Celebration or assault? An uneasy saga continues

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It is one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century. It’s impossible to avoid when it comes to studies on the Second World War. It has been used on Valentines Day cards, posters, and in Facebook posts proclaiming the superiority of the baby-boomer generation. Yes, we’re talking about the photo of a man kissing a woman in the middle of Times Square to celebrate the end of America’s war in the Pacific. For years, it stood as a symbol of spontaneous romance and the joy of victory, but following the recent death of the woman in the photo, Greta Friedman, 92, it has been subject to harsh criticism.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For years, the identities of the people captured in photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt’s piece remained unknown. That is, until 2005 when former sailor George Mendonsa stepped forward. There were a number of women who claimed to be the woman, but an investigation proved Greta Friedman’s, now deceased, claim to be strongest. With their names known, the public demanded the story behind the moment. The answer is surely not what we imagined it would be.

The facts: the two had never met before, they didn’t meet again until 1980 when Mendonsa was on a date with the woman who he’d later marry and ‘ran into’ Friedman.

Friedman recounts in an interview in 2005 with the Library of Congress, “Suddenly, I was grabbed by a sailor, […] I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. [. . .] It wasn’t a romantic event. It was just an event of ‘Thank god the war is over.’ […] It wasn’t my choice to be kissed, the guy just came over and grabbed! […] That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.” Mendonsa is quoted as having had, “quite a few drinks” prior to the encounter.

These words certainly add a new element to the image we all know so well. Throughout the interview, Friedman states that it was an act of celebration, but as any woman who has been accosted or assaulted in the street knows, it has the narrative potential to be a terrifying event. So how do we judge the photo? How are we supposed to interact with the different opinions coming out either claiming the image depicts an act of sexual violence, or insisting that it was just spontaneity and shouldn’t be taken too seriously?

I’ll admit that this conundrum gives me quite a bit of pause. I’d never given any particular deeper thought to ‘V-J Day in Times Square’, and had always assumed that the two in the photo had known each other. However, when I learned of the nature of the event, it did make it slightly uncomfortable.

Looking back on my own personal experiences, I myself have been grabbed by a strange man and kissed. It is terrifying. There is nothing romantic about it. Your brain short-circuits and you either gain the courage to act, or you remain frozen in shock. I picked the latter, though I cannot say which Friedman chose. So my view is coloured. In my opinion, accosting anyone in such a way is a terrible thing to do. Then again, I was not alive in 1945. I know nothing about the emotions that must have been running high, or the elation of a man learning he will not be sent back to war. And yet still, I am uncomfortable.

Indeed, I find myself wondering if this debate is a result of age. Looking through blogs, Facebook posts and even asking for opinions face to face, you find contrast between ages as well as political inclinations. Younger, more liberal minded people have stated that the photo depicts assault, whilst their more conservative, and usually older, counterparts claim that it was simply an expression of joy (though admittedly in harsher words). I would be lying if I said this mindset didn’t bother me.

A woman is assaulted and we look for every loophole to classify it as anything else. My own doubts about where to place my view come  from the aforementioned nuances regarding the time and current events preceding the kiss.

Eisenstadt noted that he had taken a few photos of people kissing in celebration, though the compositions of these photos weren’t as eye-catching as that of the one in question. But then, how am I to judge what Friedman experienced? She certainly expressed a degree of discomfort, but she also acknowledged the unique circumstances. To be frank, I believe that it was a form of sexual assault. There is no way around it. However, if we go by the laws of the United States police today, she wouldn’t have been able to press charges of assault, as there was no explicit contact or penetration. But is this not yet another case of rape culture reigning victorious over a woman’s right to bodily autonomy?

I believe that the circumstances are important, but certainly not more so than Friedman’s words.

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