“I wish I had pictures of you when you were a baby,” my adoptive mother said to me as she showed me pictures of three of my sisters, her biological children. I was probably 16 at the time and had lived with my new family for about a year. She placed her hand on my leg and squeezed my chubby thigh, the thigh that was so unlike her own daughters’ and somehow so like hers.
I held back a sob and swallowed hard. For all the pain being adopted had brought me, it also brought me love and gentleness and, finally, a mother who really cared.
My adoptive parents weren’t perfect, still aren’t, but my adoptive mother in particular taught me how to love and be loved. I disagree with my adoptive parents when it comes to just about everything, but I know that their intervention in my life fundamentally changed me. And that’s not even starting to broach the subject of my adoptive sisters who supported me and held my hand and never made me feel like less than 100% their sister. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say they saved me.
Being adopted is a part of me, and it doesn’t go away when I consume media. I cringe when I see bad representations of adoption, thinking not just of myself, but of all 1.5 million adopted children living in the U.S. How we represent adoption in genre, and in general, impacts these children and the adults they grow up to be.
There are so many problematic portrayals of adoption, but I’m going to focus on a few of my least favorite examples that fall into three tropes: the tragedy, the twist, and incest.
Much of what you see out there will adhere to the tragedy adoption trope. Basically, someone puts their child up for adoption or, more likely, dies horribly, and then their kid or kids live through abuse at the hands of adoptive parents or a cruel foster care system. Sound familiar? Of course it does! Harry Potter lived in a closet underneath the stairs because his uncle and aunt hated and abused him. The prevalence of this trope reveals our voyeuristic fascination with the suffering of others.
A recent example in genre of this portrayal is Chic Cooper, older brother of Betty Cooper, in Riverdale. Starting at the end of Season 1, we learned that Chic was put up for adoption by his teenage mother, Alice, when he was an infant, but no one ever adopted him. He went into a private care facility and then became a sex worker and, I don’t know, some kind of evil? He has regularly appeared on screen smiling inappropriately when something dark happens or manipulating Betty into pursuing her base desires. Meanwhile, Alice has lived in anguish as she tries to reconcile with the child she gave up and hold her splintering family together. Alice's guilt and pain just really dig the knife in.
This is all before the big reveal in Season 2, Episode 19, "Chapter Thirty-Two: Prisoners." (Tip: If you're not caught up on Riverdale, you might want to skip the rest of this section.)
It turns out Chic, or who the audience believes to be Chic, isn't really Alice's kid. In reality, he's Alice's kid's former boyfriend and murderer who assumed his dead boyfriend's identity when Betty came a-callin'.
There are so many things wrong with this representation. First and foremost, really? REALLY? This is your best adoption story, Riverdale? A creep-out, psych-out, last-minute switch-out? “It’s not really about adoption,” you might protest. But isn’t it? Doesn’t Alice’s unseen dead son count? Wasn’t he still put up for adoption and never adopted? Doesn’t the narrative imply that he struggled through a short, brutal life because of it? Doesn't Alice still struggle with her decision and blame herself for everything bad that happened to her son? And, even if none of that was true, this is the only mention of adoption in the show (besides when folks tried to pressure Betty's sister, Polly, into giving the twins up for adoption), so no matter what this is Riverdale’s adoption story.
For the bulk of this season, we have been on a journey with Betty as she grows closer to and then fears Chic, who, it is implied, is an evil sex worker because he was put up for adoption. There’s so much maligning of vulnerable groups going on that it’s a bit staggering. Lots of people go into sex work and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the implication that people who are put up for adoption and are sex workers are more prone to evilness is, frankly, just a mess. That’s not even broaching the use of the Bury Your Gays trope, in both the brutal offscreen murder of the missing son and the implied ending to Chic’s time in Riverdale. Furthermore, this is one of a handful of gay male romances we have seen, all of which have ended tragically.
While I find a lot of Chic’s portrayal not just problematic but offensive, what really bothers me is that all this hand-wringing and worrying over Chic—“Is he evil?” “Is he even really my brother?”—ends in absolutely nothing of consequence. Alice’s heart is battered, Betty turns Chic over to the Black Hood, and Chic disappears, having erased any possibility of Alice’s son reconciling with his family. (Of course, if the show comes back and resurrects the unseen son, as we know Riverdale loves to do, it won’t erase the issues with this portrayal.)
