The First On-Screen Kiss Wasn’t What You’d Expect

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Women kissing is a powerful and cathartic sight in cinema, representing desires becoming reality and defying societal norms.
  • The Kiss was the first-ever recorded on-screen kiss in cinema history, featuring two women, and set a standard for representation.
  • Queer women kissing in cinema challenges societal norms and provides joy, rich humanity, and compelling narratives.


There are few sights in all of cinema better than women smooching. Is there anything more cathartic than seeing the two leads of Alice Wu’s Saving Face kiss? What other cinematic sights can compare to the emotionally rich power of Carol and Therese finally locking lips (turning all the subtext of their interactions into powerful text) in that New Year’s Eve hotel room sequence in Carol? Lord knows that few sights in 2023 cinema could compare to when Josie and Isabel finally kissed at the end of Bottoms, accompanied by a spinning camera and the pulsating vocals of Charli XCX on the track “party 4 U.” Look back on the greatest moments in the history of movies, and they’re bound to largely involve women locking lips.

Women kissing is, like so many displays of queer joy, an innately amazing sight and the medium of cinema lets audiences get up close and personal to these joys. With these kisses, we see desires becoming reality, yearning transforming into concrete connectivity, and an unspoken middle finger to societal norms that try to suppress queer people. Ladies kissing is such a glorious cinematic spectacle that it’s one of the defining visuals of this artform. Specifically, the very first kiss ever recorded in cinema history was between two women in the promptly titled film The Kiss. No wonder gay smooches between gals are so richly effective in cinema…it’s a form of affection baked into the artform from its very inception!


What Exactly Is ‘The Kiss’?

The Kiss dates back to 1882, making it one of the earliest examples of cinematic expression on the planet. It consisted of individual photographs shot by Eadweard Muybridge in rapid succession that he then made into a film short using his zoopraxiscope. The medium of cinema in its nascent years was far from what it would look like even in 1910, let alone in 2024. For one thing, the earliest “motion pictures” were incredibly abbreviated because of technological limitations at the time. Later famous works in the 1890s like Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory would consist of 46 seconds of footage of people simply leaving their workspace. Thus, in the 1880s, whatever images Muybridge strung together for his machines would simply consist of animals running, skeletons of critters (like a piece of footage chronicling a skeleton of a horse), or people engaging in very streamlined actions.

Looking over Muybridge’s films, his primary focus as a director was on animals, like ostriches or buffalos, moving at great speeds in an attempt to demonstrate how his zoopraxiscope machine could simulate the idea that you were watching organisms sprinting in front of your very eyes. The Kiss, then, was one of Muybridge’s forays into human-centric filmmaking, with the ultra-short film consisting of two naked women shaking hands and then kissing. That was it, of course. There were no names given to the characters on-screen (if they were even thought of as being fictional characters), while there does not appear to be any records of whom the two women are in the images. Something like The Kiss was thought of as a technological showcase, not a piece of art that would need to be preserved or talked about decades into the future.

Even with the minimal amount of information about the creation or creative participants in The Kiss, though, this incredibly short feature offers a lot for one to ponder. Specifically, how did they get away with displaying two women acting this affectionate to one another? Queerness, after all, was still outlawed and forbidden in mainstream American society. Meanwhile, overseas in the United Kingdom, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 made sexual relations between men illegal. The latter historical element may offer some insight into how The Kiss was able to get made in 1882 since the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 did not have any stipulations against sex acts between women.

This didn’t mean queer women escaped judgment or dehumanization by society, it just manifested differently than prejudice against queer men. An increased focus on dehumanizing queer men combined societal perceptions that women are just “friendlier” with each other likely helped to make The Kiss acceptable to the general public. After all, this wasn’t “queer”, the central subjects of The Kiss were just really really really good friends! Plus, the 1895 film short The Dickson Experimental Sound Film would feature two men dancing together to some music. While not as explicitly “queer” as two naked women kissing, Dickson Experimental Sound Film does suggest that intimacy between folks of the same gender was slightly more common in the wild wooly world of nascent cinema. This artform was flying so under the radar in many cases that it could get away with projects like The Kiss.

