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An Anthropologist Looks at the Positive and Negative Reactions to "The First Kiss" Video

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Last week the Wren Clothing Company produced a video showing 10 separate couples -- people who were strangers to each other -- kissing for the first time. The video was made to display Wren's Fall fashion collection, items of which were worn by the kissers. The video went viral: 42 million views on YouTube. Then reaction turned negative. Why all the fuss?

Let's begin at the beginning. Kissing is no trivial behavior. All known human societies have kissing as part of their behavioral repertoire; chimps, too. That ubiquity is pretty rare. A number of factors contributed to the evolution of kissing. In part, it probably arose from baby sucking at mother's breast. Note that most frequently, kissers the world over tilt their heads to the right. This is related to the fact that mothers the world over, when breast-feeding their babies, hold their infant in such a way that it turns right to meet the left breast, the one over the mother's heart(beat).

So much for pre-history. What about now?

In "The First Kiss" video, we're not talking about (or seeing) a quick peck on the cheek. In many cases, these couples went at it. Most duets engaged in long, repeated kisses, many with tongue penetration. Hugs often lingered when mouths disengaged.

At the outset of the video, subtitles told viewers these are strangers who are about to kiss for the first time. However, the first thing one realizes when watching the video is that -- after the initial greetings (what's your name?, giggling, preening, and asking the off-camera film makers for a cue to begin) -- the actual kissing seemed real and intimate. Moreover, most of these kissing bouts escalated in intensity quite rapidly. It was easy to think these were not strangers at all.

Soft porn, a bit. Voyeurism, a bit. But perhaps other motives also drove viewing.

The third millennium is the world of TOO. We each now live in a context of too fast, too complex, and too competitive. Digital adds the feeling there is no off-stage. We are "on" 24/7 and with it we are constantly at the seeming mercy of external demands and internal "shoulds." In this rapid pace, we live much of life on a kind of auto-pilot in which we lose touch with our own authenticity. We lose the ability to live in feeling. For all these reasons, meaningful face-to-face connections are harder to come by and recognize. Still, we yearn for intimacy and for direct interpersonality. That's human nature.

Part of what made this video so popular is it's a wish fulfillment. A wish for a randomly-made connection transforming rapidly into not just to sex, but into the intimacy of a caring relationship. The mind has used less to address such longings.

Relatedly, in New Guinea I have witnessed a ritual where male and female teenagers of the tribe are arrayed in a circle, boy-girl-boy-girl, while elders beat out a rhythm on a percussion-like instrument. The teenagers, in heterosexual pairs, face each other and rub foreheads, until all combinations of boy-girl complete the forehead rubbing. Then each teenager indicates who of the opposite sex was the person each most satisfyingly found a joint rhythm with. Only two such agreeing teenagers are then allowed to marry.

Another factor attendant to such a huge viewership of "The First Kiss" video is that nowadays -- in many parts of the world, but particularly in America -- we are so used to seeing and being in "performance" mode in which we exaggerate and stylize our behavior to look like more than we are in order to prop ourselves up and to have others gaze at us. Currently, a common way of being is being in your face. This video is literally that and a metaphor of that.

On the other side of the coin, perhaps two other aspects of the kissing couples stood out to viewers. One was in spite of the setup, there seemed to be an innocence displayed by the strangers, and in contrast to typecasting, notably by more of the men than the women. Men, before the actual kiss, looked away more, exhibited more nervous laughter, chatted more. The second was, more of the females seemed to control the kiss intensity. At the end of the video even the final word came from a women who said, "Can we make out more?"

Lastly, some of the same reasons stated above for the initial positive sentiment towards "The First Kiss" video, could help explain why some viewers later turned against it.

Americans -- especially Americans -- seem to have a love-hate relationship with authenticity and intimacy... and sex. Americans are caught betwixt and between many things. Among these paradoxes are: (1) A let-it-all-hang-out attitude and a puritanical prudishness; and (2) A worshiping of performance and a demand for truthfulness and trustworthiness (aggravated by the economic bust of 2008).

Not knowing how to integrate these paradoxes into a new and higher order idea, Americans fluctuate and go back and forth between extreme points on the various poles. On the one hand, Americans want to supplant human nature, and on the other hand know it's not nice to foul Mother Nature. Do they like "The First Kiss" video, or don't they? As the 1970s ad for Chiffon spread asks, "Is it butter or is it margarine?", in particular, Americans aren't sure.