Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Twisted Angelina: How the Media Gets Adoption Wrong

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

I love Angelina Jolie. She's the unapologetic mom of a mixed brood of adoptees and bio-kids. She's not married to her partner (yet), and she's a poster gal for humanitarian aid. She's the hottest adoptive mom around.

The problem? The media, of course, and all the heat and light journalists bring to adoption—especially international adoption—because celebrities are involved. Much as I admire Angie's chutzpah and Brad Pitt's weary saintliness, the Brangelina enterprise offers a very skewed picture of how adoptions come about and what life is like for the average adoptive family.

This is not news to anyone in the adoption community. But I'm continually amazed by the misconceptions pumped by the press.

First off: International adoption is in sharp decline, and the number of people adopting from other countries is small. Last year, immigrant orphan visas processed by the U.S. State Department plummeted by 24 percent from the peak in 2004. Talk to any adoption expert—agency heads, academics, editors at Adoptive Families magazine—and that person will say the international numbers are going down, down, down.

Yet on “Why Did You Opt for an International Adoption?”, a call-in show on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last April, host Neal Conan didn't lead with the dwindling numbers and only made a passing reference to the downward trend at the very end of the show. [Correction made on 9/5/09] Why adoptive parents adopt internationally instead of domestically remains a good question, but this show revealed little about the difficulties of adopting through public social services. No mention was made of private domestic adoptions.

This is NPR, mind you. A recent article in the UK's Daily Mail showed a grinning Emma Thompson with her "adopted refugee son" Tindyebwa at his university graduation. Much was made of her family's selflessness in helping Tindy, a former child-soldier from Rwanda. Then the reporter writes, "Adopting Tindy also helped the actress, who had tried and failed to have more children after undergoing IVF to conceive daughter Gaia, now eight years old."

Apparently Thompson would never have contemplated this if she didn't have infertility troubles. In this scenario, the pain of losing one's family in Rwanda somehow equals failed IVFs. And the reporter focuses on Thompson the celebrity rather than the adoptee who has a far more dramatic story to tell. (See the blog Harlow's Monkey for an honest take on what it means to be a transracial adoptee.)

Adoptive families occupy a strange niche in the public imagination—no question—one that has more hot-button energy than our numbers warrant. But the strangeness of it all is stoked by journalistic laziness, which stokes the stereotypes, which stokes the movies.

Even in sweet little Away We Go, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida's indie movie about prospective parents on the road, there's a scene with a big adoptive family that looks like the Rainbow Coalition. The adoptive parents are mid-thirties max; so how did they get all these kids so fast? Are they foster parents?

Most of this movie is played for gentle laughs; I wouldn't expect a treatise on contemporary adoption policy in something so feather-light. It's the unexamined stereotype from the McSweeney's folks I question—oh, that multiculti, fantabulous brood!—especially when juxtaposed with the revelation that this adoptive mom is still deeply grieving her last miscarriage.

So all those kids are just second-best compensations, huh?

I’d like to think the fascination with adoption is not just about Madonna’s latest ethical screw-up. I'm hopeful that the media focus, misguided as it can be, also represents our expanding sense of what it means to be a family. Adoption offers so many transformative possibilities: men can be mommies, too, without the fiction of biology to keep women barefoot and breastfeeding. Families can be as variegated as a garden.

But I suspect the non-adoption public is curious about all those China dolls and at-risk Tindys for less noble reasons: Can parents ever love a child who looks so different?

In "A Woman in Full," Vanity Fair writer Rich Cohen interviews Angelina Jolie and offers her answer to that: "I asked if there is a special bond between a mother and a child she has carried as opposed to a child she has adopted. She said, “No,” thought a moment, then added, “I had a C-section and I found it fascinating. I didn’t find it a sacrifice and I didn’t find it a painful experience. I found it a fascinating miracle of what a body can do.”

If you haven't been touched by adoption, as we like to say in the adoption community, do you believe Angie? Really?

I do. I love my son, who was born in Vietnam, with such intensity that I know the mom hard-wiring has kicked in. More miracles: The bonding that happens between child and parent, the utter normality of it.

This post originally appeared on Athena's Head, Martha's Open Salon blog.


Antinette said...

"NPR’s Talk of the Nation last April, host Neal Conan ignored the dwindling numbers."

Excerpt from the written transcript:

CONAN: Hope, thanks for your - thanks very much.

And Susan, we just have a few seconds left with you. But you look at the statistics, Americans are adopting fewer kids from overseas in the last couple of years, and the trend is downwards. How come?

Please, be sure to read the written transcript before you trash NPR. Or perhaps you should retitle you post as What This Blog Gets Wrong About NPR About The Talk Of The Nation Radio Call In Show "Why Did You Opt For An International Adoption"

Deborah White said...

Oops. We did miss that, although Martha did read the written transcript as well as listen to the original broadcast. She does stand by her general point: This particular show hyped the international adoption "trend" rather than the complexities of adopting domestically.

As for trashing NPR, *is* a mainstream news source. It's open to critcism because of the large audience it commands.

Martha Nichols said...

I've corrected the original post. The line now reads: "Yet on 'Why Did You Opt for an International Adoption?,' a call-in show on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last April, host Neal Conan didn't lead with the dwindling numbers and only made a passing reference to the downward trend at the very end of the show."

In fact, Conan leads with Madonna and "many thousands of Americans adopt children from other countries every year."

I shouldn't have missed the quote in which Conan asks about the downward trend, but it really was tacked on at the very end, and in some ways the fact that the stats got thrown in like that only underscores my point about the media's desire to hype this as a trend.

Antinette, I do thank you for pointing out my error. This is why I think the blogosphere is actually a very healthy thing for journalism, and it gives me hope. The mainstream media may be dying off, but there are plenty of fact-checkers and sources out there who'll keep the news (relatively) honest.