The Damaging Effects of Misrepresentation of Adoption in the Media

Representations of adoption falsely shape mainstream attitudes.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Natalie Soler

From Superman to Annie, adoption is a part of the media we love. For many writers, adoption adds a level of complexity to their stories that appeals to audiences while still keeping a family-friendly tone. However, despite the large selection of stories involving adoption, only a few positively portray adoptees and their families.

Movies and TV shows like Stuart Little, The Owl House, Elf, and even the IMDb description of I Am the Night (about “a teenage girl looking for her real father”) use the term “real” to describe biological families. When characters interchangeably use “real” and “biological,” it suggests that the inverse is also true—that “fake” and “adoptive” are the same. While this seems harmless, it proves that screenwriters are happy to exploit adoption stories. Even a minimal amount of research would find that the adoption community prefers the term “biological family” over “real family.”

Other shows, like Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego and Green Eggs and Ham, romanticize the issue of abandonment. In these shows, birth parents were forced to relinquish their children because they were involved in flashy crime organizations or were high-profile spies, respectively. These are irresponsible plotlines that may prompt adopted children to fantasize about another family out there that leads a glamorous life and is willing and able to care for them. Sadly, this is almost never the case. It sends the message that an adoptive family is like a placeholder for the “real” one that an adopted child should search for.

In a more sinister manner, Orphan and its sequel Orphan: First Kill are horror movies about families who adopt a child only to learn that this “child” is a homicidal grown woman. These films encourage parents to seemingly shield their biological children against the foreign threat, demonizing adopted children in favor of biological children. They suggest that adoption is dangerous and reinforce the idea that an adopted child is an outsider who does not belong.

Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy is another example that exemplifies the misunderstanding of the familial bonds adoption creates. The show depicts seven children whom an eccentric billionaire “bought” because of their extraordinary superhuman abilities. Not only does the show promote the idea that adopted children are commodities, but the series also goes on to explore a romantic relationship between two of the adoptive siblings, which has rightfully elicited backlash.

However, some viewers justify these misrepresentations as attempts to create interesting media. As one article put it, The Umbrella Academy should be allowed to misrepresent adoption because “the point” is to “creat[e] compelling art.” This author believes that since the incestuous relationship “presents a challenging dilemma for the characters,” it is okay to make people uncomfortable. This show and many others like it, decides to delegitimize the bonds formed in adoption in favor of a more dramatic plotline.

If you’re getting tired of this list, imagine how tired adopted families feel. My family adopted my sister almost eight years ago. Unfortunately, representations of adoptive families in mainstream media are often inaccurate. We try to protect my sister from watching media that misrepresents adoption, but it is hard. We are tired of digging through articles and spoiling plot lines to avoid showing my baby sister a degrading movie or show, which is all too common in much of the media currently produced for children.

Importantly, negative messages about adoption aren’t confined to the screen. For many of the harmful depictions of adoption in the media, my family has personal experiences that reflect the messages they promote. My sister was once on a Zoom playdate with a girl from her school when, out of nowhere, the girl began interrogating her about where her “real family” was. My mother calmly informed the little girl that we were my sister’s “real” family, but when she informed the child’s parents of the incident, they saw no issue with their child’s insensitive question. As a society, we have become accustomed to exploiting adoption with no regard to the pain it may cause.

A friend of mine once declared with confidence that my family had “bought a baby.” Too shocked to explain why this was false, I simply responded that she was wrong. The incident was perhaps more disturbing than if she had said it out of malice. It proves the power of the media to distort how well-meaning people talk about adoption.

My family is tired of justifying our legitimacy—we deserve just as much respect as biological families. The solution is all too simple: research. If writers simply learn the correct terminology to use and consider the message their stories of adoption promote, our media would be kinder and, in turn, children would stop growing up believing that adoption is “sad” or that adopted families aren’t “real.”

Websites like RainbowKids go to great lengths to explore the complexities of responding to questions about adoption. One great response to being asked if two siblings are “real” siblings is to say “They are NOW! (This clarifies that adoption makes us a real family.)” Articles from Adoption can give you other perspectives and opinions on adoption. HealthyChildren explains other facets of adoption and foster care that my article didn’t have the space to discuss. AdoptHelp has a comprehensive list of some terms to avoid when talking about adoption. By teaching oneself, anyone can help to create kindness and understanding. Simply using the right terminology can be the difference between alienating someone and accepting them. And for those already part of the adoption community, consider reading the articles for reaffirmation—there are people out there who recognize and accept you and your family.

Everyone has a role to play in creating a society that is more accepting of different families. I talked solely about adoption, and only from my perspective as the sister of an adoptee, but there are so many other stories to tell about non-traditional families. We must be thoughtful in our portrayals of different families and give them the basic respect they are due.