Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Television's Love Affair with Adoptamania

Oh, this evening’s full moon is not my friend, dear reader. I haven’t exactly been slammed by adoption, my often-cited favorite quote from The Girls Who Went Away, but adoptamania, as Lorraine calls the phenomenon, has been kicking me in the derriere over the past few days.

I stumbled across this seemingly innocuous celebrity story about Kelly Clarkson, the first American Idol winner, online this afternoon:

(March 10) - Kelly Clarkson's plate is too chocked full of hit singles and concert dates to be thinking about actual dates or marriage right now, and the 'My Life Would Suck Without You' singer says in a new interview that being a rock star "is too selfish" of an enterprise for her to be a good mom.

“Oh, my God, I have no desire. I would not be a good mother," Clarkson, 26, tells USA Today about having kids. "I used to want to, like, adopt 10 kids -- because I had friends who were adopted, and I thought that was the coolest thing, to be chosen. But again, my job is too selfish." (Bold emphasis mine).

There’s a bit more to the piece, but I stopped reading after the bolded sentence. Early in my reunion, my daughter told me about a male colleague, also an adoptee. He overheard her telling another colleague about finding me and he peered over the cubicle wall and said, “So you’re a chosen one too?” That phrase--"chosen one"--stayed with me. And after reading this gossip item I thought, “Hmm, I don't think the adoptees we know feel that being chosen is the coolest thing...” But then, I’m not adoptee, so readers, please weigh in. Is being chosen the coolest thing?

Last Thursday I made one of my favorite dinners--beef paprika served with basmati rice--and looked forward to Holy Night, which is what I call Thursday night TV, the only night of the week that I’ll watch for three hours straight. Once again, I couldn’t get away from all things adoption. Regular readers may remember last fall’s blog about how it seemed television writers couldn’t come up with anything new so they were sticking to the tried and true birth mother/adoptee plot lines all across the dial (I’m dating myself, what’s the nickname for digital television?). I take great pride in being on the cutting edge of hipness, except when it comes to adoption. I can’t get away from it--it’s in my head, it’s in my e-mail, at times it makes me feel as though my heart was cryogenically frozen and splintered into thousands of shards. Consequently I don’t want adoption in my living room!

The first show, Ugly Betty, is about a bright ugly duckling with a heart of gold who works, where else, at a fashion magazine, Mode. There’s a subplot involving her self-absorbed coworker Amanda, who has only recently learned that she’s an adoptee and her mother was the late editor-in-chief of Mode. Last season we followed her slapstick search for her birth father, now she’s not speaking to her adoptive parents because they lied to her all her life. She’s chatting with the surrogate mother of the magazine’s evil female editor’s baby boy; (the surrogate mother gave birth to a Petri dish baby created with his dead father’s sperm procured while dead dad was on the slab in the morgue, still with me?) and the surrogate mother is of course attached to the baby she carried for nine months but says something to Amanda along the lines of, “Well, you’re adopted. You should know. The baby has two “real” mothers, the one who gave birth to him, and the one who’s raising him, kissing the boo boos, making sure he’s well cared for.”

Well, that was a lovely sentiment, but it’s not a sentiment shared by the other two sides of my particular adoption triangle. By the end of the show, Amanda phones her adoptive parents out of the blue after a year’s absence. Nice, tidy, ending, no one wants reality to be messy.

Then, on my favorite/won’t miss show, CSI, a 16-year-old girl (played by country star Taylor Swift) is found dead. This was adoption noir. The girl, an adoptee, never knew her adoptive parents had a biological child who died in infancy (right there, that's some secret to keep); the baby was murdered by a negligent, drug addict babysitter who left the girl to drown in the bathtub. The babysitter was sent to prison for the murder, bore a daughter, in prison, and asked this couple to raise her daughter as their own, sort of a life for a life. And they do.

Of course this child is a bad seed, just like her junkie birth mother, or is perceived as such by the adoptive mother, who just can’t bear the sight of the girl because every time she looks at her she’s reminded of the woman who killed her child. She didn’t want this kid to begin with, but she endured. When the birth mother was released from prison she went to Vegas just to steal a glance of her daughter from afar. The adoptive mother kills the woman who killed her daughter, and then the adoptive mother, in an argument with her adopted daughter over a hairstyle (identical to the birth mother she never knew), accidentally thrusts a pair of scissors into her torso, killing her. A real Shakespearean tragedy.

