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The kiss that isn't just a kiss

Smooches between women are no longer taboo on-screen. But are they a sign of society's acceptance or a ratings ploy based on straight-male fantasies?

May 11, 2003|Lisa Rosen | 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 AfterEllen.com, 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."

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