Famous Wartime Kiss Reconsidered?

Is this a photo capturing the triumphant adulation of a war weary population or does it simply immortalize an act of sexual assault? One British blogger says the latter is closer to the truth.

Is this a photo capturing the triumphant adulation of a war weary population or does it simply immortalize an act of sexual assault? One British blogger says the latter is closer to the truth.

A storm of controversy has erupted following the assertion by a U.K.-based blogger that a famous photo of a VJ Day kiss in New York’s Time Square on Aug. 14, 1945 would be considered sexual assault in the 21st Century.

In a blog post last week entitled: “The Kissing Sailor: The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture”, a British writer on gender issues known only as “Leopard” calls on the media, historians and devotees of popular culture to reconsider the iconic pic. The argument has gone viral with newspaper columnists, pundits and comment board posters weighing in.

Leopard’s assertion follows news reports this past summer that finally settled the debate over the true identities of the two previously anonymous figures in the photo. The media widely reported in August that the sailor is in fact George Mendonsa, a then 22-year-old crewman on leave from the destroyer the USS The Sullivans. The nurse in the photo was actually a dental assistant, also 22, by the name of Greta Zimmer Friedman who worked in Manhattan at the time.

According to last summer’s media coverage, at the moment the image was snapped, Mendonsa admits he was in the throes of drunken revelry following the announcement of Japan’s surrender and spontaneously moved in to kiss the nurse — a complete stranger to him. Friedman herself confirmed in recent interviews that the sailor’s advances were unexpected, unprovoked and even unwanted. She went so far as to characterize his embrace as a “vice-like” grip from which she couldn’t escape. Leopard charges that the media glossed over the inconvenient truths surrounding the photo in its feel-good coverage this past August.

“It seems pretty clear, then, that what George had committed would be considered sexual assault by modern standards,” writes Leopard on her blog. “Yet, in an amazing feat of willful blindness, none of the articles comment on this, even as they reproduce Greta’s words for us. Without a single acknowledgement of the problematic nature of the photo that her comments reveal, they continue to talk about the picture in a whimsical, reverent manner. George’s actions are romanticized and glorified; it is almost as if Greta had never spoken.”

According to an article last week in the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail, much of the reaction to Leopard’s argument has been scornful.

“Plenty of critics pointed out that you can’t slap modern social and sexual mores onto a completely different era,” reported a writer for the paper’s Lifestyle section, Zosia Bielski.

Others have come to the blogger’s defence, suggesting that after considering the circumstances surrounding the famous picture, the image itself is “stomach turning”.

What do you think?

Other facts about the famous photo

  • Alfred Eisenstaedt, 47 at the time, was the Life magazine photographer who snapped the same shot from a different vantage point. The German-born Eisenstaedt was no stranger to war. He fought in the First World War, becoming a professional photographer after the conflict. In 1933, the freelance photo-journalist also snapped a well-known  picture of Hitler meeting Mussolini in Geneva. Eisenstaedt, who was Jewish, fled Germany in 1935.[1] The following year, he became a staff photographer for Life, where he worked until 1972.
  • Victor Jorgensen, a U.S. Navy photographer standing near Mendonsa and Friedman snapped a lesser-known photo of the famous kiss (seen at the top of the story — we would have loved to have run the better-known version, but we don’t hold copyright to it). He sold his shot to The New York Times. It was published in the paper the next day. Eisenstaedt’s more famous photo for Life magazine didn’t run for another week. [2]
  • The identity of the famous kissers was disputed for the past 30 years. As many as 11 men and four women have claimed to be one of the kissers over the years. A forensic investigation concluded that the true subjects were in fact Mendonsa and Friedman. [3] The search for the true sailor and nurse was actually the subject of a 2012 book entitled The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo That Ended World War Two.
  • Mendonsa, who was enjoying shore leave on VJ Day was actually on a date with his future wife when news of Japan’s capitulation reached them in Radio City Music Hall. The couple followed revelers into the street to make merry when an admittedly intoxicated Mendonsa spied Friedman and rushed over for a kiss. Mendonsa’s spouse to be can supposedly be seen in the background of the famous photo. [4]
  • A statue of the famous kiss adorns San Diego harbour.

