Last week, George Mendonsa, the World War II veteran passed away at the age of 95. The veteran was famous as the US Navy soldier who was photographed kissing a woman named Greta Zimmer Friedman in 1945 on the day of the Japanese surrender, which marked the end of the WWII. Its photographer had caught this sudden moment and titled it ‘Unconditional Surrender’; soon enough, newspapers printed this image, construing it as the perfect symbol for the jubilation of the war ending. This image had become so “culturally valuable” that a 25-foot tall statue of it exists in Sarasota, Florida. It wasn’t until sixty years later that documentary makers found that the kiss had not been consensual at all: Mendonsa, a complete stranger, had grabbed her on the street and kissed her.
A troubling narrative
In the wake of #MeToo, the narrative around this image has become deeply troubling, because the image becomes less a symbol of joy, and more a symbol of the normalization of assault, and the historical erasure of women’s experiences. In the days after Mendonsa’s death, the statue was found covered in red graffiti, reading the words “#MeToo”.
As I looked at the picture of the statue, I was reminded of the mural of Junot Díaz in the JCR at SOAS. The image is a portrait of his, with a quote beside it. On my first day at SOAS, I was taken aback by this mural. Junot Díaz had been accused of harassment by multiple women in June 2018 and had gotten away more or less scot-free. On seeing his mural, close to that of Angela Davis, I remember feeling cheated, angered that an alleged assaulter’s image was present unchecked, close to the mural of someone who had worked all her life to eliminate assault on women of colour.
Hope for the future
Later that week, when I returned to the JCR, I remember stopping short. Where his face should have been, “#MeToo” had been sprayed over in red. There were print-outs of the tweets by women who had called him out on his misogyny and violence. Beneath that, there were posters directed at potential discussions led by students, about Díaz’s actions and his portrait existing on the JCR walls.
This spray-painting had given me hope: this was no attempt to cover up, but a determined attempt to engage, investigate and undo the narratives that help exonerate alleged assaulters of their crime.
The dominant narrative around Mendonsa (and Díaz’s) image in these two spaces was of victory and challenge. While one marked the end of a violent period, the other image marked a powerful literary voice challenging neo-colonialism.
Yet this narrative is no longer relevant, once the gendered exploitation underneath it becomes apparent. While crafting the moment Mendonsa grabbed a woman without her consent and kissed her—and indeed, Junot Díaz—may have been ‘culturally valuable’ at a time; to continue down that line once a testimony of violence emerges is to deny this historical violence. Worse, it strengthens the power these images and people have and allows them to exercise it unchecked.
Brushing over women’s voices
In the case of ‘Unconditional Surrender’, the #MeToo symbolizes how the state is complicit in both ignoring and brushing over women’s narratives. Even as Friedman’s testimony emerged in 2005, it was paid little attention until after #MeToo, when people began questioning historical erasure of women’s voices. Even now, shortly after the graffiti emerged, it was covered up and labelled as vandalism by the City of Sarasota. Their choice was clear—labelling assault on a national symbol isn’t a re-engagement with nationalism itself; it is (quite literally) tarnishing the nation itself.
In SOAS, to leave the portrait as is, with #MeToo inscribed becomes symbolic of how re-engagement can and should happen. Instead of painting over Díaz’s image, the graffiti-ed becomes a literal display of how movements like #MeToo rupture narratives of power—and how important this rupture is. If anything, we need more art and symbols like Díaz’s mural and ‘Unconditional Surrender’ to be similarly labelled, as reminders of whose voice has been historically heard, and who is now challenging it.