And it continues. I know House has a story line of the single female doctor in the midst of adopting an infant who was born to a teenage patient of hers…how convenient for the doctor! And Lorraine has been following Brothers and Sisters and gave me this report after Sunday’s show:

"Brothers and Sisters was worth seeing just for how ludicrous they made the birth mother. Throughout the show there were many references made to "our" birth mother having "our" baby--the guy who is running for governor (Rob Lowe) even says that at a press conference...so I gotta go. During labor someone says: "Our birth mother is in labor," and "Your baby is on its way." You get the drift. It was so detached from reality that I could not get more than repulsed but not emotionally invested. The mother is not shown ever holding the baby, wanting to hold the baby, shedding a single tear or otherwise having any emotion that would make her real. In fact, a day after giving birth this wonder woman is up and dressed and leaving under her own steam, nary a tear, nary a regret, nary a desire to see the baby. It was as if she were an automom, which is what I suspect a lot of adopters long for.
When Kitty (played by Calista Flockhart, an adopter in real life) asks if the mother would like to be more involved than the pictures once a month they had agreed on, she says, No, I think that will be fine. The sense was that the deal to hand over the kid was signed, sealed and delivered before the woman actually gave birth. Then of course the baby goes home with Kitty, and all is well. Either serial adopters conceived, wrote and acted the script, or this is the picture they have of NATURAL mothers. The show portrays a woman/mother who may have gone through the deprogramming that Elizabeth Bartholet espouses (see earlier post). But then...this mother was hardly poor: she was--get this--a doctor. An African-American doctor. I doubt it is even worth letting the show or ABC knows that their premise is un!@#$in" real, but what I hate is that maybe this is what is forming public opinion about first mothers today."
I wrote letters to NBC during the Chandler-and Monica-adopt-a-baby years of Friends; my pleas went unacknowledged. The only time I can recall television listening to its viewers who raised quite a brouhaha was for the once-and-it-was-gone Who’s Your Daddy on ABC, where a woman had to guess who among several men was her birth father. It was downright creepy on several levels; there was even a rose ceremony a la The Bachelor.

Most television programming is designed to entertain, not necessarily inform (though it happens occasionally), and can’t possibly capture the emotional impact of adoption on the birth parent[s] and child. But still--could we have at least a nod to reality? Probably not, not when the world is so enamored of adoption. So I’ll just brace myself for the next very special adoption episode that will show up where I least expect it…Dancing with the Stars perhaps?

Coming up Friday: Coraline, the movie, and Perfection, the play.

11 comments :

  1. No, being chosen is not the coolest thing! My a-parents never used that term. Instead, they made me feel like a leper. I was told to "never talk about it" and when I did, and it got back to my Mom, she had some cruel words to say. "Other people don't let their skeletons out of their closet!" I was just a kid of about 7 and had not even heard that phrase before, so I pictured in my mind a hanging Halloween plastic skeleton. (no kidding!) I was shocked at my Mom's tone of voice, mean.

    There was another time I was talking with a friend who was also adopted. She said that she had several foster homes and finally an adoptive home. She said she had a name for a few years and then had to change her name. She didn't like that.

    No, adoption was never talked about. The three times it was, my mother said the word so meanly. I didn't understand why I was so nasty, to be adopted.

    Years later, at age 18, when I was found by a sister I never knew, and I found out I was the youngest of five children, my heart sank. I was an orphan, a half orphan, not illegitimate. There was no shame. I still couldn't understand why the negativity surrounding my adoption.

    After 35 years, I think it's because society in the 50s said there should be stigma, so there was. I didn't feel happy at all.

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  2. It is time to turn off your TV and read a good book, or if you can't do that, switch to watching nature programs and Dirty Jobs. It works for me!

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  3. Linda,

    I watched "Brothers and Sisters"
    starring adopter Calista. Looks like she might be eating she isn't so rail thin as she was when she had a show. Of course, that fact could alone could have kept her from getting pregnant. Its easier for these adopter types to adopt and the women DON'T lose their figures, therefore, not losing any money.

    I don't watch Ugly Betty as it looks ridiculous to me.I did protest the Who's YOUR Daddy too. I even drove over an hour to protest Barbara Walters, give away with adopters hopefully wanting the mother to choose them. ABC is one of the most pro adoption networks.

    Way to many shows on adoption on the television. With the stereo types intact mothers who give birth, walk away, without any feeling, without a care, all LIES, as mother's DON'T forget their babies EVER!

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  4. Hey everyone,

    Watch "30 Rock." In last Thursday's episode, Lemon, the Tina Fey character, meets a pregnant teen working in a doughnut shop. Lemon learns the girl's boy friend deserted her and she is thinking about placing her baby for adoption. Lemon gives her a job on Lemon's TV show, planning to talk the mom-to-be into letting Lemon adopt the baby. The baby's father comes to the studio looking for his girl friend and Lemon starts to send him away, telling him falsely that his girl friend doesn't want him.

