Editorials, Everything Else — February 14, 2012 at 3:00 am

IS A KISS STILL A KISS?

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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.

16 Comments

  • Great post. I think you’re right that we’re moving in the right direction of breaking down most of these boundaries, but we’re still not there yet. Remember when Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem kissed at last year’s Oscars? For those that don’t, it might be because the studio cut away from it, much to the chagrin of gay audiences (which, it turns out, is also the reason few people remember that Christina Aguillera was involved in the example you gave, because the studio cut away to Justin Timberlake, perhaps as a way to “prove” that Britney is “really” straight and therefor it’s “just a stunt”). So while the presence of certain types of kisses may not have the same impact as they once did, the ABSENCE is still very much noticed, at least among the people who are still being under-represented.

    And while I didn’t read Genzlinger’s article, I do wonder if it is a bit premature in thinking we’ve hit the last of the revolutions. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that we are in a lull between social movements, as I suspect that there are still many frontiers that aren’t even on the radar for most of the country. How many transgender kisses have we seen on tv or in the movies, for example? Or at least, transgender kisses that aren’t part of a comedy gag?

    • Thanks for the comment! Transgender identity is something that has still largely been ignored by American TV, though I have seen it handled (and very well) by the Canadian television show Degrassi, which has a transgender F-to-M who has kissed people on the show and discussed identity construction candidly. I wish American TV would follow suit!

  • Interesting post. I agree that we have moved forward as a culture to the point where kissing onscreen does not have the same power it once had. There is a difference, though, between the Madonna/Britney, Lambert/dancer kisses and the Archie/Sammy kiss. Women kissing each other is at once more socially acceptable and more exploitative because it feeds into that patriarchal obsession with lesbians (but not real lesbians) that seems to be a continual male fantasy. The Lambert/dancer kiss was a plea for attention (and David Bowie did it with more provocation 30 years ago). But the Archie/Sammy kiss was important because it was fictional, between an avowed racist and a famous black man, and finally because it was same sex. It was not for the purposes of titillation. It made a statement.

    Think of the controversy surrounding the Mitch/Cam kiss on Modern Family. Here we have two gay, monogamous men with a daughter, yet they never kiss on screen. And the final kiss was not a major watershed moment; it was a fairly normal, married-couple esque kiss. Which was what made it so powerful, because it did not dwell on two guys KISSING. It was simply an expression of love, nothing more. Which is lovely in and of itself.

    • I like your point about the inherent normalcy of the Mitch/Cam kiss. We can’t have change until same sex relationships are portrayed like hetereosexual ones–as the normal relationships they are.

  • Fogs sent me over to this post…based on a response I made on his blog. An interesting read.

    Let me just start by saying The Archie/Sammy kiss was not a passionate kiss, it was intended to make a statement. And that it did! Comparing it to Britney/Madonna or Adam/dancer isn’t really a parallel. Those were attention getters; the only statement it made was “look at us”.
    However, I do think the high impact television kisses are not what they used to be in general. I remember watching TV shows in the past ……I didn’t wait for the characters fall in love so they could have sex….no, I waited for “the kiss” …that was what everyone wanted. That one passionate moment the two people realize they are the only two that matter …..and the kiss actually leaves you, the viewer, breathless. Now-a-days there is no build-up; no anticipation……shows are sex with a side of kisses. Sadly I think there is a lot to be learned form a good kiss, and people who don’t know that….have seriously missed out. Think about real life, you can have good sex, but it’s the kiss you’ll always remember.

    • You’re very right that the Archie/Sammy kiss and Britney/Madonna kiss aren’t on the same level, but I think they’re still similarly indicative of American cultural values and mores. While the Archie/Sammy kiss had an immediate purpose of Making People Think and the Madonna/Britney kiss was merely to titillate, that doesn’t invalidate the cultural value of the Britney/Madonna kiss; it still speaks to how we think and feel as a country.

  • I think this is just endemic of the social climate that most film goers find themselves. With sex and nudity and complex mores all close at hand on screen, most think why bother so much with a kiss at all.

    I lament this because in my mind it is a erroneous viewpoint to dismiss what is the cornerstone of intimacy! When it is done right on screen there is no other portrayal process that touches it!
    It
    is
    the chemistry litmus test in film! Nothing sells believability like a kiss. Unfortuntely there are to many to give example but if I did many would nod in empathic agreement. I hope it doesnt become a lost art!

    • I love your points about the intimacy of the kiss! You’re right that a kiss can be a good litmus test for film chemistry (I can’t help but think of Isla and Rick in Casablanca.) I do miss the days when “making love” was falling in love, and not sex.

  • Ric….. I completely agree. Well said!

  • I couldn’t help but think of this post as I watched tonight’s episode of GLEE (yeah, I know it’s jumped the shark, but still.). It was a bit more obvious (and less shocking) than Archie Bunker, and probably says something about the way that exposition may be the battle more than the simplicity of the kiss itself, but clearly it still has SOME impact.

    • Sadly I haven’t seen the latest Glee yet, but I look forward to seeing the kiss you mentioned! I have been pretty pleased with how they’ve represented gay relationships (at least with Blaine and Kurt). Their kisses have been, like Lauren mentioned above, JUST KISSES and not OMG GAY KISSES, which was a nice change.

  • Whenever they do that kissing family sketch on SNL, I always think it’s the cheapest, easiest applause they can go for. Aren’t they supposed to be progressive in NYC?

    • Mike, I’m glad you mentioned that. Those sketches always fall flat for me. They seem to ask the audience to simultaneously think that kissing is intimate, gross, and inappropriate. It’s a lot to ask of an audience, and I’m always amazed when people enjoy that sketch. Am I really supposed to think to myself “OMG they’re kissing a lot! HOW FUNNY”?

  • I see a Top 10 Kisses post in your future, Joanna. :D

    Hard not to agree with y’all. As with most social issues like this (if this really is a social issue and not a storytelling one), there’s been plenty of progress made over the last few decades, but still a ways to go.

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