[CW: sexual assault and consent]
I originally posted this as a “show and tell” assignment for my Visual Rhetoric class this summer but writing it left me with a lot of thoughts and feelings so I thought that I would share it here as well.
The iconic Eisenstaedt image first appeared in Life magazine in 1945, with the caption “In New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers.” Many saw this image as the epitome of the excitement that was being shared by Americans in the wake of the end of WWII. Viewers saw the “white-clad girl” as someone who was in Times Square to celebrate and welcome the troops, and in so doing, was receptive to the attentions of the “uninhibited sailor.” No mention was made in the caption about the fact that the “girl” was a nurse and that perhaps she had seen her own share of battle and was also returning home.
VJ Day, Jorgensen, 1945
Questions about the relationship, or lack thereof, between the two in the picture, and how welcome this attention was on the part of the nurse, weren’t really raised in a loud and public way until recently. In this second image, the Jorgensen image, the shot is closer in, so it makes it easier to see her left hand. Initially I went with the original idea that she was gripping her purse but if she’s holding a purse, it’s really hard to tell. It looks more like she’s making a fist (this will be important in a second). Her right arm isn’t visible but it doesn’t appear to be around the sailor. The assumption is that her right arm is also stiffly at her side or perhaps wedged between them as she tries to push him away. It is also clear to see how the sailor’s left arm is wrapped around her head in a tight lock and his right hand is gripping her waist, keeping her still. The bystanders just watch and laugh and don’t seem to be concerned with the sexual assault of a nurse in the middle of Times Square.
Interestingly, Eisenstaedt took a series of photos of this incident but only this one received widespread attention. What makes this so interesting is that a few frames in, there is a shot of the nurse punching the sailor in the face. I had to dig a bit for the image, and even then it was hard to make out until I blew it up but that is absolutely her left fist connecting with his chin. The woman who finally came forward and was verified as the nurse in the picture, Greta Zimmer Friedman, has stated that this was absolutely non-consensual. A drunken sailor grabbed her and forced himself on her but the normalization of sexual assault made this image into a charming shot of jubilation and excitement.
VJ Day in Times Square, Eisenstaedt, 1945
This normalization was hammered in by a sculpture that was placed in Sarasota, FL in 2005 called Unconditional Surrender, which was then moved around and copied multiple times, including a temporary placement in Times Square In 2015. The Sarasota statue has since been graffitied and tagged with #MeToo but it has not been taken down.
Unconditional Surrender, Times Square, 2015
Even though it wasn’t voiced loudly until the last decade or so, I do wonder about the private opinions of the women who viewed this picture at the time it was printed in Life magazine. There are women laughing in the photos, but is it true laughter or is it that uncomfortable laughter that women sometimes do because they don’t know how else to respond and they’ve been conditioned to accept this kind of behavior? Societal rhetoric told us that this was a positive, and even romantic, image. I know that when I was a teenage girl and first saw it, I thought it was very romantic. I didn’t know the story and I had read way too many Harlequin romances. After being a woman in American society for so long now, though, I can see this image for what it really was. I can see the way the rhetoric unfolded around it because a picture can tell a story but it can’t tell the whole story, or even the right one. Interpretation is everything.
2 thoughts on “The Visual Rhetoric of Iconic Images – VJ Day in Times Square”
On the first and third pictures it is clear that, to the right, a grandmother and a young girl, and presumably the mother whose feet are just visible, are stood watching and at least the grandmother thinks it is a big joke. One wonders with what the impression the young girl was left. Presumably that the brave lads of the returning armed forces were entitled to assault women- some sort of a socially acceptable reward !
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I mean, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to have that opinion. It’s not necessarily uncommon now.