The first “interracial” kiss in television history took place in the fall of 1968, during the famous Star Trek episode titled “Plato’s Stepchildren.” The episode’s storyline has Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura trapped on a planet ruled by sadistic philosopher kings. As an amusement, these “Platonians” use their powers of telekinesis to force Kirk and Uhura to embrace and then … kiss. Uhura tells Kirk that she is not afraid. Then they meet in an extended, albeit coerced, liplock.
A year before the episode aired, Nichelle Nichols — the African-American actress who played Uhura — was inclined to leave Star Trek. She felt her character was too limited and suspected (correctly) that the suits at NBC were striking her lines from the scripts, and withholding her fan mail. But then Nichols met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at an NAACP event. She recounted their conversation In an interview:
I met Dr. King at a fundraiser and he told me that I was one of the most important people in his family. That they watched Star Trek and that I was a role model and their hero. And I said I was very proud of that and that was very nice, and then I told him that I was [considering] leaving the show, and he said abruptly, “You can not! You absolutely must not. Do you know that you have the first non-stereotypical role on television? You’re a first. This is not a female role. This is not a black role. This is a quality role, and this is an equal role, and it is in a command position. You have to carry on, because not only do little black children and do women see you and aspire and do you have meaning for them, but everyone else sees us for the first time the way we are supposed to be — on an equal basis, and on a level of dignity and authority and with the highest of qualifications.”
The history-making Star Trek episode aired after Dr. King was assassinated, earlier that same year. However, another television barrier was broken when NBC aired a variety special for Petula Clark in the intervening months. According to David Bianculli’s book, Dangerously Funny:
[The special] became infamous for the uproar it caused, and fought, when Clark reached out and touched and held [Harry] Belafonte’s arm during a taping of one of their duets. It was her own composition, an antiwar song called “On the Path of Glory,” they were singing, but it wasn’t the message that incited a controversy — it was that a white woman had reached out and touched a black man on national television. The sponsor for the special was Chrysler, and a Chrysler executive present at the taping objected to the “interracial touching” and demanded another take without the physical contact be used instead. Clark refused, destroyed all other videotaped takes of the duet, and demanded the segment be broadcast intact or the entire special scrubbed. It was televised intact, after much national press attention about the backstage battle, and received high ratings and wide acclaim. It sounds absurd, but this was the first time a man and woman of different races had shared any physical contact on national TV.
It doesn’t just “sound” absurd– it was absurd. Prejudice is absurd.
Tomorrow I will take my daughters to a New Orleans Zephyrs baseball game. I’m of course secretly hoping that the “Kiss Cam barrier” will be broken that night, and they’ll show a same-sex couple kissing on the stadium’s jumbotron. As you know, I’ve been arguing for New Orleans to be the city that breaks the Kiss Cam barrier. So far, the Saints and Hornets have let me down, but maybe the Zephyrs can pull through for me.
Granted, it’s not the biggest civil rights issue in the world, but it’s not insignificant, either. As I’ve said before, progress with the Kiss Cam is a small step, but, like Clark touching Belafonte’s arm, it’s a small step in the right direction at an important time. And I think it’s in New Orleans’ interest to be the first city to take that step.
I predicted back in November that the trendlines would cross this year– and they have, decisively. A majority of Americans now favor gay marriage. Today, President Obama will appear at a fundraiser for gay supporters in New York, just as that state’s legislature prepares to vote to legalize gay marriage. Obama, who supports civil unions for gay couples, has been disappointingly slow to change his mind (again), and support gay marriage. His lack of support for gay marriage is now a net political liability. Obama claims his views on the issue are “evolving.” Well, evolve faster, dammit!
The “Kiss Cam” issue has evolved in recent months, too. There have been some welcome developments. For instance, The Washington City Paper reported in April that a homophobic perversion of the Kiss Cam, had been stopped due to complaints. Known as the “Kiss Cam Ambush,” the gimmick works like this: at the end of a Kiss Cam segment, after various hetero couples are shown on the jumbotron, and the crowd persuades them to kiss, the camera cuts to two players of the opposing team. City Paper explains the comedic appeal:
Because, you see, there’s nothing quite as insulting to the rival squad as suggesting that two of their guys might want to kiss each other.
Then last month we learned this news:
The San Francisco Giants will become the first professional sports team to jump into the burgeoning anti-homophobia campaign with an upbeat “It Gets Better” video designed to bring hope to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender young people.
Perhaps most titillating, when the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the Philadelphia Flyers in March, there was a Kiss Cam “ambush” of a different sort. At the end of the segment, the camera framed two young women in the crowd who were dressed as cheerleaders. While they weren’t a couple, they decided to indulge the audience’s entreaties and kiss, but the camera cut away at the last moment.
During times of rapid cultural change, you’ll always get resistance from the seemingly sensible middle position on these matters. It goes something like this: “It doesn’t bother me so much, but I don’t want my kid to see that …”
That sounds like a copout to me. If you don’t treat two men kissing on the jumbotron like a big deal, then your kids won’t think it is, either. But I don’t think it’s really about “the kids.” I think it’s more about the parents being squeamish about answering uncomfortable questions. Are there many 50 year olds these days who are thankful that they weren’t exposed to “interracial touching” in their early years watching TV?
Truly, what’s more offensive: having to explain a same-sex smooch to your kids or the premise of the Kiss Cam ambush? “See, sweetheart, they’re implying that they’re gay, and some still think of that as an insult, so that’s why they’re laughing.”