Monday, March 7, 2011

Adoption and TV - the geek edition

A few days ago the newest Open Adoption Roundtable came out and I didn't think I'd have much to contribute. This time the prompt is about television: How have you seen open adoption portrayed on television? What did you think? What, if anything, would you like to see?

Heather came up with it after noticing some interesting trends on twitter after MTV's reality shows that deal with adoption would air. I don't watch reality t.v. and at first I couldn't think of anything really adoption related on the shows I do watch, at least not recently.

Then this past Saturday night (as a result of spending the day at Emerald City Comicon, which will get a post of its own)I decided to watch a couple episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation before going to bed. It's been a while since I've spent time in the Star Trek Universe, and even longer since I watched TNG. And I just happened, somehow, to pick two epsiodes with adoptive themes. I was thinking about these when I realized just how much sci-fi loves to work with adoptive, ugly duckling type tropes. Of course, these adoptions are usually inter-special - human child adopted by non-human "alien" species or vice versa. Star Trek: TNG and Deep Space Nine especially use alien species to make allegorical commentary on inter-racial and inter-national issues.

The first TNG episode I watched was from season 4, called Family. It's an episode that is entirely centered on members of the crew reconnecting with their families after a particularly traumatic shared experience (the Borg, for any out there who are geeky enough to care.) The captain returns to his home in France to see his family for the first time in 20 years. The doctor gets some things out of storage on Earth and finds a message from her dead husband for her teenage son. And Worf, a non-human who was adopted and raised by a human couple, has an unexpected visit from his adoptive parents who wish to offer him comfort - something that is anathema to klingons. As they tour the ship with Worf and have side conversations with other crew members outside of his hearing it becomes evident that they do everything in their power to adapt to and support Worf's klingon identity. When he was a teenager and refused human food his adoptive mother learned how to make klingon blood pie. But, in a poignant moment, his adoptive mother acknowledges that much of Worf's search for identity had to be done without them - they're not klingon after all. All they could do was support his search and trust him to have integrity in it. It is obvious that it has been a difficult and lonely road for both Worf and his adoptive parents.

The second episode was the reverse - a patriarchal alien species had claimed an infant human as a spoil of war and he had been raised by one of their captains as his own son. Initially the crew of the Enterprise plans to send him back to the remnents of his biological family, until it becomes obvious that the boy would rather die than give up his identity. He is returned to his adoptive family, seemingly without any provisions made for him to reconnect with his first family later on.

Of course, in both of these fictional and fantastical cases -as in most adoption themed Star Trek episodes - the biological parents are dead. So they are not really an issue. I started to think about it more, and I realized that killing off the first parents is actually a very common way for scripted television to work with adoption, even more updated and less geek-centric shows. House, for example, one of my favorite medical dramas, flirted with an open adoption for Cuddy, a primary female character, but ended that storyline with the expectant mother delivering and deciding to keep her baby. When Cuddy does adopt, a few episodes later, it is a child whose mother dies, without other family to claim her.

Medical dramas are the worst offenders in adoption-land, in my opinion. (and I watch more of them than I probably should.) Private Practice is a show that loves to put its fictional children characters into dangerous situations, and has had several adoption storylines as patients file through Oceanside Wellness. But, of course, we don't see how these stories end, just how they begin - whether they place and so forth. They have had some decent portrayals of first moms and some downright despicable ones - the most recent being a mother who tried to sell her baby in the hospital shortly after giving birth. And when one of the main character's teenage daughter gets pregnant adoption isn't even considered. Which is fine, but very different than how the doctors seem to treat all the other pregnant teenage patients they encounter.

Shortly after J was born I became intensely dissatisfied with the way babies were treated on television. Why, I realized, that isn't what babies are like at all! I thought about it some more and came up with a theory as to why babies were portrayed so falsely - as such caricatures of what these small humans are really like. It's because babies can't act - there is no one to give a nuanced and wonderful performance of babyhood because the only people who could possibly be cast as babies are busy being babies and they have to be tricked into doing predictable things in front of a camera.

I wonder something similar about open adoption. No one who isn't in it can possibly understand what is is about. It's only when it goes wrong that it becomes sensational. Perhaps this is why its media presence is, at the moment, strongest in news stories and reality television shows. It is much easier to write scripts that deal with the timeless issues around identity and belonging without this new and hard to conceptualize wrinkle of an ongoing relationship between first and adoptive families to work with.

I'd love to see more complex portrayals of open adoption on television. I'd love to see it happen in scripted shows, where questions can be asked and explored without exposing any real person's life to voyeurs.

Anyone out there seen some good scripted treatments of open adoption?


  1. Not really now that you mention it. But I guess most relationships, dating, marriage, friendship are fraught with drama on most shows too- so its not surprising as you said that they focused on all the negative and not the normal way it tends to be since it won't make "good TV"

  2. I feel underqualified to comment on this but if I think about portrayals of adoption I think of 'Friends' and Monica and Chandler spending time with the birth mother of their twins. Since considering it for our family I am building an understanding of adoption from the internet and those around me, tv and films haven't given me anything that I'm aware of that is at all helpful.