Among the most recognizable of all World War II photography is an image that was taken far from the front lines — one where a sailor coming home from war sweeps a woman backward to kiss her against the backdrop of New York City’s Times Square. You’ve certainly seen the photo at least once or twice but a group of French feminists is saying that if you think of it as a romantic photo, you’re wrong — there is a sexual assault being carried out.
The feminist collective’s complaints started not because of the photograph itself, but because of a sculpture that recreates the image at World War II battle site Normandy. The sculpture, on loan from a California foundation, is currently on French soil to commemorate the 70th anniversary of V-J Day, the end of World War II. When it appeared, the feminist collective complained that the photo captured a woman who was being kissed against her will, restrained by the hand of the sailor and not entranced by it. The photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt even gave the picture the title “Unconditional Surrender,” although it is popularly known as “The Kiss.”
Other details from the session that birthed the legendary World War II photo also add some fire to the debate. Eisenstaedt said that the man, Sailor George Mendonsa, had tried to force several women into a kiss before eventually locking on to Greta Friedman. French feminists have seized on this portion of the story as evidence that a sexual assault did occur in the V-J Day photo, citing previous interviews with Friedman, reported The Daily Mail.
“I have not seen him approaching, and before I understand what is happening, I found myself gripped in a vice. You caught me. This man was very strong. I kissed it, it was he who kissed me.”
Although Greta maintained that she was happy to be a part of “The Kiss,” the details do add some uncomfortable backstory to what is otherwise a photo associated with American triumph in World War II on V-J Day. A spokesperson for the group, Osez Le Feminisme, spoke out against the World War II commemorative statue.
“We cannot accept that the Caen Memorial erected a sexual assault as a symbol of peace… We therefore request the removal of this sculpture as soon as possible… The sailor could have laughed with these women, hugged them, asked them if he could kiss them with joy… No, he chose to grab them with a firm hand to kiss them. It was an assault.”
However, conservative news source Breitbart says that based on laws of consent, the World War II V-J Day photo does not depict a sexual assault, despite what the French group of feminists may claim.
“Whilst the laws on sexual assault can be difficult to navigate, in general terms consent does not necessarily have to be verbally expressed. Instead if both parties are comfortable with the situation then no offense has taken place, as a result it is unlikely a court would uphold the feminists claims about the original incident.”
Several other women have come forward over the years claiming to be the woman in the V-J Day photo, although multiple analysts have stated that Greta is the one being kissed. World War II-era men and women are still, however, often trotted out in the media as the original couple from “The Kiss.”
Do you think “The Kiss” is a depiction of sexual assault worthy of feminist scrutiny? Or just a joyous reminder of the end of World War II on V-J Day?
[Images via Mendonsa, Friedman and Flickr]