03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Women Kiss: From TV Stunts to Mainstream Reality

Bolstered by the irresistible catchphrase "Save the cheerleader, save the world," NBC's sci-fi series Heroes debuted in 2006 as an instant cult phenomenon.

And yet, seemingly from the moment the general public caught on, Heroes has battled negative buzz and declining audience numbers, to the point that it has now returned to its original cheerleading premise, but with a very particular kick added to the pom-pom routine.

On a recent episode of Heroes that got more than a few tongues wagging, resident pep-squad blonde Hayden Panettiere kissed Madeline Zima, long and lustfully. So now it's: "Turn the cheerleader bisexual, save the show."

According to London's Daily Star tabloid, the kiss may well expand into something more substantial. "It's just girly fun at first," the Star reported. "It might progress into something more serious; it depends how viewers respond."

Viewers responded with fast and unrelenting obsession, as videos of Hayden's superheroic dip into sapphism quickly flooded the Internet. They continue to be traded and watched in staggering numbers more than a week after the initial broadcast.

Is anyone surprised? And as Heroes continues to court heat online, will anyone be shocked when this "girly fun" does indeed turn into something serious... and seriously steamy?

Girl-on-girl lip-locking as a TV ratings-boosting stunt, particularly during important "sweeps" periods, is so familiar that it's past the point of cliche. It now exists as a simple structural element, like theme music or a wacky neighbor. The website Jump the Shark even boasts a category for such canoodling, and there's an expansive Wikipedia page titled, simply, "Lesbian kiss episode".

Unlike other shopworn TV tropes, however, "chicks making out" always works. Even more intriguingly, this tele-trend has penetrated beyond the screen to become a standard rite of passage among females in the real world -- and that is not a reference to the MTV series.

Of course, it should be noted that MTV in general and The Real World in particular have done as much as any other media outpost to normalize homosexuality -- as long as it's hot!

Just as this is true on television, it seems to have become the standard experience of women as they come of age out here on the other side of the tube. It is not for nothing on Heroes that Panettiere and Zima portray college roommates.

Further adding zest to Heroes' overall come-on is the cheerleader's claim that she herself conceived of the storyline. "The writers put you in relationships," Panettiere said, "and I was like, 'Can I just be with a girl or something? Let's do that.'"

Twenty-year-old Hayden has also confessed to practicing tongue techniques with female classmates as a teen and that she fantasizes about a relationship with that ultimate object of omnisexual desire, Angelina Jolie.

But all the way back in the pre-Internet, pre-reality-programming, pre-Girls Gone Wild days of 1991, NBC's prestigious primetime drama L.A. Law ignited a firestorm of controversy with a brief, but passionate, kiss between co-stars Amanda Donohoe and Michele Greene.

That inferno exploded out past its fleeting moment of airtime and inextricably into the throbbing, day-to-day actuality of our post-Ellen-and-Portia, post-Madonna-and-Britney, post-Lindsay-and-everyone existence. As a result, it would now seem odd for an actress -- or any other female one comes across, really -- to not publicly proclaim her longings for the ever erotically malleable Ms. Jolie.

Since Michele and Amanda on L.A. Law, we've had bi-curious teens on Picket Fences, Mariel Hemingway and the titular funny lady on Roseanne, Calista Flockhart and Lucy Liu on Ally McBeal, Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mischa Barton and Olivia Wilde on The O.C... and on and on.

Jennifer Aniston not only feasted on the faces of both Winona Ryder and Lisa Kudrow while on Friends, she and co-superstar Courteney Cox made up for what must have been an oversight by finally succumbing to one another on the FX series Dirt.

Lesbian sex has served as a cornerstone male fetish since time immemorial. It would make sense for any entertainment endeavor to present such displays in order to beef up interest among men. But as the line holds fast when it comes to which gender is free to break from traditional coupling on TV, it gets ever blurrier as Sapphic antics, more and more, seem to appeal to no less an audience than everyone.

Critic Virginia Heffernan wrote in The New York Times in 2008, "kisses between women are perfect [TV] sweeps stunts. They offer something for everyone, from advocacy groups looking for role models to indignation-seeking conservatives, from goggle-eyed male viewers to progressive female ones."

Certainly dewy coeds had engaged in experimentation among themselves long before Hayden Panettiere was even born, let alone showing how it might go down on Heroes. And professional women, attorneys and otherwise, had undoubtedly collapsed into unexpected displays of passion for centuries prior to the first episode of L.A. Law.

Therefore, it's impossible to state that the contemporary state of post-female-bisexual-chic -- which now comes across simply as female sexuality, period -- was invented by TV's reliably hype-spiking "lesbian kiss episodes."

But it's not a stretch to imagine that these incidents have served as inspiration for at least a generation, and in many more ways than what just meets the eye. To say nothing of all those lips.