    A statue commemorating the famous kiss, entitled Unconditional Surrender, was erected in San Diego harbor in May of this year. An earlier version of the piece was erected in Sarasota, Florida but was damaged when a car struck it. [5] A copy of the piece is on display in Pearl Harbor.

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10 comments for “Famous Wartime Kiss Reconsidered?

  1. 10 October, 2012 at 12:10 am

    Helping kids with homework now. Will comment later! 🙂

  2. 10 October, 2012 at 1:23 am

    With the USS Midway being one of my favorite local destinations, I have had the fortune of seeing the majestic statue alongside the Midway. It paints a compelling story of the intense national pride we had in 1945…and outbursts of emotions.

    I had written a couple of short stories on a WWII combat veteran and neighbor; he passed away just about a year ago…right before Christmas. One thing he told me was, “Koji, don’t let anyone tell you different. War makes good boys do crazy things.” He was telling the truth.

    Frankly, that “person” who brings up the term “sexual assault” 70 years after the fact of a kiss is so disconnected and spoiled, it is beyond imagination. It really angers me.

    It was a time to rejoice in being alive. To go back to eating what you want, driving a car being mass produced by the now excess war production capacity, to buy homes and raise families.

    Perhaps that “person” should go back to those islands, be shot at, see butchered bodies and souls, then claim that young Marine who sliced open an enemy’s mouth to get gold teeth guilty of a war crime?

    Sorry for the rant. I find myself – like that sailor 70 years ago – unable to control my emotions but I sure as hell didn’t hit anyone.

  3. 10 October, 2012 at 7:46 am

    No need to apologize for a ‘rant’ — I wanted to hear what everyone thinks of the controversy. Thanks for contributing!

  4. 10 October, 2012 at 9:08 am

    I have always asked myself if those two were a couple or not in light of the very same question.

    What it really is… Well depending on what country you are in it could range from nothing, over a sexually motivated insult, to sexual assault.

    But what I think is that the argument, that those were different times does not count. All criminal öaw is based on the moral conventions of society. Which does not really help since things that wee morally acceptable in the past (like slavery), not not be so today. But in this case I do not think that the perceptions on sexual self-determination have changed too much over the past 70 years, so I would lean towards a crime. And looking at DOD regulations, the sailor would probably have been at least reprimanded if she had filed a complaint on any other day.

  5. joselitus_maximus
    10 October, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    The original blog post is shorter than this one, in a obscure blog about feminism, all the controversy comes from the professional media who chose to run with it with their own biased commentaries.

    Of course, it was the media who chose to make a big deal of this picture every year, not the sailor or the girl who kept quiet for decades.

    This is just the media defending itself.

    (and profitting from the new controversy, of course)

    The media does not give a flyinf f for

    • joselitus_maximus
      10 October, 2012 at 4:49 pm

      I forgot to delete the last sentence… Well, you can insert your own choice for what the media does not give a flying f…

  6. Lois Sherman
    11 February, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    I’ve always liked that statue. To me after being through the horrors of war that had to seem unbelievable and unreal, it would seem to me that that kiss would be an expression of joy to be back in your own real world. I believe in those times life was more innocent and playful. It seems like it is the norm today to drag out and paint the most innocent things as ugly and sensational.

    • 11 February, 2013 at 10:02 pm

      Good point. It seems to me that most of the people unhappy about the 21st Century take on the photo are troubled by the idea that we are judging people from the 1940s using modern day sensibilities. While doing so might be unfair in a sense, I think comparing the differences in attitudes between then (whatever period we are looking at) and the present day is part of what makes studying history so interesting.

  7. weetam
    18 July, 2014 at 9:12 pm

    leopard is an idiot.

    that is all

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