Snickers withdrew a commercial featuring an accidental kiss that many people did not find amusing.
February 18, 2007
A Kiss Too Far?
By GUY TREBAY
THE spot was only 30 seconds, almost a blur amid the action at the Super Bowl. Yet the hubbub after a recent commercial showing two auto mechanics accidentally falling into lip-lock while eating the same Snickers bar went a long way toward showing how powerfully charged a public kiss between two men remains.
Football is probably as good a place as any to look for the limits of social tolerance. And the Snickers commercial — amusing to some, appalling to others and ultimately withdrawn by the company that makes the candy — had the inadvertent effect of revealing how a simple display of affection grows in complexity as soon as one considers who gets to demonstrate it in public, and who, very often, does not.
The demarcation seemed particularly stark during the week of Valentine’s Day, when the aura of love cast its rosy Hallmark glow over card-store cash registers and anyone with a pulse. Where, one wondered, were all the same-sex lovers making out on street corners, or in comedy clubs, performance spaces, flower shops or restaurants?
“There’s really a kind of Potemkin village quality to the tolerance and acceptance” of gay people in America, said Clarence Patton, a spokesman for the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. “The idea of it is O.K., but the reality falls short.”
Provided gay people agree to “play a very tightly scripted and choreographed role in society, putting your wedding together or what have you, we’re not threatening,” Mr. Patton said. “But people are still verbally harassed and physically attacked daily for engaging in simple displays of affection in public. Everything changes the minute we kiss.”
The lugs in the Snickers commercial recoiled in shock at their smooch, resorting to “manly” behavior like tearing out their chest hair in clumps. Alternate endings to the commercial on a Snickers Web site showed the two clobbering each other, and related video clips featured players from the Super Bowl teams reacting, not unexpectedly, with squeamish distaste. The outrage voiced by gay rights groups similarly held little surprise.
“This type of jeering from professional sports figures at the sight of two men kissing fuels the kind of anti-gay bullying that haunts countless gay and lesbian schoolchildren on playgrounds across the country,” Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. A spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation condemned the advertisement as “inexcusable.” Masterfoods USA, a division of Mars and the maker of Snickers, withdrew the offending ads.
But for some the commercial left the lingering question of who owns the kiss? How is it that a simple affectionate gesture can be so loaded? Why is it that behavioral latitudes permit couples of one sort to indulge freely in public displays lusty enough to suggest short-term motel stays, while entire populations, albeit minority ones, live real-time versions of the early motion picture Hays Code: a peck on the cheek in public, one foot squarely planted on the floor?
The freedom to kiss in public is hardly the most compelling issue for most gay rights advocates, or perhaps even in the minds of many gay Americans. Yet the symbolic weight of simple gestures remains potent, a point easy to observe wherever on the sexual spectrum one falls. “Whose issue is it? Why is it only a gay issue?” said Robert Morea, a fitness consultant in New York.
Although Mr. Morea is heterosexual, his client list has long included a number of high-profile professionals, the majority of them gay women and men. “The issue is there because for so many years, people got beaten up, followed or yelled at,” he said. “Even for me as a straight man, it’s obvious how social conditioning makes it hard for people to take back the public space.”
After considering herself exclusively lesbian for decades, Sarah Van Arsdale, a novelist, not long ago found, to her surprise, that she had fallen in love with a man. At first, as she wrote last week in an e-mail message from a writer’s colony in Oaxaca, Mexico, “ Whenever we would hold hands in public, I felt a frisson of fear, waiting for the customary dirty looks or at least for the customary looking-away.”
In place of revulsion, Ms. Van Arsdale was startled to discover that, having adjusted her sexual identity, she was now greeted by strangers with approving smiles. “I felt suddenly acceptable and accepted and cute, as opposed to queer,” she said.
While few are likely to have shared Ms. Van Arsdale’s singular perspective, her experience is far from exceptional. “I’m a very openly gay man,” said Dane Clark, who manages rental properties and flies a rainbow flag from his house in Kansas City, Kan. “My partner and I don’t go kissing in public. I live in probably the most liberal part of the State of Kansas, but it’s not exactly liberal. If I was to go to a nice restaurant nearby and kiss my partner, I don’t think that would go over very well.”