Even after this huge reveal and Chic’s departure, viewers are still left with the implication that being put up for adoption makes you into some kind of evil manipulative monster. If you don’t watch Riverdale, think of Gamora and Nebula, the adopted children of Thanos. Theirs is a tragic tale of exploitation and abuse at the hands of the person who should have loved them. I get that Thanos is an intergalactic warlord, but maybe don’t adopt/steal kids to make them your tools?
The twist trope goes something like this: a character basically walks around saying, “Hey, I’m your biological kid and that’s great.” Then their adoptive parent (metaphorically) replies, “Oh wait, JK. You were adopted and are some kind of evil force that will destroy me.”
Let’s look at the MCU's Loki, Odin’s son and brother of Thor. He was a troublesome child, always playing tricks and being generally bad. When he makes a deal with the Frost Giants we find out—surprise!—Loki’s actually a Frost Giant that Odin stole and adopted, so betraying Asgard was just in his genes. Look at him turn blue! Isn’t it grand?
No. It sucks. Many of us who are adopted don’t look like our families. Domestic children of color are adopted by white parents 73% of the time. Additionally, think of all the children adopted internationally who are not white but are adopted by white parents. While both my adoptive family and I are white, I was redheaded and had a fat ass, so I stuck out like a sore thumb around those raven-haired athletes. There was a constant disbelief that these were my sisters, that this was my home. (And that’s nothing compared to the experiences of children of color adopted into white families.)
What’s perhaps even more frustrating for me is the ongoing portrayal of Loki, especially in the MCU films. He betrays his brother over and over again. Sure, he’s redeemed at the end of Thor: Ragnarok and the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, but seriously, aren’t there more interesting ways to portray the fraught relationship between two brothers? Can they really only unite to kill their own sister or attempt to stop an intergalactic warlord?
The Creepy Incest Thing
This one seems self-explanatory. We’re talking siblings getting it on with, or being attracted to, siblings.
Let’s look at the Star Wars franchise. Luke and Leia are twins who were adopted by parents on different planets. Each has had the existence of their sibling kept secret from them. So, when they meet, they’re all into each other, but Leia is also into Han and it’s just a steamy love triangle. Leia kisses Luke to make Han jealous, the film implies. But, later, when it is revealed that they are twins in Return of the Jedi, Leia says, “I know. Somehow, I’ve always known.” Okay, so why the hell did you make out with your twin? That’s weird. (This revelation probably only exists because Lucas was desperate to close up some loose ends. Regardless, it’s part of the canon now.)
This incest trope repeats in the most recent season of Game of Thrones. (But don’t even get me started on the problematic representations of alternative families with the bastards of bastardville that is Game of Thrones.)
When I came out, one of my greatest fears was that one of my adoptive sisters would accuse me of being attracted to her. After years of having shared a bed with my younger sister, I suddenly feared being near her. The what ifs nearly suffocated me. Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to sleep with my adoptive sisters because they are my sisters. Family is not solely about the blood that runs through my veins—it’s also about the people who kept me alive and cared for me when I needed them. My adoptive sisters, just like my biological sister, live in a part of my brain and my heart that is reserved for talking smack about exes and pumping up each other and getting to have adorable nieces and nephews. There’s no way I’d ever want to bone a sibling. Ew, ew, ew.
So, what’s so bad about these representations of adoption? First off, they’re stereotypical and one-dimensional. They lack all the color and texture that comes with being adopted. They lack the passion—both the anger and the love. They lack the complexity of what it means to be from two families, of what it means to know someone once gave you up or had you taken from them.
Maybe not all of these are actively harmful, but they certainly do a disservice to adoptees and their families. We deserve to see healthy, complex representations of adoption that include the good, the bad and everything in between.
Luckily, there are some good representations out there in genre. Both A Wrinkle in Time and Supergirl have powerful portrayals of the complicated relationships between adoptees and their non-adopted siblings. Star Trek: Discovery broaches the world of transracial and trans-special adoption, all while Michael Burnum and her Vulcan father, Sarek, hurt and love and rejoice in one another.
I’m not saying we can only have positive representations of adoption and adoptive families. The reality of abuse and neglect and fear and hatred is all too real, as the example of Devonte Hart and his abusive and racist white adoptive mothers proves. There are kids who suffer in obscurity within the foster care system and are never adopted. And, yeah, those kids are probably pretty pissed off. They have every right to be. Not only has their family of origin failed them, but so has our society.
Studies have shown, though, that most adopted children’s families provide them with care and support that is vital to their development. I know mine did. And, as imperfect as my families are, I wouldn’t have it any other way.