Glee Perpetuates Adoption Stereotypes

28 Sep

Confession: I watch 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom like it’s my job (because it kind of is).  I pay careful attention to how teen pregnancy and young parenthood are portrayed in the media, because I think it’s incredibly important how we think about these young women and their families; their portrayals provide insight into how we, as a society, think about teens and sex, relationships, reproductive choice, and public support for families in need.

Two years ago, I had Glee on that list of must-watch shows because Quinn Fabray, perfect-cheerleader-turned-Glee clubber was pregnant.  Despite the convoluted conception story and contrived “Who’s the father?” subplot, I actually liked the way Glee handled Quinn’s pregnancy.  Her friends at Glee club came together and supported her, and those that rejected Quinn (her own mother, the cheerleaders) were the bad guys.   At the end of the season, Quinn placed the baby, Beth, for adoption – without a lot of clear development about why she made that choice – and then no more.

Last season, Quinn wasn’t 16 and pregnant.  She was a birthmother.  And the adoption was hardly ever mentioned.  Quinn walked away from the adoption, didn’t look back, didn’t grieve, didn’t communicate with her daughter’s adoptive mother.  Instead, she recreated her former golden-ponytailed self with Cheerio tenacity.  To be frank, I stopped watching the show for a while because I was so frustrated they’d turned Quinn into a Juno.

That’s right, a Juno.  In my analyses of how birthmothers (and sometimes birthfathers) are portrayed, I’ve come up with four clichéd, awful stereotypes, which are not mutually exclusive.

1. The Juno, brought to you by the blockbuster movie that shaped a generation’s opinion of birthmothers as people who make an adoption plan, walk away, don’t look back, and conclude “I think he was always hers.”  While there are some women who might choose closed adoption and move on quickly with their lives, I’ve spoken with a lot of birthmothers, and I’ve never found them.  (This doesn’t mean they don’t exist.  I’m sure they do.  But I think they are a minority.)  In fact, the walk-away-and-forget myth is a dangerous one for women that was used to justify coerced adoptions during the Baby Scoop era before Roe v. Wade.

2. The Crackwhore, brought to you by American conservatives.  Most usually, the crackwhore (and I cringe to write that word, believe me) stereotype is used not in voluntary adoption placements, but in instances where social services intervene and place children in foster care or public adoptions.  Despite this difference, the stereotype is used to portray birthmothers as epitome of the bad mother, incapable of caring for and wholly unworthy of raising her children.

3. The Birthmartyr, brought to you by Dr. Drew and the folks at 16 and Pregnant.  When Dr. Drew says the young women who choose adoption are “so incredibly mature” and “selfless” and turns to the birthmother dealing with post-adoption grief and tells her to “move on for the good of her child”, that’s the birthmartyr trope in action.  On 16 and Pregnant, the young women who chose adoption are self-sacrificing heroes, while the young women who chose to parent are (according to Dr. Drew) immature and poor decision-makers.

4. The Baby Stealer, brought to you by Loosing Isaiah and every adoptive parent’s worst nightmare.  As open adoption (where birth and adoptive families have ongoing post-adoption contact) becomes more and more common and society continues to not understand that relationship, the continuing presence of the birthparent is seen as a threat – either metaphorical or literal – to the bond between adoptive parent and child. Indeed, open adoption should (and often does) foster a relationship of mutual trust and respect between all the child’s parents that alleviates any such worries, yet we still represent birthparents as constantly scheming to regain custody of their child.

On last night’s episode, Shelby, Quinn’s daughter’s adoptive mother returns and invites Quinn and Puck (the baby’s father) into Beth’s life.  Early in the episode, I was pleased: Open adoption! An adoptive parent recognizing that contact with birthparents will benefit her daughter in the long run!  But things were messier than that, as they usually are in adoption.

Did Quinn and Puck want contact?  Because actual adoption was glossed over so quickly, it’s hard to know what the terms of their agreement were.  In my research, I’ve found that most birthparents do want contact, but they also deserve some degree of control of that contact.  Being blindsided by an adoptive mother showing up at their school, expecting them to be grateful for a brief glimpse of an iPhone photo, does not represent a mutually respectful arrangement.  Furthermore, for most birthparents, the first few years after the adoption are often the hardest.  Perhaps they needed time to process their decision more before contact was made.

