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Giving lip: censorship, subversion and the enduring power of the screen kiss

Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard get it on in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. a.heart.17/flickr, Author provided

Giving lip: censorship, subversion and the enduring power of the screen kiss

Name your favourite screen kiss. Go on. Leo and Kate in Titanic, Audrey and George in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo? Here’s guessing it doesn’t feature Woody and Nina who, two weeks ago in reality-television land, staged a world record attempt (and unmemorable four-minute publicity stunt) at the longest screen kiss during The Bachelor.

But why talk of kisses? Because beyond the soft focus lenses, the overwrought soundtracks and the breathless small talk between lip locks, they provide a fascinating glimpse of representations of desire, sexuality, and the erotic. And because who gets to kiss, and who doesn’t, reveals a complex dynamic of censorship and subversion across screen histories and cultures.

Censorship

The humble kiss has figured in its fair share of censorship debates over time. These debates have usually centred on whether the kiss should be represented at all, as well as a monitoring of the content and duration of the amorous scene.

In some screen cultures, you’ll never see a romantic kiss. As in Iranian cinema, which follows Islamic codes of conduct, though directors still find ways to push the censorship code and provide representations of tender touch between members of the opposite sex.

Similarly, Bollywood often defers or displaces the kiss onto a range of visual symbols. A shot of a smouldering fire or a pair of intertwined flowers, for example. These symbols were adopted in response to the Cinematograph Act 1952 in India, which pronounced explicit representations of kissing “indecent”.

A lesser-known aspect of Bollywood’s history of the kiss is its wonderful screen culture prior to the above act. In early films such as Karma (1933), we see the heroine passionately and repeatedly embracing and kissing her lover in an open display of eroticism and active female desire.

In more recent years, kissing has made something of a comeback in Hindi cinema, with more explicit representations of desire on offer. So while representations of the kiss are sometimes censored, we can also see an impulse on the part of filmmakers to test the boundaries of that censorship and to expand the representational terrain of the scene of desire.

Duration

The duration of the kiss has also been a point of contention across cinema histories. From the early 1930s to the late 1960s, American film production was subjected to a review and censorship process under the Hays Code.

The Code detailed a number of rules and regulations regarding the depiction of topics such as crime, violence, and sex, in order to ensure a certain standard of “wholesome entertainment for all the people”.

The Code stipulated the following restrictions on “scenes of passion”:

a) They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot
b) Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown
c) In general, passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.

The unofficial rule of thumb was that a kiss should not last longer than three seconds, in order to curb representations of excessive passion onscreen. But filmmakers found clever ways of subverting those rules.

Alfred Hitchcock’s film [Notorious](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notorious_(1946_film) (1946) features a now-famous scene in which the Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman characters kiss for three minutes. Over the course of the three-minute scene, we are presented with a series of three-second kisses interspersed with suggestive conversation (“Perhaps we should stay in tonight … ”).

Bergman later recalled:

We just kissed each other and talked, leaned away and kissed each other again … the censors couldn’t and didn’t cut the scene because we never at any one point kissed for more than three seconds … we nibbled on each other’s ears, and kissed a cheek, so that it looked endless.

Content

The monitoring of the content of the scene of desire is another important aspect of the history of screen censorship. Under the Hays Code, gay and lesbian desires were classified as sexual perversions and were not permitted representational space onscreen.

But during this period, filmmakers found ways of technically and superficially sticking to the rules while thoroughly subverting them. In The Painted Veil (1934), the Greta Garbo character repeatedly embraces, kisses, and even undresses another woman.

Because the two characters are sisters, the film gets away with the display of transgressive desire and eroticism under the (rather thinly veiled) pretence of being nothing more than wholesome sisterly affection.

So while the official censorship codes forbade such a “scandalous” representation, rebellions against these restrictions abound in Hays Code-era films and filmmaking practice, allowing for the inclusion of gay, lesbian and queer desire on screen during this period.

The historical practice of censoring the representation of the kiss, or the restriction of a kissing scene’s duration or content, reveals a cultural and social anxiety about the affective potential of showing sexual content on the mainstream screen – or what the Hays Code called the stimulation of the “lower and baser element”.

The kiss has become a contested terrain where the very principles of this censure can be subverted by filmmakers to expand the politics of representation.

It’s through the kiss that we can map a move towards more expansive and inclusive depictions of desire and love onscreen.

So a kiss is not just a kiss, after all, as time goes by.

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