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Oct 22, 2012

A Second Look: A Kiss is Just a Kiss … Or is it?

It is perhaps the most famous kiss in the annals of kisses.  But the question has now been raised, is it more than just a kiss?  And more, could it be an instance of sexual assault in full view of the public?  There is much to suggest that, as it has typically been portrayed, the photograph is the representation of a joyous kiss celebrating the end of a war and the return to normalcy.  And perhaps the most important evidence here is the reaction of the members of the public who look upon the heterosexual kissers approvingly, smiling rather in the way we might imagine an older generation’s response to the exuberance of young love.

But there are also reasons for concern.  The sailor is clearly the aggressor and the nurse is clearly passive.  Take note of the fact that she is not returning his embrace.  Indeed, from one perspective, at least, she appears to have gone limp, succumbing but hardly complicit.  And then there is this: The most recent woman to be identified as the nurse, Greta Zimmer Friedman, reports that “[i]t wasn’t my choice to be kissed.  The guy just came over and grabbed!”  And more, “I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in his vice grip [sic].”  And then this, “That man was very strong.  I wasn’t kissing him.  He was kissing me.”  If this were to be reported today it is pretty clear that we would judge the sailor’s behavior as more than just inappropriate but as a sexual assault.  The question seems to be, should we impose contemporary norms on what we might imagine as a somewhat distant culture?  The answer is not obvious.

Perhaps we should begin with some context.  Everyone remembers the photograph as an icon of VE Day.  What most forget is that it was one of a series of images in a Life magazine photo essay titled “The Men of War Kiss From Coast to Coast,” and more to the point it was the last image in the array and the only one to occupy a full page.  To a number all of the other photographs depict lascivious if not downright transgressive public acts (here,  here and here).  But, and here is the point, in almost every instance, the women appear to be—or are described in the captions—as being complicit.  When we turn to the “Times Square Kiss” in this context we see something that seems to be the model of restraint: two kissers lost in passion even as they enact the decorum that is the necessary discipline of public life.  We hardly attend to the original caption that notes, “an uninhibited sailor [who] plants his lips squarely on hers.”  It was clearly a different time.  As one soldier from the “Greatest Generation” was quoted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1944, among the things we fight for is “the priceless privilege of making love to American women.”  And in their own way, this full array of Life photographs makes the point.

And yet there is something altogether dissatisfying with leaving it at that.  And not just because times have changed.  Ariella Azoulay has recently asked, “Has anyone ever seen a photograph of a rape?”  Her point is not that such photographs do not exist – they do, however rare.  Nor is it that they are not available for viewing – they are, although again their circulation is rather limited.  Rather, her point is that even as we have reconstituted our notion of rape since the 1970s in ways that liberalizes the meaning of sexual assault and underscores the responsibility of the state to protect women, it continues to be an invisible object in the public discourse, an image that we proscribe from showing and, more importantly, fail to see even when it is before our eyes.

The real challenge here then is not so much to critique the blind sexism of an earlier moment in our history, however much it might be mischaracterized as a golden past, but to question why we continue to refuse to see what might now be before our eyes. Put differently, the question is not what does this photograph tell us about our past, but rather what does our refusal to see the photograph in the context of Greta Zimmer Friedman’s memory of that day tell us about our present.

Photo Credit: “VJ Day in Times Square, August 14, 1945,” by Alfred Eisenstaedt, © Time Inc.

We have previously written about this photograph on this blog (hereherehere, here, here, here, and here) and in print (here and here).

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


A Second Look: A Kiss is Just a Kiss … Or is it?


5 Responses

  1. rkg says

    I’ve never understood how the photo could be read as anything other than an assault of some kind. The woman has always looked limp, his left arm trapping her, her left arm both flailing and trying to strike him, his right hand in an agressive lock. I have never seen any kindness, love, or joy in this photo.

  2. david sutton says

    “And perhaps the most important evidence here is the reaction of the members of the public who look upon the heterosexual kissers approvingly, smiling rather in the way we might imagine an older generation’s response to the exuberance of young love.”

    Look again. There are only three observers whose faces can be clearly distinguished, and two of them are sailors sweeping through the crowd in the same direction as the “assailant”. In this context the kissing sailor resembles more closely a member of a pack of wolves, and the approval the others display of this sailor’s “catch” looks not at all like approval from an “older generation”, but rather more like two more mammalian predators enjoying the thrill of the kill.

  3. Lucaites says

    David: There are actually four faces that can be seen smiling. And two are women. My point was not that they were an older generation but that they were smiling in a way that might be analogous. But your point is well taken. The context in which someone “see’s” the image matters a great deal. In the context of the return to normalcy we are inclined to see one thing; in the context of a culture increasingly concerned about sexual abuse, another. And that we are even having this conversation seems to point to Azoulay’s concern that we don’t see photographs of rape. It is surely cause for concern.

  4. Tatiana says

    I have always seen this image whether it was in books, movies or shown as an image in history class. I have never thought of it as sexual assault, but then again I’ve never really looked at the photograph. If you take a closer look though, the woman is passive with the kiss, she wasn’t doing anything and kinda stood there in the man’s embrace. He kissed her aggressively. She didn’t want it but he did, and he took it. There are other photos of sailors just coming back from war. They are kissing girls too but the women are obviously enjoying it in those pictures and are happy with the situation. Isn’t it funny how the most popular photo, the one that is recreated the most and is the most recognizable, is the one showing sexual assault? And most people don’t even know it

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