Does Shelby have the right to put stipulations on Quinn and Puck’s contact with Beth? Yes, she does.  She is Beth’s adoptive mother, and she has an obligation to protect that child.  If Quinn represented a threat, or even a very bad influence, perhaps Shelby would be justified in setting limits, but she seems to be rejecting Quinn because she has pink instead of blonde hair and a snazzy fake nose ring.  If, as an adoptive parent, you want your child’s birthparents involved in their life (and research shows you probably should, to some extent), you need to accept them as a complex person with flaws and phases, as someone who is living a life different than your own.  And you need to be accepting of a young high school girl acting out by dying her hair and wearing grunge clothing – especially when, as Shelby (and all the other characters) did, you believe the behavior changes are, for the time being, her way of processing the adoption.

Of course, by the end of the episode, we realize that Quinn isn’t a Juno.  She’s a baby stealer.  She tells Puck, “I have to get her back… We’re gonna get full custody.”  Not only is this a legal impossibility, Glee has swapped one damaging stereotype for another.

Most people don’t know (or don’t know that they know) any birthparents, so they really rely on these TV and movie representations to help understand who places children for adoption. If we don’t actually know what birthparents look like, we don’t really know what adoption looks like and don’t really understand it as the complex, loving, messy, sad, and beautiful lifelong process that it is truly is.

And if we don’t understand adoption, we can’t protect it as an important reproductive choice that all women should have access to, without judgment, without stereotype, and with a clear understanding of the long-term commitment and consequences involved.

14 Responses to “Glee Perpetuates Adoption Stereotypes”

  1. Serena September 28, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    Thanks for this post. Your points about the Glee storyline are so on the money – Shelby’s role as the adoptive mother was so convoluted from the beginning. But let’s not forget Quinn’s original adoption coercion plan, which was to give the baby to Mr. Schuster’s wife so she could fake a pregnancy to keep her husband.

    I can speak from my own experience about open v. closed adoption. I didn’t know my birthfather because my mom left when I was only a few months old. My stepfather adopted us, and my birthfather was always the unspoken elephant in the room. I wondered what he was like, but I was never brave enough to try and make contact. And then when I was 23, he reached out to me. I’m still developing my relationship with my dad – and I have to say, I’ve really grateful to have him in my life. It sure cleared up a lot of mysteries for me.

    I think every family should be able to make their own decisions about what type of adoption arrangement is the best for them. But from the child’s point of view, there is always going to be some wondering. At the very least, they should have a medical history and know a little bit about what the birthparents are like, just so that they can figure out why they don’t fit into their adoptive family’s mold.

  2. Donna(kyburg) September 28, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    I keep hearing how good Glee is – but haven’t seen any of it yet, of course. I *did* work as a writer’s secretary on 21 Jump Street, back in the day and watched them try to cram a social issue a week into a one hour drama – on the best of days, it’s tight fit.

    Keep in mind, fiction runs on conflict – you gotta have it. If you don’t manufacture it, there’s no story. But copping to two of the tropes above? Well, at least it’s familiar to the audience, even if it isn’t kind, truthful or useful.

    The most positive step I think at this point would be to find a way to introduce an adoptee and bring a middle road to the story (but again, warning – it likely won’t resemble anything kind, truthful or useful. This is fiction, remember.)

    (I’m also one of those adoptive parents who prefers to use the term ‘first mother’ over ‘birthmother.’ The woman who gave birth to my son was not an incubator and her influence didn’t end when he was born. I’m actually his third mother…having had a foster mother between birth and 3.5 years of age when he was placed with us. He misses her terribly. First mothers are first. Period. However, they ended being the parent – it acknowledges the loss intrinsic in adoption, not placing one role on one person, the balance on the other.)

  3. Roz September 28, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    Love the stereotype list, I kept being all AMEN, YES, I thought I had turned Southrrn gospel on myself.

    I love Glee, and have watched it from the beginning. I like how they work though some issues (the sexuaity storyline is actually decently presented I think for the most part, or at least for what this show is – primetime American drama that’s targeted at teens & young adults).
    I had the same reaction with last nights episode: at first being all wooo interesting open adoption potential and quickly throwing up my red flags when the adoptive mom was acting as she did. And then got all SRSLY at the end.

    I think I’ll reserve full judgement til I see how it plays out onscreen, but I can’t say I have high hopes.

    Thanks for the review!

  4. tikunolam September 28, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

    Shelby just showing up like that was just awful. You are right that the adoption story was just completely dropped as though it didn’t even affect Quinn and Puck or Rachel. I hope that they turn Quinn’s reaction into that just being an initial impulse cause, boy, no one needs that stereotype perpetuated.

  5. Steph L September 28, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

    Makes me glad I never watched Glee.

