Tuesday morning revealed a message of support for survivors of sexual assault painted in large red letters on the 26-foot-tall “Unconditional Surrender” statue in Sarasota, Fla. For hours, “#metoo” remained on the Bayfront statue for all to see, before the police and City took notice and started washing the statement away.
The statue depicts a US sailor grabbing and kissing a woman, and is based on the famous photo taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt on August 14, 1945. Greta Zimmer Friedman, the woman in the original photograph, began to publicly share her story in 2005. That same year, the original version of the Unconditional Surrender statue was first installed in Sarasota.
“It wasn’t that much of a kiss. It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event,” Friedman told the Veterans History Project. “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and kissed or grabbed. That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”
In 2006, one year after Friedman’s interview, activist and survivor Tarana Burke created the movement-defining phrase “me too” as a symbol of support and solidarity to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.
In light of the true history of sexual assault behind the photograph and statue, many have called for the massive memorial to be removed. In fact, this is not the first debate Sarasota has had about the statue; in 2006 and 2009 there were also arguments to remove the statue for aesthetic and copyright reasons. However, there are those with money and privilege who still support the statue in the name of patriotism and militarism – in 2009 a veteran offered $500,000 to keep it on the Bayfront forever.
The argument that the statue is a monument to veterans makes the connection between the normalization of sexual assault and the romanticization of the US military clear. One in three women in the US military reports being sexually assaulted, and local authorities receive significantly more reports of sexual assault when closer to any of the more than 800 US military bases around the world. The US military also has a long history of using sexual abuse as interrogation and warfare tactics, and continues to work with governments such as Israel that use sexual torture today.
Military celebration of the VJ photo and support for the Unconditional Surrender statue show how rape culture and imperialism both try to rewrite history. “The Kissing Sailor,” a US state-funded book produced by the Naval Institute Press, retells the moment of sexual assault from a disturbingly positive point of view. The following excerpt contains potentially triggering language of sexual assault:
“She remained unaware of his advance. That served his purpose well. He sought no permission for what he was about to do… As he overtook Greta’s slender frame, his right hand cupped her slim waist. He pulled her inward toward his lean and muscular body. Her initial attempt to physically separate her person from the intruder proved a futile exertion against the dark-uniformed man’s strong hold. With her right arm pinned between their two bodies, she instinctively brought her left arm and clenched fist upward in defense. … The struck pose created an oddly appealing mixture of brutish force, caring embrace, and awkward hesitation. He didn’t let go. As he continued to lean forward, she lowered her right arm and gave over to her pursuer—but only for three or four seconds.”
This is the scene that the statue is celebrating. The assailant captured in the original photograph, George Mendonsa, died last Sunday – about a day before the statue may have been tagged. While police, retirees and business owners have made statements condemning the act of protest, others in the community have expressed support and agreement.
Rachel Griffith Chandler responds to those upset by the tag, saying, “Some think of the tagging as a desecration but it really highlights the prevalence and neutralization of sexual assault and rape culture. Grabbing Friedman and kissing her without her consent was wrong 70 years ago and it is wrong today.”
Ana Yarí agrees, telling Liberation News: “There are a lot of conversations about whether or not that kiss was an assault. People say it was a different time or that she didn’t consider it an assault. But forcibly kissing someone is and has always been assault.”
Ruth Beltran of ANSWER Suncoast also points out that, “If you were to do that today, that would be considered assault and you will be arrested for that and charged with a crime…I really hope that the City of Sarasota gets rid of the statue. If we know that sailor forced himself upon this woman, why are we keeping a statue of it? Why are we idolizing what is really a symbol of violation of a person?
“The city of Sarasota has kept this statue, which is really just a symbol of patriarchy and rape culture,” Beltran said. “Part of the movement is bringing attention to situations like this that have been silent for a long time.”