You know that iconic black-and-white photograph of the American sailor kissing the woman in the white dress? Of course you do – it’s quintessential dorm room wall fare. You know, this one:
This photo always made me uncomfortable. In spite of all the post-war jubiliation, something just seems off about this scene. Maybe it’s her clenched fist, her stiff arm, and her awkwardly twisted legs. Or maybe it’s his headlock-esque embrace, or the smushed-up intensity of their kiss. Call me unromantic, but something about this photo twists my stomach into knots.
Unfortunately, that reaction might not be so off-base. Last week, a British blogger known as Leopold made waves when she posited that, far from being one of the 50 most romantic photographs of all time, this image depicts a sexual assault in progress. As it turns out, the man and woman in the photo were complete strangers prior to this moment. The sailor was drunk, and the woman in the white dress was completely unaware of his presence until he enveloped her in a back-bending bearhug. Leopold cites some chilling quotes from the woman in question, who has only recently been identified and interviewed:
“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.”
Shockingly, none of the articles in which these quotes originally appeared seem to recognize this as problematic. Leopold’s blog post addresses this:
The unwillingness to recognize a problem here is not surprising, considering the rape culture in which we live. It is not easy to assert that a woman’s body is always her own, not to be used at the whim of any man without her consent. It is far easier to turn a blind eye to the feelings of women, to claim that they should empathise with the man, that they should be good sports and just go along with it. And the stronger the power structures behind the man, the more difficult it becomes to act otherwise. But if we are serious about bringing down rape culture and reducing the widespread violence against women, then we need to make it clear that engaging with someone sexually without consent is not ok, even when it is an uncomfortable position to take. Especially when it is an uncomfortable position to take.
While it may be tempting to shrug off the circumstances around the photograph and instead revel in the nostalgia, patriotism, and unbridled joy it’s seen to evoke, there can be no excusing the violation of another person’s autonomy. There are plenty of cutesy vintage posters that don’t feature nonconsensual physical contact, so let’s retire the Kissing Sailor in favor of posters that reflect the kind of culture we’re trying to create. Consent is sexy, people!