The kiss that isn’t just a kiss

Special to The Times

Ah, spring, when a young man’s fancy turns to -- watching young women kiss each other. Lucky for him, he doesn’t have far to turn, at least on-screen. Has it really only been six years since “Ellen” caused such an uproar?

These days, kisses between girls can be found on the reality shows “Meet the Folks,” “Big Brother 3,” “DisMissed” and “The Real World,” among many others. Women in “Fastlane” and “Friends” have done the deed, with heavy network promotion.

Movies chime in, with “Anger Management,” “Road Trip,” “The Real Cancun,” “Not Another Teen Movie” and “American Pie 2" among recent examples. Even radio gets in the act, as with last year’s “on-air” kiss between DJ Lisa Foxx and a Playboy playmate on KYSR-FM (Star 98.7). The photos were posted for a while on the station’s Web site. And of course lesbians are a longtime obsession for Howard Stern.

When “Ellen” showed the first on-screen romantic kiss between women on a sitcom in 1997, actress Ellen DeGeneres was both lauded and lambasted for her openness, and her show was canceled not long after (comedian Roseanne smooched Mariel Hemingway on “Roseanne” three years earlier, to much less fanfare). But that kiss, and the few others to make it onto TV in the ‘90s, opened the floodgates.

It’s not all sensationalist action. On “ER,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Queer as Folk” and “The Wire,” lesbian characters show physical affection for each other without the spring break-crowd egging them on.


On April 23, the ABC soap opera “All My Children” joined in, featuring the first same-sex kiss on daytime television. The character of Bianca (Eden Riegel) finally got to kiss another woman after being openly gay and loveless for almost three years.

“If she had been a straight character, she would have been married and divorced by now,” said Mara Levinsky, associate editor of Soap Opera Digest.

Are all of these kisses a sign of a growing acceptance of lesbians in our culture? Or is it simply exploitation in the service of a straight male fantasy? According to Sarah Warn, the answer is a resounding: both, but that’s OK.

Warn, the creator of the Web site, which looks at the representation of lesbians and bisexual women in the media, has reviewed the shift in lesbian portrayals since the first female kiss on “L.A. Law” in 1991. Regarding the girls who kiss for the boys’ approval, “on one level, it’s clearly a marketing ploy, and a fairly successful one at attracting male audiences. That doesn’t mean it isn’t also subversive,” she said. “When you go from never seeing those images to sort of being bombarded with them, you gradually become desensitized -- and that ends up being a good thing for lesbian and bisexual visibility on television, even if that wasn’t the intention.”

Scott Seomin, entertainment media director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, agreed that there were benefits even to scenes featuring kisses as ratings ploys. “Lesbian viewers -- particularly young lesbian viewers who are about to come out of the closet -- get to see that there are other women like them,” Seomin said. “They see there is nothing wrong with loving another woman or being physically affectionate.”

So even though Fox hyped a recent “Fast- lane” episode for its hot girl-on-girl action, both Warn and Seomin found the show surprisingly progressive. When star Tiffani Thiessen went undercover as a lesbian, “we didn’t see her take off her makeup and put on a flannel shirt” to fit a stereotype, Seomin said. “She simply acted interested in women.”

Notably, the men who went undercover on the show had a different fate. Having to kiss to prove they were a gay couple, they blew their cover instead. “That was actually the most clear example of the different standards for women and men kissing on TV,” Warn said, “and pretty accurately portrayed that even straight women are more comfortable kissing than straight men are. Which is what you’re seeing on the reality shows.”

Jennifer Aniston kissed Winona Ryder two years ago on “Friends,” “for ratings and easy publicity,” Seomin said, further noting that the scene was mentioned in both Time and Newsweek during a ratings sweeps period. (Which begs the question: Is an article about women kissing women a sign of the growing acceptance of lesbians in our culture, or further exploitation of a straight male fantasy?)

According to Warn, “The L-Word,” Showtime’s series about lesbian life scheduled to debut next January, “will take everything to a whole new level in terms of visibility on television.” That show, which was originally titled “Earthlings,” features “Flashdance’s” Jennifer Beals and Mia Kirshner. It’s seen as the counterpoint to the premium cable channel’s British import “Queer as Folk.”

But first up is another British product: BBC America’s “Tipping the Velvet,” based on an English bestseller about lesbianism in Victorian England, which will air here starting May 23. Adapted by Andrew Davies (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Daniel Deronda”) from author Sarah Waters’ Booker Prize-nominated novel, it was a critical success when it aired late last year on the BBC.

A first in daytime

These changing attitudes may help explain why that kiss on “All My Children” met with an overwhelmingly positive response from fans. Although daytime audiences are believed to be the most conservative of television viewers, fans of the show had actually campaigned for Bianca to find romance. “It does represent a climate shift from the baby steps of the past,” Soap Opera Digest’s Levinsky said, “and a difference in the networks’ sense of what viewers are ready for.”

For her part, “All My Children” actress Riegel was thrilled with the story line. “Anyone who watches it will see that it’s very sensitive, that it’s quite compelling to people gay and straight, and I hope that they are drawn into it because it’s about love.” Asked how she felt about the kiss itself, Riegel laughed. “Thumbs up!” she said. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Fans were equally excited about the love story between Tara (Amber Benson) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) on UPN’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Benson has received hundreds of letters from lesbian teenagers, thanking her for giving them the strength to come out. She recalled being initially nervous that as a straight woman she wouldn’t be able to do the part justice, especially in the eyes of her gay friends. “They reassured me that it’s not about whether it’s two women or a woman or a man, it’s about loving somebody,” she said. “And the minute that it becomes accepted, that’s when we’ve won.”

“Buffy” succeeded in bringing one of television’s most realistic portrayals of a lesbian relationship to a mainstream audience. “Of course, we also got a crowd whenever we were doing those [kissing] scenes,” Benson said, laughing. “All the crew members stopped by to see if they could help.”

So the female lip lock has gone from scandalous to celebrated. It’s just a matter of time before the shirt appears on Melrose: “I’m not a lesbian, but I kiss like one.”

However, Warn said, “just because more cute women are kissing on TV doesn’t necessarily translate into acceptance of women who challenge gender stereotypes in the real world.” Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a legal advocacy organization in San Francisco, bears witness to that in her daily work. “Undoubtedly in the last 10 years, there has been greater cultural and social acceptance of lesbians,” Kendell said. “But the fact remains that if those two pretend lesbians in ‘The Real Cancun’ ever decided that they were really truly lesbians and wanted to form a family and maintain a relationship and keep their jobs and maybe have kids, they would run into significant barriers to acceptance in some quarters in this country.”

It’s an interesting twist on acceptance: For some, sex is fine, but love is controversial.