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October 8, 2012

The Priceless Privilege: Times Square Kiss and Sexual Assault

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 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.

– John Lucaites

Cross-posted from No Caption Needed. Previous posts about this photo on No Caption Needed (hereherehereherehere,here, and here) and in print (here and here).

(photo: Alfred Eisenstadt/Life)

  • Stan B.

    This was an exceptional, once in a lifetime celebration, one of great mutual joy and relief shared by an entire nation. This photo may help serve to initiate much needed conversation on the topic of sexual assault, but because it is also about a most joyous and singularly unique event, it may also serve to obfuscate the issue, rather than help clarify and define it. I would hope that mature adults can make such distinctions- as did the sailor’s laughing girlfriend (and future wife, in the background), and the approvingly smiling, elderly women on the right.

    This is not to negate the rights and feelings of the woman in question. But should we then also ostracize
    all those young French women who willingly took the liberty of kissing
    their Allied liberators? Did they ask first? There’s certainly more than
    one of those photos…

    • LanceThruster

      I like your observations on the subject. Times aside, if the woman felt the act was unwanted, that’s the end of story (other than the mitigating circumstances of the nature of the event – to put the response in today’s context seems a bit harsh). Our patriarchal culture was and continues to be, to some extent, glaringly one-sided (I imagine the butt-pinch of Italian fame is now looked upon in a less benign fashion but is it now equivalent to sexual assault? It is clearly a violation of one’s person). This came to mind in the sailor’s defense, and I’d offer what war historian Paul Fussell remarked about the choice to use the atomic bomb in the war against Japan (though nuclear bombs and forced bussing are two very dissimilar acts)
      http://crossroads.alexanderpiela.com/files/Fussell_Thank_God_AB.pdf
      The past, which as always did not know the future, acted in ways that ask to be imagined before they are condemned. Or even simplified.

  • jonst

    I get it. It took me a bit…but now i get it. This was headed for the Onion and somehow it got directed here.

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  • black_dog_barking

    To the victor, the spoils. That certainly had to be in the air that day in Times Square.

    Juliet does indeed look less than enamored with salty Romeo’s attentions, the position of her left arm is that of someone bracing against a discomfort, not of someone welcoming a returned hero. But society, at least the woman over Casanova’s left shoulder, appears to be looking on with amusement like this kind of behavior is to be expected at this time in this particular place.

    • http://profiles.google.com/glennisw250 Glennis Waterman

      Victor? spoils? Is not the American nurse also a victor, equal to the American sailor? American women were not ‘the spoils” of WWII.

  • http://profiles.google.com/thomasgokey Thomas Gokey

    This is less a matter of “times were different back then” and more a matter of the universal truth that war and sexual assault go hand in hand. Has there ever been a war, between any two groups, that didn’t involve men with guns forcing themselves on women?

    It was a different time? Right now, the US military is a hotbed for sexual assault, the vast majority of it goes uninvestigated and unpunished: http://www.forbes.com/sites/katetaylor/2012/06/21/the-militarys-invisible-war-a-call-to-action-to-stop-sexual-assaults/

    This sexual assault pictured was part of the war itself. It’s part of what war is. It’s part of the shame of war.

  • Scarabus

    Reminds me of Robert Doisneau’s photos of kisses — what was claimed/revealed at the time, plus what was claimed/revealed just after his death.

    Any thoughts about what the sailor is doing (and is not doing) with his left hand?

  • Violet Twilight

    Long time ago, one of my housemates put a life-size poster of this photo in our living room. Before I knew who the woman was, I knew she was unwilling. I couldn’t get over her left fist.

  • Cactus

    I can remember lying on the floor of my grandmother’s living
    room and looking at this picture in LIFE. I thought it was romantic. It has
    become iconic. Perhaps one of the two iconic photos of WWII. The end of the
    war was a jubilant time. Rationing on most things, including gas, was
    immediately ended. The horror of the A-bomb was not yet fully known. People
    were breathing easier. “The boys” were coming home. No more gold star
    mothers. To dig this photo up now and call it a form of rape is to demonize
    something that is not rape and trivialize the actual horror of rape as it is
    happening now in the services.

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  • Carlos

    Yet another ugly case of “first-world problem”.

  • Scott

    I saw an interview with this woman a few years ago after someone tracked her down. She enjoyed. She said it. It was mutual. Go waste time on something else.

  • BarbT

    Over the years several people claimed to be the kissers and two have been singled out as likely candidates through photo analysis. The woman happily participated in that kiss and was proud to have been a part of history.

    The writer of this piece has been indoctrinated by the poison of radical feminism for far to long.I wonder what bothers him more about the message behind “the kiss”: the defeat of Hitler or the fact that it’s a man and a woman kissing.

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