The victor and the prize

The kissing sailor – 1945

George Mendonsa has died.

George Mendonsa was the sailor who was immortalised by the photo of Alfred Eisenstaedt, in which he kisses a random woman that he grabbed and kissed in Times Square, after the surrender of Japan.

Quoting The Guardian : ,,The woman was Greta Friedman, a dental assistant wearing a nurse’s uniform. ‘ “He was very strong, he was just holding me tight,” she said. “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and kissed or grabbed.’- she told an interviewer with the Veterans History Project in 2005.”

On the other hand, Mendonsa, the sailor, told CBS news in 2012: “It was the moment. You come back from the Pacific and finally, the war ends. The excitement of the war being over, plus I had a few drinks. So when I saw the nurse, I grabbed her and I kissed her.”

So, they were perfect strangers.

She was minding her own business, walking down the street in her nurse uniform and a man felt free enough to grab her and kiss her. No questions asked, no introductory conversation, no seducing moves, no reciprocity, no consent. Just plainly using the alcohol and the celebratory mood as excuses to cross over all the boundaries that strangers’ bodies keep between themselves in public places. Just simple appropriation of someone else’s body. This male entitlement and this female objectification are so normalised in our culture that this photo is and was, for decades on end, a symbol of ecstatic celebration of the victory and safe return from war of the good guys. No one questioned it. After all, she didn’t struggle, she didn’t oppose therefore, not only did she like it but also felt flattered by the attention of the triumphant sailor. 

The Rape of Proserpina – Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1621

The kipnapping of the Sabine women – Giambologna, 1583

In our collective imaginary,  rape and male violence can almost be seen as poetic forms of passion with which women are honoured. Art fuels these depictions of sexual assault and the numerous representations of the abduction and rape of the Sabine women by Roman men, or the abduction and rape of Proserpina by Pluto are perfect examples of that and very far from being the only ones. In all of them, the bodies of the assailants and the victims intertwine in a passionate dance of  ambiguous female gestures and savage male motions. To the eyes of the observer that witnesses these assaults, it all almost appears to be a fiery foreplay in which both parts play a role and from which both derive pleasure. Men in the role of victors taking their well-deserved trophies and women, as the trophies, with misleading body languages, somewhere between arousal and terror.

The photo taken of Mendonsa and Friedman is another example of that. Its name, “The kissing sailor”, defines who’s the main character. And because a photograph wasn’t enough to glorify his prowess, it is also possible to see in different locations in the USA, a collection of statues depicting the act. It has been properly named “Unconditional Surrender”.

Unconditional Surrender – Seward Johnson, 2015

Apart from some feminist uproar in the wake of the #metoo movement, most people don’t want to question the legitimacy of such kind of male attitude towards women. Maybe it would be too hard for some women to realise that that kiss stolen on the dance floor wasn’t consensual, that the touch on the train wasn’t unintentional, that the shoulder massage from that male co-worker wasn’t given out of kindness.

Maybe it would be too hard for some men to realise that they are not as nice and harmless as they think they are, that they have,  far too often, justified appropriation with alcohol, and mistaken self-confidence with self-entitlement and with being absolutely and utterly inappropriate towards a woman, stranger or not.

Better to go on using cosy euphemisms and legitimating disrespect through tradition. Better to go on considering that equality between both sexes is some sort of radical absurdity that kills all the beauty and magic between humans. And sometimes, all that is art and we all know how life can imitate it.

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