Iconic kissing sailor photo depicts sexual assault, not romance

 We’ve all seen the image. It’s appeared and been reproduced in countless magazine and newspapers since it was taken in 1945. A testament to its lasting ubiquity, Buzzfeed listed it at the absolute top of its “50 most romantic photographs of all time” feature just two weeks ago.

But what does it really depict and represent?

As it turns out, rather than a romantic moment between lovers, the image actually and unambiguously depicts an act of sexual assault.  

A London-based feminist has been causing a huge stir on Facebook and in the blogosphere with this very observation.  The blogger known as “Leopard” writes:

“Most of us are familiar with this picture. Captured in Times Square on V-J Day, 1945, it has become one of the most iconic photographs of American history, symbolizing the jubilation and exuberance felt throughout the country at the end of World War II.”

 “Do you get the feeling that something is not quite right?

…Far from being a kiss between a loving couple, we learn that George and Greta were perfect strangers. We learn that George was drunk, and that Greta had no idea of his presence, until she was in his arms, with his lips on hers… It seems pretty clear, then, what George had committed was sexual assault.” [Emphasise mine.]

A closer look at the image in question shows corroborating details that become stomach-turning when properly viewed: the smirks on the faces of the sailors in the background; the firm grasp around the physically smaller woman in his arms such that she could not escape if she tried; the woman’s clenched fist and limp body.

If there is a better symbol for how messed up our ideas about sex and romance are, I can’t think of one.

On the one hand, it shows we’ve come a long way- after all, I’d like to hope that kissing a stranger on the street without consent in today’s world would raise at least some red flags if not garner the proper prosecution it deserves (my hopes are heightened by the existence of a number of voices and awesome organizations working against a culture of street harassment). On the other hand, we still live in a world where as Leopard points out, “the fact that this much-loved photo is a depiction of sexual assault, rather than passion, is an uncomfortable truth, and to call it out as such might make one seem to be a priggish wet blanket.”

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is a writer and advocate focusing on race, gender, and sexual and reproductive rights. In addition to serving as an Executive Director at Feministing, Lori is the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Lori has previously worked at the United Nations Foundation, the International Women’s Health Coalition, and Human Rights Watch, and has written for a host of print and digital properties including Rookie Magazine, The Grio, and the New York Times Magazine. She regularly appears on radio and television, and has spoken at college campuses across the U.S. about topics like the politics of black hair, transnational movement building, and the undercover feminism of Nicki Minaj. In 2014, she was named to The Root 100 list of the nation's most influential African Americans, and to the Forbes Magazine list of the "30 Under 30" successful people in media.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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