Is it sexual assault if the woman in the picture doesn't think so?

It was on August 15, 1945 in Time Square that photographer Alfred Eisendstaedt took the above photo of a sailor swooping in to kiss a woman in celebration of the Victory over Japan Day. For years, this photo has been regarded as an iconic piece of American culture finding its way into Life and framed on many walls in American homes. It is, so we thought, a depiction of romance, victory and a spontaneous kiss between two lovers. But that’s not the case at all.

According to a quote on Feministing.com, a London blogger who goes only by “Leopard,” says this photo “unambiguously depicts an act of sexual assault.” Do you agree?

If you take your romantic notions out of your head and really focus on the details, they could go either way depending on how your body responds mid-kiss. The woman’s body is limp, she’s not embracing him back and her fist at her side appears to be clenched. “Leopard” points out that the “smirks” on the faces of the his fellow sailors is also a sure sign that what we’re witnessing is “stomach-turning when properly viewed.”

It did later come out that the two, George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman were not lovers at all. The dental assistant had gone out on to the streets to see what all the hoopla was about when Mendonsa went in for the kill. Apparently, his then-girlfriend and future wife, is also in the photo although she doesn’t seem to be too concerned over the incident. Neither is Friedman.

In 1980 the two reenacted the kiss in Times Square for the same photographer. During an interview Friedman, seemed elated about her part in American culture and the end of the war. Never once does she call the incident a “sexual assault”:

Well, I think he [Mendonsa] was the one who made me famous, because he took the action. I was just the bystander. So, I think he deserves a lot of credit. Actually, by the photographer creating something that was very symbolic at the end of a bad period…it was a wonderful coincidence a man in a sailor’s uniform and a woman in a white dress… and a great photographer at the right time.

If the woman in the photo doesn’t have any qualms with it, is it fair for anyone else to regard it as a sexual assault? Is this part of the “rape culture” of which Leopard writes, that we’re able to look at this photo and see it as something that maybe it isn’t? At what point do we stop taking apart the past and accept that it was a different time, or is that too easy a label?

For me, I can’t look at this and see anything but a celebration. Even standing on my head, with my glasses off and only one eye open, I can only see the end of a war, a man who survived it and a woman who was there at the “right” time. And I’m using that woman’s words, not mine.

 

Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945, Life Magazine