A Kiss is Just a Kiss?

I was watching Degrassi High with a male friend (we’re both in our early twenties) and my sixteen-year-old sister. There was one episode where Caitlin, a fifteen-year-old, ropes her study partner, Arthur, a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old who is obviously smitten with her, into lying to her boyfriend Joey because she wants to cancel their date to go out with friends. Arthur then asks her out and, realising he has a crush on her, Caitlin tries to worm out of it without rejecting him outright. When that fails, she tells him no outright, which I respected her for.

Then when she goes back to school after the weekend to find a dejected Arthur has finished their assignment all on his own – and done a damn good job – she kisses him on the cheek in gratitude, leaving him with a dopey, infatuated expression on his face.

I was annoyed, because I thought it was insensitive to give Arthur hope by showing such affection. She knew he had a crush on her, knew he was disappointed by her rejection, knew he was impressionable – to kiss him, even in platonic gratitude, was only going to fuel his hopes.

I would have given her leeway for her age, if my sister – almost the same age at Caitlen – hadn’t been even more vehement in her opinion Caitlen had been insensitive. (Incidentally, my sister and I agreed if the situation were reversed, a guy showing affection to a girl who he knows has unrequited romantic interested in him, we would have been just as annoyed.)

But what interested me was my male friend was just as vehement in his opinion that Caitlen was just being friendly and it was Arthur’s own damn fault if he took anything more from her kiss then friendship after she had categorically told him she wasn’t interested in him.

So here you have two females – one about the same age as the character in question – saying the female character’s behaviour was insensitive, and a male saying it wasn’t. It may simply have been the dynamics of our own personalities – three people is hardly a comprehensive study (plus I think my friend had a bit of a crush on Caitlen) – but it got me thinking if women are harsher judges of women’s behaviour then men are, or if men are more likely to adopt the thinking ‘they were told the score, it was their own fault if they heard something else.’


  1. Mecha says

    Wild thought here, even though the sample size is small: Might it be because both sides see a personal responsibility component based on who they identify more with? The women see the female character’s interaction as irresponsible, while the man sees the male character’s (possible) infatuation as irresponsible. Both views are fairly reasonable, but you might be inclined to expect more of the person you’re identifying with/that matches your expressed gender/be more familiar with the ‘shoulds’ of your gender or sex.


  2. says

    I think that’s definitely part of it, Mecha. As I noticed just yesterday in the thread where SBG was criticizing Quizno’s “beautiful woman jealous of average woman” commercial, I spent a ton of time analyzing the average woman’s portrayal before it occurred to me: “Oh, yeah – they’re also badly portraying the woman I don’t identify with.”

    OTOH, it seems to me we’re all taught to criticize women extra harshly and give men the benefit of the doubt. Well, white men who fit “the mold”. We’re also taught to assume the worst of black and Latino men (all criminals, right?), of gays (all child molestors, right?), etc. That’s the hierarchy of the society: those on top get the benefit of the doubt. Everyone else can’t prove themselves enough.

  3. says

    I like what Mecha says, and I see where everyone in the trio is coming from. But I find myself leaning more toward your friend’s perspective. The way I see it, everyone should take no as no, regardless of (perceived) behavior. It was probably insensitive of Caitlen to kiss Arthur on the cheek — but that act doesn’t negate her “no” from before unless she says “yes.” It’s not Caitlen’s responsibility to keep Arthur from ignoring/misinterpreting what she says.

    it got me thinking if women are harsher judges of women’s behaviour then men are, or if men are more likely to adopt the thinking ‘they were told the score, it was their own fault if they heard something else.’

    I think there’s a lot to be said of women’s roles in perpetuating patriarchal norms. I read somewhere that women (as the “sex class”) are examples of Stockholm syndrome — they identify with their captors and reinforce the captor’s rules as well as or better than the captor himself.

  4. Mecha says

    Well, I personally consider both positions reasonable (that the boy is responsible for misreading, but also that the girl didn’t exactly keep things clear either.) After all, it is a series of mixed signals, especially to a young boy who is not experienced in any way at dealing with people (especially women). To specifically deliver the message that ‘I’m happy with you’ with something as societally charged as a kiss… well.

    Boy performs act, girl rewards boy for act, boy thinks girl likes him and may some day like him more. That’s not exactly a broken logic chain. It is a very common ‘trap’ for a number of ‘nice guy’ sorts, to think that helpfulness/friendship might go somewhere farther one day, especially when they don’t seem to have anything else going for them. It becomes problematic/crazy when you start to believe that helpfulness/friendship means that you DESERVE it to go farther (as we’ve all no doubt seen.)

    No may mean no, but as long as people can change their mind, there will always be a crack for someone’s behavior to indicate their mind has changed. Whether he picks one side or the other on believing… well, that depends on a lot of things. As long as he doesn’t go off the deep end.

    I’m sort of babbling here, but I guess the point is that it goes a lot of ways, and very few people in their situation are taught the good way to deal with it. I’d find more fault with the fact that, as part of media, teens might not realize that there ARE problems with the way it went down.


