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. 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. 
- 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.  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. 
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.  A copy of the piece is on display in Pearl Harbor.
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