As many gay men have before him, Mr. Clark chose to live in a city rather than the sort of small town where he was raised in the hope that Kansas City would provide a greater margin of tolerance and also of safety. Even in nearby Independence, Mo., he said, “if you kiss your partner in a restaurant, you could find somebody waiting for you outside when you went to the car.”
But haven’t things changed radically from the days when lesbians and gay men were considered pariahs, before gay marriage initiatives became ballot issues, before Ellen DeGeneres was picked to host the Oscars, and cable TV staples like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” made a competitive sport of group hugs?
In some senses and in certain places, apparently, they have. The landscape of acceptance, as the Snickers commercial inadvertently illustrated, is constantly shifting — broadening in one place and contracting somewhere else. The country in which anti-gay advocates like the Rev. Fred Phelps once drew headlines for picketing Matthew Shepard’s funeral and preaching what was called “a Day-Glo vision of hatred” can seem very far away at times from the laissez-faire place in which an estimated 70 percent of Americans say they know someone who is gay.
“We don’t administrate public displays of affection,” said Andrew Shields, World Church Secretary of the Community of Christ, a Christian evangelical church with headquarters in Independence. “Homosexuality is still in discussion in our church. But our denominational point of view is that we uphold the worth of all persons, and there is no controversy on whether people have a right to express themselves.”
The tectonics of attitude are shifting in subtle ways that are geographic, psychic and also generational, suggested Katherine M. Franke, a lesbian who teaches law and is a director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture at Columbia University. “I’ve been attacked on the street and called all sorts of names” for kissing a female partner in public, Professor Franke said. “The reception our affection used to generate was violence and hatred,” she added. “What I’ve found in the last five years is that my girlfriend and I get smiles from straight couples, especially younger people. Now there’s almost this aggressive sense of ‘Let me tell you how terrific we think that is.’ ”
Yet gay-bashing still occurs routinely, Mr. Patton of the Anti-Violence Project said, even in neighborhoods like Chelsea in Manhattan, where the sight of two men kissing on the street can hardly be considered a frighten-the-horses proposition. “In January some men were leaving a bar in Chelsea,” saying goodbye with a kiss, Mr. Patton said. “One friend got into a taxi and then a car behind the taxi stopped and some guys jumped out and beat up the other two.” One victim of the attack, which is under investigation by the police department’s Hate Crimes Task Force, was bruised and shaken. The second had a broken jaw.
“The last time I was called a faggot was on Eighth Avenue,” said Joe Windish, a longtime New Yorker who now lives in Milledgeville, Ga., with his partner of many years. “I don’t have that here, and I’m an out gay man,” said Mr. Windish, whose neighbors in what he termed “the reddest of the red states” may be fundamentalist Christians who oppose gay marriages and even civil unions, but “who all like me personally.”
Tolerance has its limits, though, as Mr. Windish found when he and his partner took a vacation on a sleepy island off the coast of Georgia. “I became aware that if I held my partner’s hand, or kissed him in public, the friendliness would stop,” he said.
What Mr. Windish calls a level of peril is possibly always in play, and this no doubt has something to do with the easily observed reality that a public kiss between two people of the same sex remains an unusual occurrence, and probably not because most are holding out for the chance to lock lips over a hunk of milk chocolate, roasted peanuts and caramel.
“We forget here, because New York has been relatively safe for a while, that hate is a problem,” said Roger Padilha, an owner of MAO public relations in New York. The reminders surface in everyday settings, he said, and in ordinary ways.
“My boyfriend and I always hold hands and, when we feel like it, we kiss,” Mr. Padilha said. Yet some weeks back, at a late movie in a Times Square theater, as Mr. Padilha went to rest his hand on his partner’s leg — a gesture it would seem that movie theaters were invented to facilitate — he recoiled as sharply as had one of the Snickers ad guys.
“He was like: ‘Don’t do that. It’s too dangerous,’ ” Mr. Padilha said. “And afterward I thought, you know, my dad isn’t super into P.D.A.’s, but nobody’s ever going to beat him up because he’s kissing my mom at a movie. I kept thinking: What if my boyfriend got hit by a car tomorrow? When I had the chance to kiss him, why didn’t I?”