    Why does there seem to be a mandatory “pregnancy plotline” in every damn show these days? Its ridiculous.

  6. Shannon LC Cate September 28, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    Oh no, you’re kidding! THAT’s where they decided to go? What a wasted opportunity to educate people.

  7. Gretchen Sisson September 28, 2011 at 11:25 pm #

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone!

    @Serena: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts as an adopted person. I’m really excited because I think (could be wrong) we’ve gotten feedback in comments or on Twitter from adopted people, birthparents, and adopted parents — I’m so glad everyone is chiming in from all different perspectives.

    @Donna: I totally recognize that the whole birth/first/natural mother (or just “mother”) debate is something that all birth/first mothers and adoptive families has a preference on. While I think diction is definitely nuanced and important, I usually choose to use “birthmother” just because it’s most readily recognized outside of adoption circles. By making that choice, however, I’m not trying to imply that her relationship to her child is limited to the fact that she gave birth — it’s also why I refer to adoptive mothers as just that, rather than just saying “mother.” But I really like hearing why different families prefer the diction that they do, so thank you so much for sharing.

    @Roz: This line made my day: “And then got all SRSLY at the end.” Thanks for that. 🙂

    @tikunolam and @Steph: I’ll be really interested to see how they continue this storyline and how it plays out… maybe Glee has a chance to redeem itself? I’m a little skeptical, but one can hope!

  8. Heidi October 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    What a thoughtful post. Thanks for putting my swirling emotions so eloquently into words. I love Glee. I came into it at the end of Season 1 when Quinn was giving birth. I thought that because they dealt with adoption in such a cursory way it was their way of moving away from that whole story line. I really liked it this year when Quinn was acting out. We adopted our daughter at birth in an open adoption and have watched our birthmother work through the adoption in many different ways. She just spent a week with us and we had a terrific visit. My daughter is 7 and I think is still processing the visit because it is confusing for her emotionally. I’m imagining our birthmother doing the same back home across the country. She admitted to me that she sometimes feels guilty and thinks she may have done the wrong thing, but most of the time is feels confident that she did do the right thing and feels blessed to have my daughter in her life the way it is. I assured her that all these feelings are totally normal. I’m sure after spending a week with a 7 year old and her 5 year old brother, the feeling meter is skewed towards relief. LOL. No, seriously, it is hard to understand why there is so little room for nuance in our media. Juno was a great movie, really smart and thoughtful. All it would have taken was for a few seconds of melancholy for us to understand that she made the best decision, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t grieve. And on Glee, why or why can’t Quinn and Puckerman have a relationship with their birthdaughter without trying to get her back. It would be far more interesting to watch them comes to terms with their decision and navigate their relationships with the baby and her mother than to watch them try to ruin the lives of the baby and her mother. Shame on those writers for their lack of nuance!

  9. Sarah December 15, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

    I don’t watch Glee, so I can’t speak to that…but I kind of feel like Teen Mom has a more nuanced approach to adoption than just as a “Birthmartyr.” I agree that Dr. Drew’s constant praising of their decision is a bit much…its a PERSONAL decision and what is “right” for each person depends on the situation. HOWEVER, I think the show Teen Mom for all its faults, does a good job in showing an honest portrayal of adoption and all of its complications. The show where they signed the adoption papers made me bawl because both of them were just crying so hard; TM showed their pain honestly. It didn’t shop there–Caitlyn (sp?) and Tyler talk about their daughter often and discuss their continuing grief openly with each other and the audience. They also discuss the guilt they feel about enjoying their lives and thinking, “maybe we could have done it” and “maybe we should have done it.” Both of them have faced a lot of anger from a parent (him from his dad and her from her mother) about their decision and they are called “selfish” and other nasty things (one time the dad/step-dad said something along the lines of ‘stop calling yourself a father–you gave your baby away’) by both parents. All of the grandparents have openly grieved (as well as lashed out) as well, and discussed their confusion about how to approach the open adoption (i.e. are they involved at all–the answer so far is no). Caitlyn went to a birth/first mother’s retreat where they discussed the positives and difficulties of open adoption. Caitlyn and Tyler spoke in the beginning about how awful it felt that they did not know their daughter’s last name and how they felt mistrusted. More recently they discussed how they felt guilty because they had not reached out to their daughter’s adoptive parents recently and how they were worried they would grow apart. I honestly don’t know how the show could be more revealing about the nuances of adoption. It definitely shows lots of gray area, it is no fairy tale.


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