The first kiss. Nothing ensnares the romantics quite as well as a first kiss. While handholding, hair brushing, whispers, and other less physical intimacies draw forth an affected blush, the first kiss holds a place of honor. True love’s first kiss broke more spells than you can shake a stick at, after all. But in the expansive world of Young Adult literature, not all kisses are created equal. The disparity between kisses lies in part with the gender of the kisser. While female protagonists seem to be given permission to lose themselves in their romantic lip lock, male protagonists must not only perform a manly and successful kiss (with little to no practice), but do so with public opinion in mind. The first kiss is nearly always important. The real question is: Why is the first kiss such a widely different experience for male and female characters?
A paranormal romance steeped in sexual tension, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight arguably became the love story of contemporary YA fantasy – ask any Twihard or Twi-Mom. Bella Swan, Meyer’s fragile and painfully awkward human protagonist, knows what she wants when it comes to one thing – the mysterious and dangerous Edward Cullen. When the pages and pages of restraint and self-control tumble down, the first kiss, born of physical and emotional intimacy, overpowers Bella. In her own words, “Blood boiled under my skin, burned in my lips. My breath came in a wild gasp. My fingers knotted in his hair, clutching him to me. My lips parted as I breathed in his heady scent” (282). For Bella, this kiss is all hers to be lost in. It is her blood boiling, her breath gasping, and her fingers knotting and clutching. Possessing agency, yet losing herself to this consummation of love, Bella makes her kiss a personal triumph and a personal ecstasy. She chose to lose herself and let her subconscious desires take over. Edward doesn’t even get a mention beyond a few pronouns.
Why is Bella so lost in this one moment? A simple enough answer would be that she finds Edward several shades of gorgeous and she wants him. Perhaps another reason could be that Bella has her role to play. She is the female lead in a love story and needs her feet swept clean out from under her. She needs to burn from the strength of her love. Most of all, her attractiveness and personal feelings need to keep the love story alive and scorching as long as the narrative keeps narrating. As Twilight’s first person narrator, Bella is the source of action and plot development. Once the will-they-won’t-they dilemma becomes a resounding WILL, the romance must become something we can care about, even without the game of He Likes Me, He Likes Me Not. The intensity of Bella and Edward’s first kiss proves the love story hasn’t reached its expiration date, but has plenty of romance left to offer.
Standing in stark contrast to Bella’s hunk of burning love is Miles’ first kiss with Lara in John Green’s Looking for Alaska. The differences between these two examples of literary first kisses can be attributed to generic differences. Vampires in cloudy Forks and private school hooligans in Birmingham hardly sit at the same lunch table. Nevertheless, Miles’ kiss acts as a foil for Bella’s. Miles describes the kiss in fairly unromantic terms. He supposes they both taste like stale alcohol and cigarettes, hardly the “heady scent” that Bella wants to breathe, and he literally slobbers on Lara’s nose. Indicating a lack of emotional involvement, Miles’ mentions Alaska and how she would describe his lack of kissing experience, “To borrow the base system from Alaska, I hadn’t hit more than five singles in my entire life” (122). His namedropping Alaska in the middle of his make out session with another girl reminds the reader of the main romantic interest – Alaska. Mile’s doesn’t love Lara, she isn’t his end-all-be-all, or even his main object of affection. Miles is allowed to be emotionally unaffected, the focus instead on his skill at the bodily.
Bella and Miles don’t share a lot when it comes to their first kisses. But one of the biggest differences is the personal level of their experience. Bella and Edward are alone. They’ve been alone for hours and they enjoy that moment of intimate contact away from prying eyes. Miles and Lara don’t have the same privilege. They kiss for the first time in a barn containing three other people who are acutely aware of what they are up to. Miles’ first kiss in the novel happens on a more public scale. A rite of passage, Miles needs to make out with that hot girl for men everywhere and everyone should know it. Miles’ success with Lara is not a personal romantic triumph, but a masculine sexual achievement. He took the initiative to kiss her, she acquiesced, and his friends witnessed – Mazel tov! Today, Miles, you are a man.
What makes the experience of a first kiss so gendered? Despite their differences, each character engages in performance. As Judith Halberstam discusses in her piece “Gender,” there is a branch of gender theory that focuses on the performativity of gender and the opinion that behaviors and traits are acted out rather than inherently sprung (116). Applying this theory to the first kisses of the young protagonist, each of them performs a role – the girl trapped in a whirlwind romance, the burgeoning male youth. Bella acts in a private emotional setting while Miles acts in a sphere of the physically public, cementing their femininity and masculinity respectively.
Young first kissers are performers type casted by gender. Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived and Chosen One, publicly kissed his true love in a room packed with his fellow Gryffindors. Katniss, the Girl on Fire, couldn’t escape a consuming, love-sparking embrace even while fighting, faking, and surviving her way to the top. Though there are naturally exceptions to every rule, for the most part first kisses reaffirm rather than demolish gender performativity and expectation. And maybe that’s the point of a first kiss. First kisses inaugurate boys and girls into the world of men and women. Unfortunately, that world lives for socialized gender and its performance. Maybe their roles aren’t set in stone and their lips don’t sign their sexual doom, but they should at least be awakened to societal expectations. And maybe bring some lip balm.
—Cristal Crowley, The Atlantic Wire