Coffee Chat Monday…On Iconography

Good morning! I hope you had a wonderful Easter weekend. I promised myself I wouldn’t play any April Fools jokes today…and I am going to work to keep that promise. Tempting though it is, in emerging from the stress levels from the past two weeks (and from which I am still admittedly decompressing), I haven’t been able to get a whole helluva lot of actual work done. Which is…in a word…frustrating. So…no April Fools jokes today.
Rather than try to dive right back in where I left off exactly, given the nature of the past two weeks, plus some unexpected unpleasant “issues” that surfaced over the past few days, I decided that I would focus on a particular topic that can ease me back into my actual work more effectively. This topic connects current public debate over marriage equality, a piece of the realities we contend with here in the U.S. regarding patriarchy, rape culture, and …strangely… sexual assault specifics.
What brought sexual assault to the table, in connection with marriage equality, and what effectively shut down a certain part of my thoughts over the weekend…was an unpleasant exchange that began with one of my very favorite images ~

In a strange argument of dissent about the above image in connection with marriage equality (wherein I was informed that I needed to “turn in” my “GLBTQ Ally card” if I disagreed with the person making the assertion)…is that the above image is representative of sexual assault because of the familiar iconography of another image ~

…which, of course, most of us are familiar with that image. There is a story behind that image from 1945, of course. After more than 60 years of the picture being taken, I suppose one could argue that randomly kissing women without warning (by today’s distinctly separate definitions) could (and should) be categorized as sexual assault. The most likely people in the above image were later identified as George Mendonça and Greta Friedman (not Edith Shain, as initially claimed) ~ and there is a much larger story of all the celebrations transpiring in Times Square on the day the end of WWII was announced. There were many, many, many kisses dispensed, similar to the one we have come to know as representative of that day. Additionally, that particular pose was extremely popular, before the above photograph was even taken, in terms of media representation of “idealized” kissing poses.
So…was it sexual assault or not? And…more pertinently, does the Liberty/Justice image represent sexual assault? These questions are interesting to me, as an individual, as a staunch LGBTQ supporter, and as a sex educator. Separating myself from the unpleasantness of the discussion that brought the subject to my attention, and separating myself away from my immediate knee-jerk response of “NO” to the question — recognizing my own personal biases and shelving them in favor of actual consideration of the questions the discussion presented fairly.
First: Sexual Assault.
Let’s look at one definition of sexual assault, from RAINN: Sexual assault is unwanted sexual contact that stops short of rape or attempted rape. This includes sexual touching and fondling. (But, be aware: Some states use this term interchangeably with rape.)
Sexual assault is not something to be taken lightly. It is a very serious thing, indeed. However, turning everything into sexual assault specifically also diminishes the very real damage of blithe acts of sexual assault. From a Crates and Ribbons article, selected statements from Friedman were highlighted to underscore the position that the image was, indeed, sexual assault (“rather than romantic”, which I will address also):
“It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!”
 
“I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vice grip. [sic]“
 
“You don’t forget this guy grabbing you.”
 
“That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”
Except…the article also conveniently leaves out something else she said:

“It wasn’t that much of a kiss. It was more of a jubilant act that he didn’t have to go back [to war],” she said.

 
And, conveniently ignored by people really raging over this topic are other words from the two actual people involved:
“I can’t think of anybody who considered that as an assault,” said Friedman, who exchanges Christmas cards with Mendonsa every year and has appeared with him at several reunion events. “It was a happy event.”

“There is just no way that there was anything bad about it,” she said. “It was all good news, the best news we’d had for a number of years.”
 
