Spoiler alert: Don’t read this piece if you don’t want to know how Kissing Jessica Stein ends.
Recently, popular entertainment has featured a rash of girl-meets-girl romance: We’ve seen girls in various stages of love and lust on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Friends, and Once and Again. And the new movie Kissing Jessica Stein shows two twentysomething straight girls, Jessica and Helen, who fall into an unexpected relationship. But though Jessica Stein gets a lot of mileage from Jessica and Helen’s awkward courtship, in the end the lesbian romance serves to solve an entirely different problem: How to give Jessica a fresh start with her college boyfriend Josh Meyers. Does the film have more to say about traditional dating than about experimentation?
The Jessica Stein plot is an old one. Girl and boy split, in this case before we’ve even met them; girl goes off and has—or at least contemplates—a romantic adventure with boy’s polar opposite. Finally, chastened by but also better off for her experience, she returns to discover that she and the boy have learned to make things work. Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell wrote a book about this plot’s use in movies from the ‘30s, called Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage.
A comedy of remarriage was defined by a couple (half of which was often Katharine Hepburn) divorcing or separating, and subsequently remarrying after each person has gained some self-knowledge and humility. Cavell saw these movies as heralds of new models of marriage, in which partners would be equal and bound by their (continually reaffirmed) consent, instead of simply by the official sanction of church or society.
Like their predecessors, Josh and Jessica need to be able to meet again, as strangers. Just as Tracy Lord (played by Hepburn) and Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) in The Philadelphia Story “grew up together,” Josh and Jessica are supposed to have dated in college, when Josh was one of Jessica’s older brother’s friends. In one scene, Josh gives Jessica a close version of the lectures Tracy gets from Dexter and her father. Tracy’s father says she has everything it takes to make a lovely woman except “an understanding heart.” Dexter tells her: “You’ll never be a first-class human being or a first-class woman until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty.” Josh says Jessica will never meet anyone until she stops being so harsh: “I don’t think the problem’s with these poor men. … I think the problem’s with you.”
Tracy’s and Jessica’s original relationships with Dexter and Josh were practically arranged marriages; each couple grew up together and were perfectly matched by religion, social class, and parental approval. They met (and in Tracy and Dexter’s case, married) young; the purpose of divorce and remarriage is to make them grow up.
Jessica, like Tracy, has to undergo a kind of rebirth, a re-enactment of her loss of innocence. Tracy gets drunk and dives into a pool with a cute Jimmy Stewart (and has to think, for a good part of the next morning, that she’s slept with him). Jessica meets Helen and has a symbolic return to adolescence. She’s a virgin again, begging Helen to go slow. When she finally gives it up, it’s in her childhood bed at her parents’ house, surrounded by stuffed animals.
Kissing Jessica Stein has the carnivalesque, topsy-turvy quality of remarriage comedies like Bringing Up Baby and It Happened One Night, the lesbian affair fulfilling the same transformational purpose as One Night’sjourney and Baby’sromp in the forest. But even though the plot of Kissing Jessica Stein fits the blueprint laid down in these older films, its purpose is slightly different. The ‘30s comedies of remarriage tried to solve the problem of how men and women could be equals in marriage—equals not only publicly but also privately.
Jessica Stein is concerned about a very different kind of inequality, which seems to be the disproportionate stigma it sees attached to single women. Jessica is Hollywood’s stereotypical singleton, driven to the edge, and almost over it, by her horrible dates and her mother’s constant nagging. The girl-meets-girl plot solves the problem conveniently: Instead of Jessica learning to be happy on her own, she simply doubles her roster of potential partners and thus her chances at happy coupledom. When she finally chooses Josh, it’s on her own terms and on a much wider romantic playing field. If the remarriage movies of the ‘30s were about men and women marrying by consent instead of by convention, you could say almost the exact same thing about Kissing Jessica Stein. With a difference: The remarriage movies were about new partnerships, and Kissing Jessica Stein is really about the single girl. Though it goes through the same plot transformations, it still somehow ends where these older movies began.