I was on BuzzFeed taking a quiz to see if it could guess my age based on my rom-com movie opinions—the answer is yes, BuzzFeed knows everything—when I saw a blurb that Greta Friedman had died at the age of 92.
She was the woman in the iconic photo on V-J day in New York City being dipped as a navy sailor kissed her. This picture is a moment of total euphoria and a symbol of tremendous relief and romance for so many. Growing up, that image epitomized the ultimate gesture of passion: big, sweeping gestures of affection that make your knees go weak, where you see someone and know it's true love.
When I was little and way too into the idea of romance, I wanted to be like the woman in the photo, but it wasn’t until I reached high school that I heard that the two people kissing in the picture hadn't even known each other previously.
That was a wake-up call that I needed. Spontaneous romance is not real, and this picture was just a very pretty veneer to something questionable. It brought up issues of consent in a way that I had not connected with before. I had not thought about the practicalities of some random guy kissing me in the middle of the street as I was minding my own business, and it made me uncomfortable with how much regard I had for The Kiss (the photo).
Friedman was a dental hygienist who was on her work break when the sailor, George Mendosa, pulled her up into a vice-like grip and kissed her. Alfred Eisenstaedt was in Times Square taking pictures of the scene and took four photographs in the span of 10 seconds. Mendosa and Friedman did not see each other again until 1980, when they went to Times Square for the first time since that photo.
When I got to high school and learned the full story, I didn’t know what to think. I had these grand romantic dreams of someone sweeping me up in their arms because I was just so beautiful to them—like in Disney movies when they fall in love in the span of an hour and 30 minutes, leaving off in the sunset. Obviously grand romantic gestures were a requisite part of this fantasy. But hearing the description “viselike grip” and realizing that they didn’t even know each other gave me pause and made me really reevaluate what I wanted from my life. This whole notion of “spontaneous romance” began to appeal less and less to me as I really thought about what my fantasy entailed.
Obviously, I no longer think that someone sweeping me up in their arms and kissing me is the pinnacle of romance. In fact, the lack of consent makes it slightly terrifying. Still, in my mind, that picture has been associated with romance and it makes me uncomfortable that I still think of it as such. I thought that great love stories were full of moments like this, and that nothing could go wrong if it looked like a movie. Now, to be completely frank, my life has limited, if any, opportunity to have these manic pixie dream girl fantasies come to life. Yet I no longer want them to.
Without even getting into what the legacy of WWII meant for the US, this kiss has its own ramifications. George Mendosa got fan mail from people asking him to kiss them at events. He was on a date with another woman when this photo was taken. So I guess, it seems that history has deliberately colored something questionable and made it into an ideal. I mean, granted, Mendosa married the woman he was dating and Friedman went on to live what appears to have been a long and happy life.
But still, what I’m trying to say is that Eisenstaedt’s photo is an iconic piece of American history whose outward appearance doesn’t tell the whole story, and perpetuates a myth that it’s good to have people sweep you off your feet to kiss you, even if you don’t necessarily want it. This whole idea of “spontaneous romance” where you meet someone and automatically they think you are the most beautiful person in the world is not the best thing to fantasize about. Eisenstaedt’s photo is visually stunning: It draws the eye to focus on the couple kissing in the center. It also simultaneously keeps the happy grins of people in focus, and the overall light in the black and white photo makes it seem happy and airy and joyous.
But that’s not the whole story, and with issues of consent becoming more and more heavily discussed every day, I think people should have to deal with what that picture means to us. For me, it represents a fantasy that was based on false pretenses and leaves me trying to figure out what I want romance to look like for me.
Madeline McDonnell SC '18 is from St. Louis, Missouri. She is currently dual major in French and European Studies with a history minor (she really loves humanities classes so she decided to take them all). She loves chatting with people, watching too much Netflix, and baking.