Is a Kiss Just a Kiss?

Commentary, Culture Wars, Gerry Bowler

In Casablanca, the greatest movie ever made, Dooley Wilson sings: “You must remember this/ A kiss is just a kiss/ A sigh is just a sigh”.

But, Sarah Hall of North Shields, England, would disagree. For her, a kiss, such as that bestowed by the handsome prince on Sleeping Beauty, teaches impressionable youngsters that non-consensual sexual contact is socially acceptable. She protested the use of this story in her child’s school. She would, in fact, like the fairy tale to be kept away from young children, but instead used as a “great resource” for older kids to have a conversation about consent “and how the Princess might feel.”

Considering that the Princess wouldn’t feel anything if the Prince were just to stand there asking permission from her unconscious form to lay a wet one on her, Ms. Hall’s plan for educational reform seems particularly inane.

Ms. Hall has taken a lot of criticism from those who think she is dealing in trivialities by criticising a children’s story but she is correct in thinking that fairy tales are an important part in the way that we raise children–they do impart pro-social values and are full of lessons for the young. However, her take on Sleeping Beauty is sadly awry.

What that story really teaches is the value of social obligations– Sleeping Beauty is cursed because her parents forgot to invite someone to her christening– and the power of redemptive love. Cinderella tells us, not that the correct way of identifying a future mate is the right size in shoes, but that life can surprise wonderfully and that oppressive circumstances need not last forever.

The legend of Snow White, where salvation is also brought by a kiss that dislodged a piece of poisoned apple, is not a tale about a young woman living in dubious circumstances with seven miners, but a warning against vanity and jealousy. Ms. Hall has absorbed the hyper-sexualization of today’s society and sees libidinous behaviour where there is none.

The fact is that a kiss can mean many more things than sexual contact.

Jesus was betrayed by Judas, who told the arresting officers that he would identify his master and friend with a kiss. Europeans and Middle Easterners greet each other penguin-like with pecks on the cheek; air-kisses are the norm at fashionable New York soirées. Suave Romeos show off their charm by kissing the hands of their sweethearts. Christian church rites often include the Kiss of Peace, and mothers comfort a wailing child by “kissing it better”. In the British constitutional monarchy, the sovereign signals the choice of the future Prime Minister by issuing “an invitation to kiss hands” at Buckingham Palace. The kiss at the end of a wedding denotes a rite of passage where the bride and groom mark the formation of a new family unit. A kiss from a Mafioso may mean that a bullet in the head is not far off. The touch of lips, therefore, can symbolize affection, social status, loyalty, a truce, danger or, as in the case of Sleeping Beauty, the arrival of a rescuer.

Thus, we do our children no favours when we read lust and sexual assault into their stories and retroject the social anxieties of today back into kids’ literature. There is real peril out there, but it doesn’t come from the Brothers Grimm.