Queering the Iwo Jima Image

In 1980, communication scholar Michael McGee proposed a new form of rhetorical engagement. He called his method ideographic criticism. McGee argues that an ideograph is an ordinary language term found in political discourse. What makes an ideograph special is that the term encourages people to conform to an “ill-defined normative goal.” That’s a lot of big words. Let me make McGee’s definition easier to understand. Ideographs like “justice,” “liberty,” and “family values” don’t have clear definitions. A conservative politician’s idea of “family values,” for instance, might be much different than a progressive politician’s. The take-away is that people use ideographs in different ways to animate a variety of political issues.

17 years after McGee’s essay was published in Quarterly Journal of Speech, Janis Edwards and Carol Winkler expanded upon McGee’s definition of ideographic criticism. The women suggested that some visual images might also function in an ideographic manner. They proved their point by looking at how various cartoonists have appropriated and modified Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image of five Marines and a member of the Navy raising the US flag in Iwo Jima. Edwards and Winkler contend that the photograph has been appropriated and re-contextualized SO MUCH in editorial cartoons that the image now functions as an ideograph. In other words, Rosenthal’s image is so frequently used that it’s become an “ordinary language term” that can be used to reference a RANGE of ideologies. Here are just a few of the published cartoons the rhetoricians include in their essay to help substantiate their claim.


This week, a photographer named Ed Freeman created a firestorm over his adaptation of Ronenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Iwo Jima photo. Freeman’s modification showcases four presumably gay men planting a gay pride flag on a mountaintop. The Washington Post explains that Freeman has even received a death threat for this particular piece.


The newspaper then includes a series of tweets form people who take issue with the image.


These men and women refer to Freeman’s art as “degrading,” “ insulting,” and “not cool.” What I find most interesting about their reaction is that many of their responses are couched in what initially looks like gay-positive affirmation. One man, for example, claims that he is “happy for gay marriage, but…”

Regardless of how you preface your statement, you are being homophobic if you ONLY take issue with the appropriation of the Iwo Jima image when it’s used to celebrate gay rights. Do yourself a favor, perform a Google image search for “Iwo Jima cartoon” and see just how often that photo has been re-imagined and used to comment about politics. You’ll quickly see that Edwards and Winkler were correct in their assertion that Rosenthal’s image is an ideograph. The picture has been reformed to critique global warming, gas prices, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Obama’s campaign, Wall Street shenanigans, and many, many other themes relevant to US culture. My point? If you have a problem with Freeman’s photograph, I doubt it has anything to do with the sanctity of soldiers and more to do with the specific ideology represented by the gay pride flag. In other words, the vitriolic response to Freeman isn’t pro-soldier, it’s anti-gay—even when the commenter claims they’re ok with SCoTUS’ marriage equality decision.