Actually, Kissing Is Good

A hot(ter) take

Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling re-create their kiss from 'The Notebook'
Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling re-create their kiss from The Notebook at the MTV Movie Awards in 2005 (Kevin Winter / Getty)

In one of the loveliest scenes of Book Club, the newest addition to the Diane Keaton oeuvre, our beloved matriarch sits across from her dashing pilot paramour (Andy Garcia) as the two dine with the hilariously CGI-ed Santa Monica sunset behind them. Their banter is sweet, the current between them electric even though the recently widowed Diane had been apprehensive about returning to the world of dating. When the pilot asks Diane about her first kiss, she becomes suddenly transfixed.

As Diane stares off into the distance, she breathily recalls the moment she shared with a boy named Terry Sanders, who kissed her with passion and urgency even though neither knew what they were doing. Diane seems to blush with her whole body as she tells the story, fluttering her hands up to her own face as she describes the way Terry held it in his awkward, passionate grip. The pilot watches Diane with awe, eventually joking that he wishes he had been kissed by Terry Sanders. Diane smiles, returning once again to the man in front of her.

That is precisely what a perfect kiss does: It transports—in the moment, it whisks the people sharing it to a place only they inhabit; afterward, its memory carries them back. In a Friday piece for GQ, writer Sophia Benoit calls into question the teleporting power of the kiss:

The best parts of kissing are, indisputably, the nonkissing parts. The most memorable part of a kiss is what your hands are doing. The only thing that Arie Luyendyk Jr. (the Second Most Hated Bachelor of All Time) had going for him was the fact that he knew precisely what to do with his hands when he kissed the contestants. All my friends and I talked about during these scenes was his hand placement: None of us cared one iota about what his stupid lying mouth was doing. What was he doing that was so magical that it made all of us horny offscreen even though we hated him? Simply placing his hands on a girl’s face while kissing her. That’s all. Easy. The good part of kissing is, in fact, very peripheral to the actual kiss.

But this reading miscategorizes the movement of Dirtbag Arie’s hands as being separate from the kiss itself. Imagine the inverse of Benoit’s proposition: What would be special about Arie placing his hands on the women’s faces without his lips meeting theirs? That wouldn’t be romantic; it would be strange, clinical. To understand the appeal of Arie’s kisses, one needs to consider the whole constellation of bodily interactions that constitute a kiss. The experience of kissing someone does not end with the joining of lips or the dancing of tongues. A good kiss creates its own small universe.

Consider one of TV’s best first kisses: the one shared between New Girl’s Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) after what seemed like an eon of classic will-they-won’t-they tension. The chemistry is palpable. Both seem to melt into each other as the kiss deepens; the kiss speaks. Or one of the most memorable movie kisses: the moment when Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate) kisses Nina Mosley (Nia Long) on her stoop in Love Jones; the kinetic energy between the two finally combusts. It’s certainly far more potent than Darius’s poetry. Or the Notebook kiss that won Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling the 2005 MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss, which the then-couple re-created at the ceremony—to dizzying effect:

In each case, the kiss conveys more than a sex scene would (even those that may follow). Depictions of sex, especially heterosexual sex, in film and TV rarely emphasize mutual passion. Most often, men are asserting themselves and women are being acted upon. The humble kiss, for all its shortcomings—sloppiness, squishing, aggression, to name a few—is a far more democratized space in entertainment. Women pull hair, touch faces, and wrap their arms around their partners, as men do. Kissing can be radical, a demonstration of transgressive bonds in the face of restrictive barriers. The kiss shared between Pariah’s Alike (Adepero Oduye) and her friend Bina (Aasha Davis) was a catalyst in the former’s difficult path to accepting her own queerness. Kissing is no singular revolution, but it’s not nothing, either.

Of course, kissing—and depictions of it—aren’t great for everyone (and the act itself is odd if you think about it for too long or let The Good Place’s Michael influence you). Plenty of people don’t want to kiss; many can’t safely kiss people of the gender(s) they are most attracted to. But when it’s done right, there’s almost nothing more magical. The decision to kiss someone is often fraught, tentative. It can be delicate, a furtive moment that coalesces moments or years of desire into a single connection. The hormonal alchemy of a great kiss can portend deep, meaningful things for a nascent relationship (or reveal schisms in long-lasting ones). But it can also be fun, light-hearted, meaningless in the grand scheme of things, a way to simply pass the time (a fact that has, of course, inspired a meme). No kiss is the same, even with someone whose body language you’ve long studied. The domain of young and old alike, kissing can make giddy teenagers of us all. Isn’t that alone worth celebrating?