    Then Lemon has a change of heart. She kicks the boy in the butt (figuratively) tells him his girl friend needs him and he'd better take of his baby who probably has the same dumb face he has. In the last scene the pregnant teen and father to be happily embrace.

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  5. And I imagine by now everyone's heard that Bristol Palin and her fiance are no more, which has been a media circus of a different sort. I have such mixed emotions...she was me/us long ago, except she kept her child, and now she'll be a single mom, at least for the forseeable future. The media reports say she's devastated, of course she is! Sad for everyone involved really. There are no right or wrong answers, it's just one of those things that is.

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  6. I have shows I'm addicted to and watch them even when they piss me off. Like Desperate Housewives, where Bree faked a pregnancy so she could pretend her daughter's baby was hers.

    Yes, we could read instead. But this stuff is going on and we need to know about it and register our protests with the networks and producers. Even if they don't answer us. Maybe it will get them thinking. One can dream...

    As for chosen, I know hundreds of adoptees, online and in person, and not a single one thinks that's the coolest thing.

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  7. I don't understand why anyone would watch fictional TV shows that piss them off, nor waste their time writing to the producers or whomever to protest. Fiction does not have to reflect anyone's reality. TV shows are supposed to entertain, not instruct, unless they are documentaries. Reality TV is no more real than fictional stories; it is manipulated and scripted.

    TV can be fun, but when it isn't fun. just turn it off. There is enough real sorrow and injustice in the world to get upset over; don't waste all that emotion on a TV show.

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  8. Maraire, you're missing the point.

    Unrealistic adoption plot lines continue to be a problem in televsion programming. If we don't speak up then writers and producers won't know how insensitive such programming is to a large group of television viewers.

    Yes, I have turned the TV off. Yes, I read books--over 200 books over the past four years. I don't watch much television to begin with outside of the evening news, but yes, I like to be entertained from time to time and should be able to watch my few favorites without needing a "Warning! This program has adoption content!" disclaimer.

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  9. Unrealistic plot lines of every sort abound in TV land. Why should adoption be different? Real cop's lives are not much like TV cop shows, nor are the lives of real lawyers or real housewives.

    No, we can't be protected by themes in fiction that upset us.
    We are all grown-ups here, right?

    I can't stand to see animals treated cruelly so I turn off anything with that subject. I too hate adoption shows in general so do not watch them. The off button is my friend.

    To help real live animals I give to animal charities. To help real people in the world of adoption I am a member of various adoption reform groups, and I support things like Sheila Ganz' documentary to get our point of view about adoption out there.

    I will write letters to editors and to legislators about legislation, but I find the idea of trying to pressure creative artists, even at the low level of TV sitcom creativity, distasteful and a waste of time.

    I'm not shedding a tear about Bristol Palin's breakup either. Soon it will be a country-western song! She sure wasn't "me long ago."

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  10. I was trying to think if I have seen any good adoption shows and came up with one...on Futurama! The other thing I watch besides nature shows is cartoons and comedy channel stuff. There have been some good adoption snippets on the Simpsons too. And although I usually don't like the show Family Guy, the "Prom Night Dumpster Baby" musical number is a classic.

    The Futurama episode was about Leela who is a cyclops girl. She was left as a baby in a basket at the Orphanarium.(There is another funny episode where Bender the robot adopts a slew of orphans from the Orphanarium in order to get the government subsidy. He is not the model adoptive parent)

    Leela had always assumed her parents were space aliens (the show is set in the far future). But she grew up and searched and found out that her parents were mutants who lived in the sewers (there is a whole world down there, due to pollution.)

    The really sweet part was that they showed the parents over the years leaving gifts for her that she did not know where they came from, tucking her in when she was asleep, just generally watching over from below!

    At first her parents did not want to admit they were the ones, as they were ashamed of being mutants, but it all ended happily for Leela and Mom and Dad. It was a really touching show.

    Also good are those old cartoons where the stork leaves a baby with the wrong species! It never quite works out:-)

    Watch some cartoons. It will cheer you up!

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  11. Shows such as these lend an air of credence to the thought that being "chosen" is cool, without cost or consequence.

    I wonder how often these shows cause an uptick in adoption rates?
    And then years later, how the lives of those involved have unfolded sans the television script?

    Coloring reality for escapism is one thing but altering perceptions based upon assumptions and writers finesse is disingenuous at best and harmful at worst.

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