This past Saturday the New York Times featured an editorial called “The Fundamental Things No Longer Apply,” in which author Neil Genzlinger laments that the “high-impact television kiss seems to have gone extinct.” He argues that contemporary kisses on television lack the impact of, for example, the kiss between Sammy Davis Jr. and Carroll O’Connor’s ‘Archie Bunker’ on All in the Family. I agree with Genzlinger that no kiss today could have quite the same impact, but I disagree with him that this is something to be regretted–at least for the reason he outlines.
Genzlinger is perfectly right to suggest that a television kiss can “speak profoundly to our national identity crisis.” Indeed, the Sammy-Archie kiss shocked, surprised, and moved the American public because it forced them to examine issues that were swept under the rug, “in effect calling out a country” that was still full of Archie Bunkers. My question is—is a loss of these sorts of kisses really a loss at all? This kiss mattered because it highlighted an inequality, an oft-ignored wrongness in American culture and society, a disconnect among our citizens. So if kisses are no longer needed or utilized to highlight a “national identity crisis,” doesn’t that mean we’re a nation more united? Doesn’t the acceptance of all forms of kissing mean we are a more open, accepting, and whole nation? What Genzlinger views as a loss I would consider a maturation of our cultural identity and our acceptance of difference.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the lack of powerful screen kisses means quite what Genzlinger implies; I don’t think Genzlinger is right to suggest that American TV audiences no longer notice same-sex kisses. He suggests that the 2003 Madonna-Britney Spears kiss (why do people forget Christina Aguilera was also involved?) on MTV was an attempt by its participants to merely be noticed and gain attention (and he’s probably right), but he is wrong to imply that the emptiness of the gesture means the act did not matter. Like the Archie-Sammy kiss, the Britney-Madonna-ahem-Christina embrace stirred up a lot of debate, illustrating that this country is very much divided by expressions of female sexuality and gayness. The same thing happened when Adam Lambert kissed a male dancer onstage during the 2009 American Music Awards (though admittedly he also simulated oral sex on the stage). Was Adam Lambert looking for attention during his stage debut post-American Idol? Possibly. Does that make the same-sex kiss any less significant? I’d argue no, because–whatever his motives–Lambert’s homosexual encounter with his dancer served as catalyst to a national discussion about difference, just as the Archie-Sammy kiss did in the 1970s. (It bears mentioning that Lambert was actually blacklisted by a television network for this performance.)
Genzlinger thinks that a “collective indifference” to kissing onscreen is a “cause for alarm,” but–if we are, indeed, indifferent–I think it means we’re headed in the right direction. What I think Genzlinger is really truly lamenting is the lack of a sense of emotion and passion behind the act of kissing. Acts of affection–whether they be kissing or sex acts–are all over our television screens, and as is often the case with over-saturation–these acts now signify little. Sexual activity is so often portrayed on television that a chaste kiss now speaks little of love or romance, so perhaps there is a loss there.
Ultimately, I don’t think the American public is quite as indifferent as Genzlinger believes, but I hope one day it is. Because indifference will imply an acceptance of difference. I look forward to the day when the “high-impact television kiss” is no longer required, because that’ll be the day when indifference is a good thing.