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‘What if I do want to?”: The delicious vulnerability of first kisses

February 20, 2014

The scene: Hanna Marin’s kitchen. Enter Caleb Rivers, the super-hot boy from the wrong side of the tracks who she’s been letting live in her basement without her mother’s knowledge. To keep her mother from discovering his presence in the house that morning, she was forced to jump in the shower with him. Now, having seen him naked, everything is weird. She’s found bags full of his stuff on the table and is going through them when he speaks…

CALEB: Didn’t take anything that wasn’t mine, officer.

HANNA: Are you leaving?

CALEB: Thought you’d be relieved.

HANNA: Why would you think that?

CALEB: Because you’ve been treating me like something you scrape off your shoe. At least, since our shower.

HANNA: Look, I know. I just – I wasn’t –

CALEB: Ready to see that much of me?

HANNA: No. Yes.

CALEB: What, now you think you have to throw down too?

HANNA: What if I don’t want to?

CALEB: That’s okay.

[a pause]

HANNA: What if I do want to?

CALEB: That’s okay too.

That’s the lead-in to one of my favourite first kiss scenes on television in the last few years – Hanna and Caleb’s first kiss on Pretty Little Liars, a teen TV series adapted from Sara Shepard’s series of books. (You can watch the scene here.)

It’s not the most dramatic or most tension-filled kiss in the history of ever. The stakes are not that high. This is not the first kiss that happens after years of UST or at the end of the world when they both think they’re going to die. But it does do what so many of my favourite first kiss scenes do, whether on the page or on the screen: expose a vulnerability that will enable the characters to grow – together.

I’m a scholar of popular romance fiction. My focus right now is on virgin heroines, so I spend a lot of my time thinking and writing about first sex scenes. Sex scenes are, I think, an integral and fascinating part of the romance narrative, and when done well, they change not only the characters but drive the plot forward. But kissing scenes are, I think, often more intimate, and that’s why a lot of the time, I like them better. (I vividly remember being a teenager and talking to a friend at school who had read and re-read the sex scene between Ellie and Lee in John Marsden’s The Dead of the Night so many times she’d cracked the spine of the book. I refrained from mentioning I’d read Anne and Gilbert’s first kiss in Anne of the Island so often that the pages were actually falling out.)

I think the reason that I find kissing scenes often so much more intimate is precisely because the stakes are lower. Nothing is changed by Hanna and Caleb kissing in Pretty Little Liars. Despite the fact that this is a show that has an abundance of plot, the only thing Hanna and Caleb’s first kiss changes is Hanna and Caleb. There are none of the risks that come with sex, ones that we often see come to fruition in romance: no one is going to get pregnant, no one is going to be forced to get married. There are no societal implications for kissing. There are only personal ones. No one is going to get hurt physically, although they might get hurt emotionally. And that is simply delicious narrative.

In romance, there is a long(ish) tradition of what is commonly termed the “punishing kiss”. It becomes super popular in the 1950s and 1960s – I’ve seen it credited to Mills & Boon author Lilian Warren, who, while she did not invent it, certainly did a lot to popularise it. (She wrote under several pseudonyms and was among the authors who brought a real erotic tinge to category romance.) The punishing kiss developed hand in hand with the alpha hero: a hero that was often cruel, emotionally guarded, and often a real arse to the heroine, who is eventually transformed from dangerous aggressor to ideal husband by the power of the heroine’s love. The punishing kiss – usually their first – is often an attempt for him to symbolically claim ownership of her, but moreso, it’s a sign of frustration. He does not – cannot – comprehend her, and what she is doing to his emotions. Here’s an example from Chantelle Shaw’s 2010 Harlequin Mills & Boon title Untouched Until Marriage:

Never in his life had anyone challenged his authority or spoken to him in such a way as Libby had. He was tempted to grab hold of her and bring his mouth down on hers in a punishing kiss that would shut her up…

Raul jerked his head back as if she had slapped him. ‘Dio, someone needs to teach you to control your insolent tongue,’ he growled, goaded beyond belief.

He moved towards her with the speed of a panther homing in for the kill. Too late Libby realised that he intended the ‘someone’ to be him, but he had already tangled his fingers in her hair and tugged her head back, and her startled cry was lost beneath the pressure of his mouth as he captured her lips in a savage kiss. (pp. 49-53)

I have to admit that I’m not the most massive fan of the punishing kiss, but I can certainly enjoy the emotional work it performs in texts like this one. Although Raul is the one doing the punishing here, it is actually his vulnerability that is exposed – which is delectable, since he is the untouchable alpha hero. The heroine Libby has got under his skin in a way he does not understand and cannot shake, and the punishing kiss is his way of trying to reassert his authority. (Which he obviously fails to do: in the romance, Beauty always tames the Beast.) In real life, this would obviously be quite horrifying, but within the symbolic code of the romance? This is a major emotional milestone in the relationship.

But personally, I prefer kiss scenes that expose the vulnerability of both the participants. I LOVE reading them and watching them. While scenes like the one from Untouched Until Marriage often violently expose the heroine’s desire for the hero during- or post-kiss, that delicate moment of pre-kiss negotiation and emotional nakedness in non-punishing kiss scenes? That’s my favourite. We can see that in Hanna and Caleb’s first kiss. It’s also evident in another much beloved kiss scene from television – Logan and Veronica’s first kiss in Veronica Mars. These two hate each other, but when he ends up saving her (or so he thinks) from a bad guy who turns out to be a federal agent, the spark that’s flickered between them turns into a full-on bonfire. Unlike Hanna and Caleb, that pre-kiss negotiation process is not verbal: Veronica kisses Logan’s cheek and then they simply look at each other. And then…

it is ON. This scene is the epitome of Ingrid Bergman’s assertion that “a kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.”

Logan and Veronica’s kiss does not change anything about the overarching plot of the show. What it does change is both of them. Veronica, the most hardboiled private detective teen girl you will ever meet, becomes deeply aware of her own vulnerabilities. She immediately breaks up with her cop boyfriend, saying this:

Trust me, you don’t want to date me. I’m a train wreck. Seriously. The first guy I ever loved just dropped off the face of the earth, probably because of something I said, and the last guy I dated turned out to be a drug dealer, and I just made out with my dead best friend’s boyfriend, who, incidentally, I hate. So. Train wreck.

While characters might get physically naked in sex scenes, the emotional nakedness that happens in kissing scenes, particularly first kiss scenes, always sends gives me a frisson of excitement. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has got a few YouTube clips bookmarked and who has cracked a few book spines! A kiss is deeply intimate – some cultures believed that kissing mingled the souls of the kissers – and it is also full of potentiality. It’s delicious in and of itself, but it’s also a beginning. And what is more exciting than the beginning of a story?

Jodi is a PhD student at Macquarie University. She studies romance, love, sex and virginity. She is also a theatre critic and devotes a surprising amount of time to writing about The Bold & the Beautiful. You can find her on Twitter at @JodiMcA

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