When Words Fail

I don’t imagine this photo needs any explanation. Except it so happens that we’re not really witnessing one of the most romantic moments of the 20th century: the sailor, George, was drunk. The woman, Gerta, was a complete stranger, caught by surprise, unable to resist. You can see the subtext when you know what to look for. The ecstatic swoon looks more like submission – from a startled, petite woman. And there’s her clenched fist. I’d never noticed it before.

A London based blogger has created quite a stir with her commentary on the photo’s cultural meaning. Quoting Gerta’s own words that she did not see the man approach and was “in this vice grip” by a “very strong man,” the blogger writes:

 It seems pretty clear, then, that what George had committed was sexual assault. (emphasis mine.) Yet, in an amazing feat of willful blindness, none of the articles comment on this, even as they reproduce Greta’s words for us. Without a single acknowledgement of the problematic nature of the photo that her comments reveal, they continue to talk about the picture in a whimsical, reverent manner, “still mesmerized by his timeless kiss.” George’s actions are romanticized and glorified; it is almost as if Greta had never spoken.

I feel unease about this commentary and here’s my first problem. Words are really important, and we cheapen human experience when we are cavalier with language. That’s what bothers me about the re-interpretation of the photo – the ostensibly ‘correct’ interpretation. With all due respect to the woman who was subject to this ‘friendly fire’ attack, it doesn’t feel like misogyny or denial to see something more benign than sexual assault in the photo.

That’s not to say the photo – and the decades of willful obfuscation around it – doesn’t reflect something highly problematic throughout human history: the possession (unwelcome and unsought) of women’s bodies by men. I get that. Believe me, I do.

And yet… how is it possible to ignore the historical context of the photo, taken on VJ-Day in 1945 when a cataclysmic world war came to an end after the death of 50 million people and literally unparalleled destruction and economic collapse? I don’t think those of us who weren’t present then can remotely fathom the joy on that day, when after years of terror and deprivation – finally – it was clear that the world would go on.

It may be mischievous to ask this: but would we describe the outpouring of physical affection by Parisian women to liberating American soldiers in 1944 as “sexual assault”? Look, I understand that there’s a world of difference between men and women when we talk about sexual assault. You can’t de-contextualize that either. But can we be intellectually honest? 

I’ve been an amateur student of World War II for years and it worries me that we are forgetting the meaning of this catastrophe; it’s becoming a distant and untouchable marker, like World War One was to me when I was a little girl. Yes, there were some old survivors rattling around and words like “Lusitania” and “Gallipoli” had some vague traction, but the Great War seemed wholly unrelated to any reality I could fathom. I see this historical fuzziness happening now, as well, especially when people compare our current ‘War’ on Terror and the supposedly unprecedented dangerous times and economic hardship we are facing in the 21st century to the apocalypse of the mid-twentieth century.

It’s so easy to forget that the western world felt on the brink of annihilation in the 1940s.

And so getting back to George and Gerta… how can we ignore the context? I really don’t know what else to call it, but “sexual assault” doesn’t seem quite right, especially in the larger context of, for example, the two million rapes of German women by advancing Russians. (And even then, yes, there was a damned context, however unbelievably grotesque: starving, wildly intoxicated young men who’d been enmeshed in a culture of extreme deprivation, sexual ignorance, and xenophobia for years.)

I know, I know: if a stranger grabbed me off the street and – let’s say – shoved his tongue down my throat… yeah, I’d feel violated, for sure. I have a very finely tuned disgust impulse. I’d feel repulsed, angered, freaked out. Would I feel sexually assaulted? I don’t know. Would you? I mean, of course I see that, techinically, legally, it would be a sexual assault. And yet… Surely intent matters just a little in an extreme case like VJ-Day? Surely only the most robotic interpretation would fail to take that into account. Gerta, herself did, by all reports.

The truth is that there’s a whole realm of unpleasant human encounters, only some of which seem adequately matched to our linguistic conventions.

But we must expand our vocabulary – figurative and literal – to describe the uninvited physical handling of women. Surely doing so wouldn’t undermine the expectation that men not have unfettered access to women’s bodies, caveman style. In fact, I’m convinced the opposite might be the case: If we could find more nuance and precision in our language, I wonder if we might actually enhance the argument that men shouldn’t just grab women off the street – drunk or not. If we didn’t up the ante in every case  – Sexual assaulter! Rape culture! — we wouldn’t need to persuade people that an ecstatic, drunken sailor was a predator,  just that there should be a default assumption that a person shouldn’t use another human being’s body without consent.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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2 Responses to When Words Fail

  1. This article is problematic for me. If I was Greta and swept up in the moment of George I probably would have enjoyed the kiss. But, sexual assault? I don’t think so. That is over statement. Did anybody interview Greta and ask her? Or are they just interpreting a picture? Rape is a serious thing however. To equate rape with this kiss and call it sexual assault? It is true no one should just walk up to someone and kiss them without permission. However, George looks pretty darn cute to me. I would have let him plant one on me for winning that war and saving me from Hitler and the Nazis. The picture has to be interpreted in the light of WWII and a victory parade where emotions are running high and excitement and gratitude is in the air. Unfortunately the person interpreting this picture is viewing it in the context of random sexual assault and rape. Pretty unfair and once again, their own agenda. Context is everything.

  2. I think if you re-read what the author has written, she is saying exactly that: we need to refine our language so that we don’t jump immediately to the conceptual extreme of “rape” or “sexual assault” because those words are, indeed, sometimes over-statements. What I find more problematic is the commentator’s idea that “George looks pretty darn cute to me…..” So, if the man is cute it’s okay to kiss someone who is neither prepared nor willing to do so, but if he’s not cute, it’s not okay? I’m being a bit facetious here, but isn’t that some of the problem, too? That we’ll allow certain things by certain men but not those same things by other men? Just something to think about….

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