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Opinion: ‘Best Kiss’ in ‘Moonlight’ Defies the Heterosexual Gaze

"Moonlight" actors Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome made history Sunday night when they became the first to win Best Kiss at the MTV Movie & TV Awards for portraying a kiss between two black men.

"This represents more than a kiss," Sanders said in his acceptance speech. "This is for those who feel like the others, the misfits. This represents us."

2017 MTV Movie And TV Awards - Roaming Show
Actors Ashton Sanders (L) and Jharrel Jerome, winners of Best Kiss for "Moonlight," accept the award during the 2017 MTV Movie & TV Awards on May 7, 2017 in Los Angeles. Frazer Harrison/MTV1617 / Getty Images

It was a highlight from a night that did not eschew politics. Other major moments included a standing ovation for outspoken Trump critic Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democratic of California, and a speech from Emma Watson in praise of the show's decision to eliminate gender-specific acting categories.

But while "Moonlight's" win might have underscored the progressive motif of the night, it also represented a break from the MTV Movie & TV Award's own complicated past with representations of same-sex attraction, particularly in the category of Best Kiss.

With its genderless awards and its replacement of the Best Fight category with Best Fight Against the System, this year's ceremony could be seen as a full embrace of corporate "wokeness," a debated trend perhaps best embodied by Katy Perry, who has dubbed her recent artistic efforts "purposeful pop."

The overarching critique of this trend holds that brands are profiting off of countercultural resistance in an era of civil unrest. Uproar over Kendall Jenner's disastrous Pepsi commercial, which has since been pulled, immediately comes to mind. But, on the other hand, the MTV Movie & TV Awards has in the past tread where its more prestigious contemporaries dared not go.

For example, though it was famously snubbed at the Oscars, "Brokeback Mountain" took home Best Kiss at the 2006 MTV Movie & TV Awards, with Jake Gyllenhaal accepting the award for his and Heath Ledger's performance.

2006 MTV Movie Awards - MTV.com Show
Jake Gyllenhaal, winner of Best Kiss for "Brokeback Mountain," at the 2006 MTV Movie Awards John Shearer / WireImage

But the "Brokeback Mountain" win is perhaps the closest the awards show has ever come to a moment like "Moonlight's" on Sunday. The rest of the Best Kiss winners that featured two characters of the same sex have generally fallen into the binary of hypersexualization or gay panic.

"American Pie 2" stars Jason Biggs and Seann William Scott became the first to win the award for a same-sex kiss featuring two men in 2002. In the context of the movie, their characters were disgusted to be locking lips, and were only doing so in the hopes of courting the women who challenged them to do it.

Comedy continued to be the main purveyor of same-sex Best Kiss winners, with examples in Paul Rudd and Thomas Lennon's win for "I Love You, Man" and Sacha Baron Cohen and Will Ferrell's in "Talladega Nights." The laughs, arguably, came at the expense of the LGBT community, with the punch line being just how silly it is for men to kiss each other.

2000 MTV MOVIE AWARDS
Selma Blair kisses Sarah Michelle Gellar at the 2000 MTV Movie Awards at Sony Pictures Studio in Culver City, CA Frank Micelotta / Getty Images

Whether the genre was comedy or not, the connecting thread seems to be a pandering to the heterosexual gaze. Moments of sincere intimacy from LGBT characters lost out to representations of same-sex attraction that were tailored for heterosexual audiences. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair winning the award in 2000 for their performances in "Cruel Intentions" over Hilary Swank and Chloƫ Sevigny's intimate kiss in "Boys Don't Cry" is a prominent example.

That is what ultimately sets "Moonlight" apart from its predecessors: the space to define itself free of the heterosexual gaze. The film sees itself through eyes all its own, and depicts same-sex intimacy without genuflecting to the stigmas that have set the parameters for representations of queerness in the past. If there is something funny or unsettling about it, the onus is on the voyeur, not the film.

Corporate "wokeness" aside, the category of Best Kiss at the MTV Movie & TV Awards has long provided a reflection of the prevailing attitudes on LGBT people in media and, by proxy, in dominant culture.

With two actors who seemed happy and honored to receive the award, and with speeches that celebrated diversity, "Moonlight" stood apart from its predecessors in the category, and gave the night something it seemed eager to get: a moment of authentic progress.

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