Saturday, October 21, 2017

Was the iconic V-J Day kiss sexual assault?

Late summer, 1945. In the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more than 100,000 people lay dead, casualties of the United States’ decision to drop a pair of atomic bombs. But in Times Square on Aug. 14, a much different vibe prevails: Japan has surrendered, and the victors are celebrating — drinking, shouting and dancing in the streets.

An American sailor named George Mendonsa spontaneously takes hold of a complete stranger, 21-year-old Austrian-Jewish refugee Greta Zimmer [Friedman], bends her backward, plants a kiss on her mouth and continues on his way. Unbeknown to either, famed photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt has captured the encounter. The resulting image, published soon after in Life magazine, came to symbolize the exuberance of that moment, in a country overflowing with vigor and youth, at a time when anything seemed possible. ...

In 2012, a London-based blogger who uses the pseudonym Leopard wrote a provocative post on Crates and Ribbons titled “The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture,’” arguing that Mendonsa’s actions should not be idealized as romantic. To the writer, the kiss represented nothing short of a sexual assault.

The post highlights a series of comments from Greta Friedman’s 2005 Veterans History Project interview, which addresses the issue of what we would now call consent. “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed,” Friedman said at the time. “The guy just came over and grabbed!” adding, “That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.” Leopard also cited a CBS News interview in which Friedman said of Mendonsa, “I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vice grip (sic).” ...

Josh Friedman says that his mother is well aware of the discussion, and has expressed a nuanced reaction. Greta Friedman has become friendly with Mendonsa over the years and her son says she considers him to be “a lovely person.” When CBS News reunited the two in Times Square for the interview cited on Crates and Ribbons, Friedman appears to be at ease with the former sailor. She has declined to fault Mendonsa for his actions — taking into account his overwhelming admiration for the nurses on the Bunker Hill — though she is not unsympathetic to the contemporary critique.

“My mom always had an appreciation for a feminist viewpoint, and understood the premise that you don’t have a right to be intimate with a stranger on the street,” Josh Friedman says. “(But) she didn’t assign any bad motives to George in that circumstance, that situation, that time.”
--Andy Martino, New York Daily News, on the past, a foreign country