What Family Means: How American Media Portray Adoption and Foster Care

“Adoption changed my world,” said Toya Turner, a friend of mine who was adopted as a child.  “My adoptive parents gave me more than just a home and a family.  They gave me a life.”

We’ve all heard a story like this. But most of the time, people don’t talk about adoption. It gets shoved in the back corner and is forgotten or ignored. When the topic comes up, it can get messy.

It doesn’t help that American media and pop culture often portray adoption in two-dimensional or even offensive ways. Nicole Chung, author of the memoir “All You Can Ever Know” and editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine, was adopted and struggled to find sympathetic portrayals of her experience in the media:

The first Little Orphan Annie Sunday comic page (November 2, 1924)

“When I was growing up, I couldn’t find any stories about adoption that spoke to my experience. If it did pop up in the rare novel or film, it was usually portrayed as a reward after great hardship, as in ‘Annie,’ or used as sensational fodder for stories like ‘The Face on the Milk Carton.’ I never saw the uneasy-if-unfinished drama of the everyday; I never saw adoption depicted in a way I could recognize.”

In pop culture, adoption is often cast in a negative light. From “The Fosters” to “The Orphanage,” TV and movies often portray foster youth as “broken” and adoption as abnormal. Take this joke from the movie “The Avengers,” for example:

Thor: He is of Asgard and he is my brother!
Black Widow: He killed 80 people in two days.
Thor: He’s adopted.

Many adoption communities were hurt and outraged.

But not all portrayals of adoption, orphans and foster youth are negative.

Claudia Nelson, in her book “Little Strangers: Portrayals of Adoption and Foster Care in America, 1850-1929,” wrote that “the displaced child has often served as a symbol of America in a more positive sense,” in stories like “Tom Sawyer,” “Cinderella,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Tarzan of the Apes.” Displaced children, it would seem, are the stuff of engrossing narratives. I’ve read my own share of favorite books in this genre, like “Anne of Green Gables.” (In fact, the first novel I wrote when I was in middle school was a historical fiction work about an orphaned Viking girl.)

“Please, sir, I want some more.” Oliver Twist, Dickens, 1838

Jerry Griswold, in “The Classic American Children’s Story,” said that this recurring theme in children’s books “speaks directly to our own particular cultural experience and to America’s vision of itself: as a young country, always making itself anew, rebelling against authority, coming into its own, and establishing its own identity.”

Nelson and Griswold argued that these popular texts have colored the way we perceive adoption and have often made it harder for us to talk about what adoption is like in the real world. Don’t mistake me—I don’t suggest we stop reading these great classics. But we can’t end there. We can’t cram all of adoption into fiction stories and ignore it in real life. Representation matters. Family matters. People matter.

That’s where this website steps in.

Through the lens of public relations, we’ll explore the ways that businesses, nonprofits and governments portray adoption—both the good and the bad. We will learn about adoption policies, laws, advertising and current events. We’ll discover how our media and society impact the way we think about family.

In this series of articles on adoption and foster care, we will journey with people from many walks of life and shades of experience. Youth in domestic foster care. Families strung together across continents and cultures. Children raised by grandparents and other relatives.

No single story can speak for all of adoption, nor does any person have just one story. Every family is complex—not flat, not black and white. The articles on this website are neither the beginning nor the end of the adoption conversation. I know I’m not the first person to tell you about adoption and foster care. But through this series, I want to challenge you (and myself) to look with a fresh perspective, to see and think differently—and most importantly, to do something. We have to start somewhere, so let’s start here together.

It’s time to uncloak myths, challenge assumptions and listen to true stories. I hope these articles will be useful and meaningful, not just to those whose lives have been deeply touched by adoption, but to anyone who has ever wondered about their origins, wrestled with identity or experienced the love of chosen family.

Please comment below if you have questions, ideas or would like to share your story about what family means.  Here we go!


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