Here’s How TV Uses and Abuses the Transracial Adoptee Narrative

Illustration by Alexa Strabuk.

Diversity is a buzzword these days, but happy endings are forever, right? At least, that’s what I’d like to think.

The other day, I stumbled across an old episode of Modern Family, the sitcom that, in 2009, broke down barriers for its subversion of the nuclear family trope, specifically with its portrayal of a gay couple who’d adopted a child, Lily, from Vietnam.

When I first watched it, I was thrilled; finally, a show representing some semblance of my own family dynamic — an international ethnic kid adopted into a liberal white family. But I wasn’t very critical in 2009. For me, any representation was good representation.

This time around, however, I had some thoughts.

The episode was titled, “Two Monkeys and a Panda,” which opens with Cam and Mitchell, Lily’s two fathers, attempting to take the negative charge out of the word “adopt” by cheering and smiling after every mention of it.

Several scenes later, Cam is seen at the dining room table putting together a scrapbook of Lily’s adoption process so that she knows adoption is a happy thing, not a sad one.

Cam then enthusiastically informs Mitchell that, in addition to the scrapbook, he’s also writing a children’s book about gay adoption. “You and I are the monkeys,” he explains. “And Lily is the panda… because she’s Asian.”

Here’s where it gets icky. As the episode unfolds, I start to recognize that Lily’s adoption is more about Mitchell and Cam’s experience than it is about Lily’s.

When the couple’s storyline evolves into a conflict over what Lily’s last name should be, this new focus begins to invalidate any earlier efforts to destigmatize adoption for Lily. Something was off, I thought.

De-centering the adoptee’s experience ultimately creates a happily simplified multicultural narrative — something that just doesn’t happen when you take a child from her country of origin and transplant her into an unfamiliar racialized reality.

Do a Google search of adoption and I guarantee you’ll find a number of articles by well-meaning, middle-class white parents on how to raise successfully, which in my mind really means successfully assimilate, a child of a different race.

Meanwhile, resources by and for transracial, transnational adoptees are few and far between. In fact, the vast majority of published literature, media, and even formal academia concentrates on the perspectives of the adoptive parents rather than those of the adopted child. Modern Family is a reflection of that imbalance.

And it’s not alone.

In Sex and the City, for example, principal couple Charlotte and Harry struggle with infertility, leaving them both emotionally devastated.

Eventually, during the series finale, they are approved to adopt a baby girl from China named, ironically enough, Lily (which I suppose is one Oriental step below Lotus).

Just like that, their problem is solved. Adoption is the happy ending, the obvious solution to infertility or childlessness. But is it also a happy ending for their daughters? Neither show really makes that clear.

Contrary to what we’re made to believe with characters like Harry Potter and Cinderella, there is nothing romantic about being an orphan. Not all of our stories have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

When I was little, I spent hours looking at my face in the mirror, examining every physical feature and willing each to change to be like my mother’s. I’d try to lighten my skin by scrubbing it until it was red and irritated. I prayed that my nose would eventually thin out, that my eyes would turn blue, and that I’d start growing effortless swaths of blonde hair.

To the dismay of my 8-year-old self, these things never happened.

Because for as happy a child as I was growing up, the shadow of adoption always hung over me. I operated in a no man’s land somewhere between ambiguous racial identities, between languages, and between borders; confused, isolated, and outraged at no one in particular.

But we are searching for solidarity, for identity, for others like us, in the wrong places. Believe me, fictional television characters manufactured for profit are not a place to start looking.

A happy ending on screen erases the very real structural realities of the adoption industry, one that orchestrates the exchange of babies for money.

Adoption is neither a device to create sympathy for a deserving protagonist nor is it an exotic additive to dramatize an otherwise boring plotline. Rather, it is a reality rooted in colonialism, displacement, and militarism.

By watering down adoption, by overlooking the problems with white saviorism, colorblind parenting, the mainstream media uses adoption storylines to support its latest diversity campaign.

Now, I get it, Modern Family is satire. And early on, the writers do make Cam and Mitchell’s ignorance the butt of the joke, but it’s not always done in a way that is self-aware and critical.

In later seasons, storylines that involve Lily crassly exoticize and commodify her, such as in the episode “Closet? You’ll Love It!” which features Cam and Mitchell getting competitive with another gay couple.

“Yours is from Vietnam, right?” asks their rival. “We were able to adopt one from Korea. So.” A scene or two later, Cam leans over and worriedly asks whether Koreans really are better, to which Mitchell responds: “I don’t know.”

That joke is cheap. It’s cheap because it equates transracial adoption to a weekend shopping trip to purchase the cutest ethnic baby, an attitude that often holds true in the West. Many couples “select” their children’s racial makeup based solely on its assimilability into white culture, for example, they choose ethnic Asian girls over other children of color.

This is the false lure of the model minority myth at play. And though adopting across the color line is slowly diversifying, the needs of the adoptee under white supremacy remain sidelined by the wants of the parents who benefit from it.

I see storylines in the mainstream media perpetuating this injustice.

These shows are made by a specific demographic, and the racial anxieties of that class of people are not representative of the majority of viewers. It’s time to update our stories and our storytellers, our history and our historians.

Enough predictable character arcs. Enough formulaic happy endings. Enough adoptee narratives that prioritize adoptive parents over an adopted child for entertainment value. It’s trite and it’s lazy.

Let’s stop focusing on representation, on merely seeing people of color or transracial adoptees reflected in the mainstream content we consume.

We must demand to see our faces represented authentically by carving out space to tell our own truths, on our terms, uninhibited by big money and corporate interests.

At this point, nothing true ever happens in the Hollywood machine.

About the author

Alexa Strabuk is a freelance journalist, illustrator, and community advocate from Seattle, WA. As a content creator, her work has appeared in a range of publications. Inspired by everyday people, she is committed to telling stories from the margins.

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