For a while now, the western/white/American gaze has advised the rest of the world that kissing is a publicly acceptable form of expressing affection.
Whether it is Gustav Klimt’s symbolist painting or the photograph of the Kissing Sailor that celebrated the end of the World War 2 (a highly romanticized act that was later revealed to have been public assault caught on camera) or the predictably white wedding scene that marks the ending of a textbook rom-com movie, the audience has been trained to receive the visual cues of a (white) hetero-couple’s kiss with a slightly tilted head and a collective “Awwww!”.
Romantic. Affectionate. Adorable. That’s how these kisses have been described. Perhaps even as – Passionate. Delightfully steamy. Heartwarming.
This is how hetero-kisses have been publicly archived throughout the 20th century until now. Their acceptability is so high that the MTV Movie Awards introduced a Best Kiss category in 1992 with the maiden award going to 2 white CHILDREN – Macaulay Culkin and Anna Chlumsky in My Girl! The other winners who have taken home this award over the past 30 years have been overwhelmingly WHITE even when between people of the same gender (Jake Gyllenhaal & Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain 2006 and Selma Blair & Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions in 2000) and between more than 2 persons (Emma Roberts, Jennifer Aniston and Will Poulter, who were playing a pretend-family in We’re the Millers in 2014!). The only time that it recognized 2 people of colour kissing was in 1997 in the movie Independence Day, between Will Smith and Vivica A Fox (not counting one half of 2019 winners, Lana Condor in To All The Boys). Literally every other time, it has been a white, hetero couple, setting the standard for the publicly acceptable kiss.
The moment when Xtina, Brintey Spears and Madonna kissed on stage at the 2003 VMAs has been immortalized and widely-reviewed as provocative. For most of us who are not cis-men, it is evident that this kiss was largely fetishized, playing into the fantasy of the male gaze that enjoys watching women kiss for the viewer’s pleasure. It is probably no coincidence that this incident as well as the Gellar-Blair kiss were spotlighted before all-men’s kisses, because they were never about women’s desires.
Don’t believe me? Just scroll through the movie Atomic Blonde‘s clip of Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella kissing, on Twitter. The reactions of cis-men salivating over it is, frankly, disturbing. And so is the fact that it was directed by a cis-man, David Leitch.
When Adam Lambert kissed on stage during his 2009 performance on ABC, Christian parents wrote in to the network expressing shock and disdain, citing it as unfriendly from familial audiences, and censors “freaked out”! Lambert likely anticipated the reaction because before he swooped in on his keyboard player, he sang the lyrics: “can you handle what I’m about to do”.
This is the publicly documented history of the romantic kiss is USA – its whiteness and heteronormativity is evident. So imagine their shock of watching Lil Nas, an openly gay Black man, kiss his Black backup dancer on stage at the BET Awards. Nas was not naive about his performance and has reported feeling extremely anxious in preparation for his on-stage kiss. Gay, Black Twitter erupted in sentimental support, pointing out the power of this visual for the collective American pop culture-consuming psyche.
What’s more is that this on-stage kiss came mere hours after Nas challenged cis-normative red carpet expectations by stepping out in a blue and white toile gown before changing into an embroidered suit.
A Black gay man owning his creative agency and sexuality for all the world to see? In the year 2021 A.D.? If the media spin is anything to go by, this is a shocker. Even more so than the systemic pedophilia common among the world’s leading religious institutions. Such a sophisticated cultural palate, indeed!