  5. sbg says

    I think there’s room to see it either way and have that view be completely valid. Caitlyn knows Arthur likes her, true, but does that mean she absolutely can’t do anything remotely friendly for fear her actions will be misinterpreted, and doesn’t Arthur have some responsibility in understanding her intentions are not romantic, based on what she’s flat-out told him?

  6. scarlett says

    Whoops, thought I postponed this pending thoughts from BC, guess I forgot to hit ‘save’ :(

    Mecha, I have a vauge memory of, when I first wrote this article, making a passing comment that I realise three people is hardly a comprehensive study; I must have deleted it in The Great Word Purge I did a few months ago 😉 It might have given the article a greater qualifier; while I realise with a group that small, it really comes down to personal values, I’ve had a lot of experiences where women have been much harsher to jusge a woman’s actions than a man has.

    I wrote this article a long time ago (among other things, that sister recently turned 18) and my values have changed a bit since then. To a degree, I still think you have to be careful with someone who you know is going to take your actions to mean more than they do, even when the standard has been established, but I’m more inclined to believe that, once the standard has been established, if someone keeps taking more from an action than was intended, they’re the stupid one for not getting over it.

  7. says

    No, Scarlett, you did postpone it, but I thought it was good to go so I moved the date back. Only then things got a little busy ’round here so I forgot to tell you. 😉

    I tend to think there’s no right or wrong answer about either the girl’s actions or the boy’s misinterpretation. We have a culture that insists on being vague and “sending signals” instead of saying some freakin’ words so people know what you want, what you mean, what you intend. I can imagine that how the actors played it may have telegraphed it a certain way, and it’s still interesting (though not conclusive, as Scarlett pointed out) to me that the reactions varied between gender in this case.

    Because I remember a long conversation I had somewhere (maybe here?) about Stargate, in which women complained they found Carter’s crush on O’Neill ridiculous, childish, borderline psycho, etc., but the men in their lives thought it was sweet and romantic. That was a bit of a larger sample group, and still the men are being more sympathetic to the woman than the women are.

    I’ve noticed in real life that some people just seem naive about the opposite sex, and that’s where I totally agree with Mecha – we think we can read our own gender better than someone of the opposite gender can. And to an extent, this may even be true.

  8. says

    Isn’t that almost a trope?

    Guy or girl has unrequited love. They finally announce feelings and are rejected, or realize it is hopeless, and move on. Then the “beloved” realizes how great the other is and the roles reverse as the one who moved on has fallen for someone else. And the story repeats itself…until they finally get together.

    That is why I wince with that kind of kiss, it seems to usually lead to love and the pair getting together. It sets a bad example. And, really, I get tired of seeing the same story play out again and again.

    But if the writer has no attention of following the trope, then I see no problem. If the guy doesn’t get the difference, he has to take some blame. If she had given the peck on the cheek and reminded him that she thought he was a great friend, it might have made things clearer. But I find it hard to fault the girl in this instance.

  9. says

    I think I’m physically incapable of *not* commenting on any Degrassi post. Sigh.

    One of the great things about the show is that it never really had the kind of strawman figures or cliches that are generally all over the place on TV. We can have this conversation because nearly all of us can see, on some level, where both characters are coming from, what they may be thinking, and sympathize with their respective positions, even though we may find flaw with their decision making process or even think they’re annoying.

    Degrassi managed to pull this off even in dealing with some very challenging issues (eg. Wheels’ drinking and driving accident). The audience can be well aware that what a character did was wrong, but there’s no question that each one of them is a human being with nuances.

  10. scarlett says

    Odd Jack – from memory (we own DJH, not DH, where this episode is from, on DVD) other than this episode, I don’t think Arthur’s crush is ever revisted. For the most part I’m delighted with the way Degrassi portrays relationships as muddy, confused things but this one struck a nerve with me. In the same situation – and I speak as a 25 y/o who’s gone through a lot of hassle with a male friend who had a crush on me and interpreted any little thing the wrong way – wouldn’t have kissed him because have witnessed how much people with unrequited feelings can take from it. But I was surprised that my sis, who was 16 at the time, agreed with me.

    Of course, it probably didn’t help that the episode closed with Arthur having a dopey expression on his face and cheesy,m romantic music playing – we were cued to know he had taken a lot of from this kiss than Caitlen’s platonic gratitude.

    My values have changed a fair bit since I first wrote this. Among other things, that particular friend had a lot of unrequited feelings – he said a few times that he expected if my ex and I ever broke up, we’d get together – and I think what destroyed our friendship was when I got together with someone else. In the meantime, I’d put a lot of effort into NOT reminding him that he was attracted to me, like going out of my way to avoid physical contact and dressing very demurely when we went out. I realise now I shouldn’t have bothered – in his heart he must’ve known nothing was going to happen and if he chose to take something more out of a hug or low-cut dress, that was his issue – and I’m now more inclined to sympathise with Caitlen.

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