Do you remember those after-school specials from middle school—the ones that had a great message but would make you cringe from the cheesiness or unrealistic nature of the program? It could be a bad actor or the cringy music, but the overall aura of these programs caused many facepalms. When you have been in the adoption world or gone through an adoption journey, like any other niche life experience, you may begin to notice and relate to the journeys portrayed on the big screen. Much to the adoption world’s dismay, Hollywood has historically done a horrible job at authenticity and keeping a grip on the realities of adoption. Let us roll in the big tv, sit back, and cringe at the horribly inaccurate adoption storylines commonly told on the big screen.
Our first and possibly the most common offender is the “baby left at the hospital” adoption storyline. It usually involves a man and woman standing at the window of the hospital nurseries admiring all the newborns when some nurse/janitor/firefighter comes over and mentions that one of the babies was surrendered. The man and woman look at each other with wide eyes then back at the baby. Cut to the next scene where they have brought the newborn home. Just. Like. That. As if they went up to the nurses station and said, “We would like that one please.”
This fantastical adoption storyline never ceases to make my blood boil. That is not at all how adoption or foster care works. If a child was abandoned at a hospital, there are policies in place to protect the child and make every attempt to connect them with family first before safely and ethically placing the child through local adoption or foster services. If family cannot be found, a child will go into the custody of child services to be placed with a licensed foster family. There will likely still be time taken to find a safe family to place the child with depending on the circumstances of the placement. You may see real life stories of first responders adopting a child, however they have all gone through a licensing process in order to bring the child home. In no reality is someone going to the hospital, picking out a baby, and bringing them home. It may make for good tv, but truly frightening if it actually happened.
The second storyline that makes me want to throw my tv is the “birth certificate in the basement” storyline. While this storyline is not entirely unrealistic, it is simply not as common as Hollywood would like you to believe. Adoption has come a long way and education provided during the adoption process has taught many that adoption is not a dirty secret. It is a part of a child’s story and every child has a right to their story. This storyline is simply overdone and stereotypes adoptive parents. The more common and encouraged goal is to celebrate adoption, not hide it. If you need help talking to your child about adoption, you can find incredibly valuable information here.
This third adoption storyline in popular media makes me want to throw out my tv altogether. Movies and television are notorious for painting a stereotype of birth parents and birth families that feeds into a dangerous myth. There is a common myth that birth parents are somehow “bad” in some way and simply didn’t want or deserve their child. However, this is often far from the truth. There are so many reasons children are placed for adoption or end up in the foster care system. Open adoption is becoming more popular as this myth is dispelled and adoptive families see the value of not severing that biological family connection. There are cases of addiction and neglect that lead to adoption placements. There is no denying this. However, adoption is often a choice made out of tremendous love.
Another adoption storyline that gets overused and over glorified is the idea that “adoption is for rich people.” The stereotype runs deep in all kinds of media. The celebrities who adopt are plastered on every magazine and their stories told relentlessly whether true or not. When adoption is shown in movies or on television, sometimes the narrative is tilted toward a family with a mansion and a Savior Complex. While having money certainly helps in the journey, there are so many ways to pay for adoption. Adoption from foster care is often free. There are grants, loans, and many other options for any average family to adopt a child. Children need love and stability, not mansions and celebrities.
A final storyline that is full cringworthy is what I like to call the “Harry Potter” storyline. This is where a family adopts a child and they are treated less than biological children. Think room-under-the-stairs vibes. These storylines also often paint the adoptive child as some sort of troublemaker or nuisance. These stories are awful and heartbreaking. While there are struggles and intricacies to every family, it is every family. There is no difference in adoptive families and biological families other than DNA and a different origin story. Prospective adoptive families are not spending tens of thousands of dollars with the intent to treat a child poorly or less than. Does abuse and neglect happen? Absolutely. Are there difficulties in raising a child in general? Sure. However, these pertain to any family and are not a correct assumption of all situations.
While adoption storylines can be highly dramatic and incredibly entertaining, they can be not only cringeworthy but harmful. These over exaggerated and overtly false storylines can perpetuate negative stereotypes about adoption. They can paint a horrible picture of adoptive families, birth families, and the adoption process in general. This can have incredibly negative effects including dissuading prospective adoptive parents from pursuing an adoption journey altogether. It is better to view all entertainment, including reality television, for what it is: scripted for ratings and drama.