstaedt's iconic photograph, from the pose, down to both his and her clenched fists, is therefore a representation of sexual assault, an echo of raping and plundering, if you will. And it's a tribute to the military.

And here's the best part: The statue's official name? Unconditional Surrender

Yep, you read that correctly.

Unconditional Surrender

It may overtly be referencing the V-J victory that the statue ostensibly commemorates, but it's also a reference to the woman, isn't it?2 It's turning her into the loser, the casualty of war. It forces victimhood onto her, the unsuspecting passerby on the street.

And somehow that's supposed to be a good thing.

This statue tells us that we are supposed to celebrate our military by lifting up and honoring the worst of its members' behavior, at the expense of our citizens' pain.

And that is contemptible.


1 As far as I can tell.

2 Of course, "surrender" is often used in romance works as a good thing, to be desired (which is a bad thing, probably) making this a double meaning in the title.



Adelman, Lori. "Iconic Kissing Sailor Photo Depicts Sexual Assault, Not Romance." Feministing. October 4, 2012. Accessed February 22, 2013. http://feministing.com/2012/10/04/iconic-kissing-sailor-photo-depicts-sexual-assault-not-romance

Friedman, Emily. "Man Claims He's the Mystery Sailor in 'The Kiss'" ABC News. August 7, 2007. Accessed February 22, 2013. http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/OnlyinAmerica/story?id=3422191&page=2.

Pawlowski, A. "Love It or Hate It? 'Kissing Statue' Returns to San Diego, Ignites Debate." TODAY.COM. February 21, 2013. Accessed February 22, 2013. http://www.today.com/money/love-it-or-hate-it-kissing-statue-returns-san-diego-1C8471733?franchiseSlug=todaymoneymain.

"The Kissing Sailor, or "The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture"" Crates and Ribbons. September 30, 2012. Accessed February 22, 2013. http://cratesandribbons.com/.

"V-J Day in Times Square." Wikipedia. Accessed February 22, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V-J_Day_in_Times_Square#cite_note-16.