Both Mendonsa and Friedman acknowledged the kiss was a surprise but that it was not unwelcome or offensive. Mendonsa was just excited that he didn’t have to return to war, and thankful for the nurses who cared for his wounded shipmates.
After all of the years gone by since the famous photograph was taken, when asked to reenact the famous kiss, Friedman declined. Both Friedman and Mendonça were in their very late 80s by then, and I doubt (based on what I have read of them) that either of them would have been remotely interested in a reenactment of the famous image. Mendonça, in fact, filed a lawsuit for his image being used so very publicly and broadly without his permission (long since dismissed). So, it would seem, both of them were very uncomfortable about the photograph after the celebrations were over.
To suggest that Friedman was in denial about her own experience would be…oh, I guess I would call that gaslighting…to tell her that she doesn’t understand or clearly comprehend her own experience.
So, was it sexual assault? The short answer is yes, it most certainly was.  By modern standards. Yes. Was it, however, sexual assault in any practical sense? No. I do not believe so. Why? Because using RAINN’s definition of sexual assault (which I would argue is a fair and accurate one), as “unwanted sexual contact that stops short of rape or attempted rape. This includes sexual touching and fondling.” From the standpoint of consent, the image can be qualified as assault; from the standpoint of unwanted, or connected with rape (or even any intent of rape), the image can be simply categorized as celebratory.
I feel, though, that qualifying an image from more than 65 years ago as sexual assault is something of a false anachronism. Admitting that the reality of the image was a form of sexual assault equally decontextualizes what actually happened. Acknowledging that people placing romance as the underlying characteristic of the image is equally wrong, and ignores the actual events that transpired within that image that has become iconic. The long-standing assumption by most people about the image of romance was encapsulated in the false notion that the two people were a couple, when in fact they did not even know each other prior to the event. Of course, that reality puts a slightly different light on the image overall…but does not automatically imply that Mendonça was some sort of sex offender.
Lawrence Verria noted“I think we need to be careful how we characterize a kiss from over 60 years ago, far removed from the day and its circumstances,” he said. “Calling it a sexual assault caught on film is not accurate, but also viewing the kiss as romantic as it’s often characterized is not accurate. It’s a celebration of a war’s victorious end.”
And that is something of an important point. Using all of the above as a springboard, I believe a VERY important discussion to actually have is about patriarchy…aboutsubject/object portrayal of men and women, respectively, in our culture, in our media, and in our iconography. Yes, I really do believe that is a very important discussion to have…finally.
Second: Lady Liberty & Blind Justice
At the same time, I think that the discussion about those things…transposed upon the image of Liberty and Justice…and calling that “sexual assault” — while well-intended — muddies the waters and confuses the issues. I believe that even while the original iconic photograph serves as an excellent opening for very important discussion to take place, juxtaposing that idea onto an image of statues in that very same pose is, in a word, absurd.
I appreciate the honest passion of the fight against patriarchy…against systemic sexism…against passive acts of sexual assault. Really and truly, I do. I share the passion, and I am part of that fight. I also believe that it gets taken way too far in the midst of the passion of trying to tear down those walls of blind privilege. I also believe that this idea of turning every single thing into some real or imagined injustice serves to diminish when very real acts of violence, assault, and abuse transpire. I mentally connect the idea of turning Liberty/Justice into representative of sexual assault with people who police language…again, very well-meaning and intended — and I happen to support people who -IN THEIR OWN SPACES- insist upon certain types of language to not be used IN THEIR OWN SPACES. I take a bit of umbrage, however, when someone steps into my space and asserts to me how I should or should not speak, or what language I should or should not use…or that my refusal to adhere to their expectations –again, within my own space– amounts to me somehow tacitly supporting oppression and/or violence.
George Carlin summed it up nicely, actually, in one of his many stand-up routines: “I think congressman should be congressperson. I think mankind should be humankind. But they take it too far…they want to call that thing in the middle of the street a person-hole cover. He-man would be an “It-person”…and we’d all be laughing about this on Late Night with David Letterperson!”
 
Recognizing past errors does not mean that we divorce those errors from their respective reality at the time. Nor does it mean that those errors define the composite. Take Gandhi…or Lennon…or Marley. People often become very uncomfortable having their ideas about the very real love and peace promoted by them shattered by harsh truths about the fact that they were each very, very human…and therefore flawed. Their individual errors and abuses do not change that their overall life messages were still good. As with the image, the very individual error at the time of the photograph does not change the overarching idea of celebration, or indeed romance, really. It simply gives us (today) a very healthy perspective and opening for meaningful discussion about ways to move forward in a positive direction.
So in the final analysis, I’d call it a wash. I agree with the person who challenged me that, yes, the iconic post-WWII image can certainly be representative of sexual assault. I continue to disagree, however, that sexual assault is THE message of the image…and in no way diminishes the very positive message of Lady Liberty kissing Blind Justice. And no, I won’t be turning in my LGBTQ Ally card, thankyouverymuch.
And with that, I wish you a wonderful week!

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