‘The Kiss’ Set a Standard for Cinematic Representation

Image via Samuel Goldwyn Films

Even if it wasn’t perceived as groundbreaking, though, The Kiss did, in hindsight, allow affection between queer women to help mold the visual language of what physical intimacy looks like on-screen. It’s one of at least two unexpected instances of Eadweard Muybridge’s earliest film works providing unintentionally groundbreaking representation. The other, of course, being the 1878 short Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, one of the very first moving images of all time which (as any super-fans of Nope will recall) was focused on a Black man on a horse. Black people and lesbians would be largely erased from mainstream American cinema once movies got bigger and bigger. But in the medium’s early days, they were some of the first figures (the very first in the case of Sallie Gardner at a Gallop!) ever put on film.

Tragically, as cinematic narratives expanded in scope at the dawn of the 20th century, queer women largely vanished from the silver screen, though not entirely. The 1922 Cecil B. DeMille motion picture Manslaughter, for instance, featured two women kissing during an orgy scene (pre-Hays Code movies are a trip). The 1930 feature Morocco, meanwhile, saw the film’s leading lady, Marlene Dietrich, smooching another gal right on-screen, an especially exciting development given that Dietrich herself was bisexual in real life. Whether the artists involved in these films realized it or not, these projects were building on the legacy of The Kiss. Morocco’s example of confident ladies smooching especially expanded on this short’s use of cinema to rebuke the greater erasure of queer women in Western society.

Tragically, the Motion Picture Production Code introduced in the mid-1930s put an end to even the potential for fleeting depictions of women or any other queer folks kissing on-screen. The Code’s demand that “sexual deviancy” (which homosexuality was considered to be in that era) be erased from mainstream cinema ensured that there would be no further depictions of affection like the one that defined The Kiss. Queerness wouldn’t be entirely erased from American cinema, but it would be pushed to the margins and some unsavory stereotypes (many villains would quickly be coded as queer, for instance). The makers of The Kiss couldn’t have even begun to imagine, let alone comprehend, this development or the subsequent 140+ years of cinematic representation of queer women that would follow its existence.

Related

There Is Absolutely No Reason to Revive the Hays Code

The Hays Code died a merciful death. Keep it that way.

‘The Kiss’ Stands As an Important Queer Time Capsule

Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall as Megan and Graham about to kiss in But I'm a Cheerleader
Image via Lionsgate Films

To gaze into The Kiss is to gaze upon a dimension where there are only these two women who can’t keep their lips away from one another. It also means gazing at the transportive immersive nature of cinema as an artform, not to mention the origins of romantic attraction in movies, period! The entire history of people locking lips in movies (whether they’re queer women or not) can be traced back to these two women being the first folks to lock lips in cinema. Meanwhile, joyfully queer lesbian features like Desert Hearts, The Watermelon Woman, Portrait of a Lady on Fire expanded on the triumphs of The Kiss. Specifically, these projects created compelling narratives that fleshed out their lead characters so beautifully that, whenever these protaganists kissed, it feels like they’re the only two people in the world. The external intolerance, the social pressures, the anxieties, they all melt away when you see the main characters of films like Rafiki or But I’m a Cheerleader lock lips. There is joy and rich humanity in these movies, which use cinema to weave stories about complicated queer lady existences. The brevity of The Kiss is in stark contrast to such movies, but its legacy is apparent whenever a movie depicts women finding solace in each other.

Women kissing is a wonderful sight. It’s one of those fixtures of cinema that always instills your heart with joy and reminds you of all the endless possibilities of this medium of storytelling. In fact, women kissing is so wonderful that it was the centerpiece of one of the first-ever movies ever recorded! In just this nugget of filmmaking, one can see more than a century of subsequent cinematic storytelling focused on the lives and passions of queer ladies. The Kiss didn’t just establish that gay women can exist in film, it established that these lives are the very cornerstone of cinema itself! All smooches in the history of movies owe a great deal of debt to The Kiss, which established right away that movies are always better with some ladies smooching!

While The Kiss is not available to stream, you can stream Carol on Netflix in the U.S.

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