There’s a memorable scene in the 1987 Stephen Frears’ film, Sammie and Rosie Get Laid in which the bohemian, Rosie (Frances Barber), explains the politics of kissing to her uptight, reactionary father-in-law. To illustrate how two kisses can differ in terms of their social and political meaning, she kisses her husband softly on the lips and then engages in a passionate kiss with a total stranger (played by Fine Young Cannibal’s Roland Gift). Rosie’s point is clear: not all kisses are alike. A kiss is not necessarily just a kiss.
Over the years, television has repeatedly made the same point by treating a kiss exchanged between two members of the same sex as something out-of-the-ordinary and unnatural. It’s the network brass more than television series writers and producers who have reinforced society’s negative attitudes toward public displays of affection between gay and lesbian couples by treating same-sex kissing as a taboo subject.
When prime time series first began featuring same sex kisses (mostly between women) in the early 1990s, the networks were wary of offending their audience, which can potentially translate into a loss of revenue if your advertisers choose to pull their commercials. At the same time, controversy can also fuel viewer interest, and so the networks have never shied away from free publicity if they can get more viewers to tune in. Just to assure America they are being responsible about monitoring their programming, networks are always quick to slap on a warning about the episode’s “mature themes” which may not be suitable for a young audience.
A prime example of network hypocrisy is CBS’s response to a 1993 episode of Picket Fences entitled “Sugar and Spice”, which featured a kiss between two curious teenage girls. Before agreeing to air the episode, CBS insisted writer/producer David Kelly re-shoot the scene in the dark. In her exclusive report on the episode, Entertainment Tonight‘s Mary Hart invited viewers to compare the retake with the original and judge the suitability of the controversial scene for themselves. Of course, it is CBS, which released the excised footage, that benefits from the story. Hart’s story paints CBS as being responsible and gives the series, which never scored high ratings, some much-needed free publicity. More importantly, the Entertainment Tonight report alters the socio-political meaning of the kiss by showing the moment out of the context of its storyline and turning it in a spectacle for the audience to judge.
Fortunately, some of the major commercial networks have loosened up when it comes to same-sex kissing. Surprisingly, the majority of kisses featured on episodes of Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Once and Again have involved younger characters, yet with none of the hoopla surrounding the Picket Fences episode. In the final episode of Once and Again, Jesse (Evan Rachel Wood) gives in to her attraction to her high school friend Katie (Mischa Singer). Their kiss received no media attention, but perhaps it may have been due to the fact the series had been cancelled before airing. Buffy‘s Willow (Alyson Hannigan) was repeatedly seen kissing her now deceased lover Tara (Amber Benson) in matter-of-fact manner, just like real lovers do.
On the final episode of Dawson’s Creek, which jumped five years into the future, Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith) is back in Capeside teaching English (as an openly gay teacher) and involved in a serious relationship with Pacey’s brother Doug (Dylan Neal), the town’s closeted sheriff (speculation about Doug’s sexual orientation dates back to the show’s first season). In their final scene together, Doug realizes he needs to come out in order for he and Jack to be together. When the two men kiss on the beach, Jack tells the elderly couple passing by “I’m just kissing my boyfriend!” “That’s nice,” the woman responds.
What’s different from the kisses that take place between these three couples versus the highly publicized same-sex kisses in the 1990s in episodes of L.A. Law (C.J. an Abby), Roseanne Roseanne and Sharon (Mariel Hemingway), and Party of Five (Julia (Neve Campbell) and Perry (Olivia D’Abo) is the two people kissing now are very much in love. Progress in terms of more honest representation of our lives can only happen when such a moment is an integral part of a storyline (as to being positioned as the “big moment”) and, more importantly, we begin to see more stories with gay and lesbian characters that are truly in love.
Will & Grace addressed this issue in a self-reflexive episode in which Will (Eric McCormack) and Jack (Sean Hayes) launch a protest against NBC editing an on-screen kiss between two characters on their favorite sitcom, Along Came You. The storyline is no doubt a response to the show’s detractors who complain about the two gay characters’ lack of a romantic life. As Jack explains, by not showing the kiss, “They are saying the way I live my life is offensive.”
When NBC responded with a “no comment”, Jack and Will decide to make a public statement and kiss on-camera during a broadcast of Today. While I appreciate the fact that NBC can take a joke (Saturday Night Live has been biting the hand that feeds it for years), in this case the ending misses the mark intended on driving home Jack’s original point. Jack’s on-screen kiss with Will falls short because it is not a display of love, but a mere display for a group of cheering onlookers.
In perhaps what could be a step in the right direction, daytime television has at last included the first on-screen kiss between a same-sex couple. On April 22, 2003, All My Children‘s Bianca Montgomery (Eden Riegel) poured her heart out to Lena Kundera (Olga Sosnovska) who was about to leave town. The tearful scene ended with a kiss that was hot enough to convince Lena to stay in Pine Valley. What poor Bianca does not know is that the bisexual Lena was at first only using her to help the devious Michael, who is blackmailing her, to destroy Bianca’s mother, Erica Kane, and her cosmetics company. Lena made the mistake of falling in love with Bianca and three weeks after that kiss, she finally came clean.
For All My Children fans, the kiss was long overdue, considering that her first potential love interest, Frankie Stone (Elizabeth Hendrickson) was murdered. The possibility that some of the on-screen chemistry between Eden and Hendrickson could be reignited when the latter returned to the series was squelched when we discovered Maggie is heterosexual.
However, an extensive campaign was launched by a group of devoted fans calling themselves BAMFans (Bianca and Maggie). According to their website, BAMFan members who self-identify as a diverse group of all ages, economic, and cultural backgrounds, and sexual orientations “want to ensure the story the romance of Bianca Montgomery and Maggie Stone is brought to the forefront of AMC.” (American Movie Classics) I’m not sure of BAM’s position on Bianca and Lena (will they change their name to BAL?), but I would hope they are happy that Bianca is getting on with her life. Even if Lena’s original intentions were less than honorable, at least in the end she told Bianca the truth.
The kiss between Bianca and Lena did receive some media attention in TV Guide, Soap Opera Digest, and other publications. On the day before the kiss aired, Riegel and Sosnovska appeared on another ABC program, The View and fielded questions from Barbara Walters and company (including guest host Monica Lewinsky!). Starr Jones introduced the segment by stating that AMC has dealt with a number of controversial topics including “AIDS, abortion, drug abuse, racial prejudice, and teenage alcoholism, but no storyline has generated the kind of buzz as the lesbian kiss.”
The kiss is shown (even though its context within the scene is never fully explained), followed by the questions you would expect from the ladies of The View (i.e., Were you nervous?). Playing a lesbian on television for over two years, Riegel has no trouble fielding their inane questions, though you can’t help thinking both she and Sosnovska are wondering what the fuss is really all about.
What I kept wondering during all of this is now that they have kissed, will they get to second base? Will they ever kiss again? Or do anything else? Probably not at least not until society (or at least, television) begins to regard a same-sex kiss as just a kiss.